One epic achievement still much talked about and celebrated the world over is that of Ferdinand Magellan, the intrepid Portuguese navigator who led the first fleet of vessels to successfully circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th century.
Known locally as Fernão de Magalhães, he was a nobleman with a long history in the service of the Portuguese empire in Africa.
Historians commonly believe that he was born in 1480 in the remote mountain parish of Sabrosa in northern Portugal, in the same house indicated on the map below.
When he was just twelve years old, Magellan moved with his brother Diogo to Lisbon where they both became pages at the royal court.
There he heard about the succession of Portuguese and Spanish discoveries in the Indies and was privy to the secrets of the ocean voyages Portugal was conducting at that time.
He also assisted with the preparation of fleets leaving for India and, hence, had the rare opportunity to familiarise himself with both the rigging of ships and the kind of provisions crews required for such a long and physically-demanding ocean voyage.
In 1505, the two brothers received dual assignments aboard a mammoth expedition of twenty-two ships headed for India.
Emboldened by this experience, Magellan subsequently became a skilled sailor and naval officer and was eventually selected by King Carlos I of Spain to search for a westward route to the place we now call the Spice Islands.
Departing from Spain in September 1519, the expedition was among the largest and best equipped during the Age of Discovery. His ship, the Victoria, belonged to a fleet of five vessels with a total crew of about 270 men.
As fleet commander, he steered the ships south across the Atlantic Ocean to Patagonia, passing under the tip of South America (an area known today as the Strait of Magellan) into a much calmer body of water that he christened the ‘peaceful sea’, the Pacific Ocean.
Despite a series of storms and mutinies, the expedition finally reached the Spice Islands in 1521 and returned home via the Indian Ocean to complete the first circuit of the globe.
Sadly, Magellan himself did not complete the entire voyage because he was killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines in 1521.
Very little was left of the crew, just eighteen in all, when his lone ship the Victoria limped back to Spain. Many had died an excruciating death, some from scurvy, others by torture and a few by drowning.
But it was a truly incredible story those few surviving sailors were able to relate; a tale of mutinies, battles on far and distant shorelines and the completion of the first-ever exploration of the entire globe.
Their accounts of what happened on that epic sea voyage changed the course of history and the way mankind looked at the world.
During the Age of Discovery, expeditions frequently ended in disaster and thus were quickly forgotten, much like today’s failed space missions, yet Magellan’s unparalleled achievement became the most ground-breaking maritime adventure ever undertaken, despite his untimely death and the misfortunes that befell his crew.
This very ambitious and often perilous circumnavigation of the planet forever altered the Western World’s ideas about cosmology, geography and the study of the universe.
And it proved beyond any doubt that the earth was indeed round (not flat as many scholars believed), that the Americas were not part of India after all and that water covered much of the planet’s surface.
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