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This week in history: The death of Magellan

Magellan's Cross at the Basilica Minore del Santo NiÑo in Cebu, Philippines.
Magellan's Cross at the Basilica Minore del Santo NiÑo in Cebu, Philippines.

On April 27, 1521, explorer Ferdinand Magellan died during the the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines, in the middle of an epic voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

A Portuguese sailor, Magellan had been heavily inspired by the navigational feats of his day. The New World had been discovered, and many other Portuguese and Spanish sailors had longed to attain the fame that Christopher Columbus had achieved. Not long after Columbus' discovery, Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama became the first European to sail directly to India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa.

The opening of trade between Europe and Asia via the Indian Ocean meant that for the first time, Arab middle-men could be cut out of the equation. This had an immediate impact, enriching many Europeans, and in many ways the direct sea route to India proved a more significant discovery than that of the Americas for the next century. One area that Europeans were particularly interested in was the “spice islands,” in modern Indonesia. Spices from these islands were greatly coveted in Europe and whoever dominated the trade could reap an enormous profit.

While the Portuguese had penetrated these markets, they feared their rival Spain might soon elbow them out of the island trade. Magellan, who had made the voyage via the Indian Ocean to the Spice Islands, believed he could find a faster way there if he sailed in the opposite direction. He believed he could find a way around South America and approach the Spice Islands from the east, then sail back home through the Indian Ocean. This plan meant, if successful, the expedition would be the first to circumnavigate the earth. In order to secure backing for his plan, Magellan went to see Portugal's King, Manuel I, a vain and pompous ruler.

In his book, “A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of An Age,” historian William Manchester wrote: “Magellan urged the king to help him stake Portugal's claim (on the Spice Islands). But he had handled the interview badly. Manuel, a fop, expected his subjects to fawn over him. Ignoring court protocol, Magellan went straight to the point. His sovereign responded by dismissing him in the rudest possible manner, turning his royal back while the courtiers tittered. His Majesty had even told the supplicant that the Portuguese crown had no further need of his services — that he could take his proposal elsewhere.”

He did. Magellan then sought an audience with Spain's King Charles I. The eighteen-year-old monarch was soon to become one of the most powerful men in the world when only a short time later he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. Charles agreed to back Magellan's expedition in 1518, and the sailor began preparations for his global voyage.

On Sept. 19, 1519, Magellan set sail from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with five ships: San Antonio, Trinidad, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago. The expedition was expected to last two years and his crew of 265 men packed barrels of rice, raisins, pork, beans, and other foodstuffs, as well as tools for fishing. Armor and weapons were also included, lest the expedition run into hostile natives or sailors in the employ of the vengeful Portuguese king. The inventory also included various trinkets such as mirrors and bracelets, which could be used to win over native peoples.

The expedition crossed the Atlantic and spent the better part of a year looking for a way through to the great ocean beyond the Americas. Magellan also had to contend with a Portuguese force sent to arrest him as a traitor, and a mutiny by members of his own crew. At this time, Magellan and his crew became the first Europeans to view what is today known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way Galaxy.

Finally, in late November 1520, Magellan and his crew made their way through what is now known as the Strait of Magellan. After the stormy conditions of the crossing at the southern tip of South America, the sea beyond seemed calm and reassuring, and so Magellan named it “Mar Pacifico,” the Pacific Ocean.

The crossing of the Pacific, however, was far from calm. The great British writer H.G. Wells noted the hardships of Magellan's crew in his 1920 work, “The Outline of History”: “This was a far more heroic voyage than that of Columbus, for eight and ninety days Magellan sailed unflinchingly over that vast, empty ocean, sighting nothing but two little desert islands. The crews were rotten with scurvy; there was little water and that bad, and putrid biscuit to eat. Rats were hunted eagerly; cowhide was gnawed and sawdust devoured to stay the pangs of hunger. In this state the expedition reached the Ladrones (Mariana Islands).”

The expedition was able to reprovison and arrived at the Philippine Islands in early April, soon landing on Cebu. There he convinced the island's ruler, Rajah Datu Humabon, to accept Jesus Christ and be baptized into the Catholic faith. Within a few days the entire island had converted to Christianity. The humbled rajah, no doubt in awe of Magellan's superior ships and weapons, asked the European to punish his enemies on the nearby island of Mactan, and Magellan agreed.

Rather impulsively, Magellan waved away the rajah's offer of a thousand troops, believing that his men could easily overwhelm the natives of Mactan with their ship's cannons and tactics. Manchester wrote of the April 27 invasion party, wading ashore onto Mactan:

“As they stumbled forward, encumbered by their armor and waist deep in water, it dawned upon the more experienced of them that there would be no covering fire. The reef was too far out; the boat's small cannons could not reach the enemy... The attackers, wading in the with all their equipment, were exhausted even before they reached the surf line. There they became confused. Facing them were three forces of naked warriors drawn up, not at the water's edge, as they had expected, but well inland... Those seamen trained in the use of harquebuses (early muskets) and crossbows responded as best they could, but their ranged volley accomplished nothing.”

As Magellan realized his mistake he began to organize a retreat back to the boats, though his frightened men soon broke and ran. The natives of Mactan fell upon the stragglers, including Magellan. Manchester describes his death:

“But it took a lot to kill (Magellan). A poisoned arrow struck his unarmored right foot; reaching down, he ripped it out and fought on. He and his embattled band were knee deep in surf now, showered by stones, sod, and spears... Twice Magellan's helmet was knocked off, twice his men recovered and replaced it. Then he was speared in the face... a native wielding a long terzado — scimitar — slashed beneath the shields, laying Magellan's game leg open...”

His men tried to recover the body of their captain, but the relentless native assault made that impossible. Magellan's expedition carried on without him, making another dangerous, nearly disastrous crossing of the Indian Ocean. The Victoria, by now the only ship left of the original five, had to evade more Portuguese patrols determined to stop the completion of the expedition. She finally reached Sanlúcar on Sept. 8, 1522 — nearly three years to the day since the voyage began.

Of Magellan's original crew of 265, only eighteen half-starved sailors completed the mission.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: