Category Archives: Exploration

November 28th – Magellan enters the Pacific from the Atlantic

The Strait of Magellan, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through South America

The Strait of Magellan, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through South America

On this day in 1520, Ferdinand Magellan entered the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean around the southern tip of South America, becoming the first European to do so.

While Portuguese by birth, Magellan sailed for the Spanish crown. Magellan was certainly not the only explorer to sail for a foreign nation, for instance: the Genoese Christopher Columbus sailing for Spain and the Venetian John (Giovanni) Cabot sailing for England. Rather than being bound by loyalty to their country, explorers of this time were bound to gold. Whichever crown offered the greatest pay dictated who sailed for whom.

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) divided up the undiscovered (to Europeans) world between the two prominent powers of the time, Spain and Portugal. This treaty drew a line on the map, where everything east of the line were to be Portuguese lands, and those to the west were Spanish domains. This artificial line, dating back to the fifteenth century, explains why Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country while the rest of South and Central America are Spanish-speaking. Another stipulation of the treaty dictated that the Portuguese had a monopoly over the eastern sea route from Europe to Asia, going around the southern tip of Africa. In order for the Spanish to reach Asia, and in particular, the lucrative Spice Islands (modern day Indonesia), they would have to go westward. Enter Ferdinand Magellan.

Magellan set out from Seville, Spain on August 10th, 1519 with five ships and a crew of approximately 270 sailors from all over the Continent in the attempts of finding a route to Asia. After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with the five ships for over a year (albeit with stops, deaths, mutinies, and the loss of two ships along the way), Magellan reached the tip of South America. Proceeding through a narrow passageway through the continent’s tip (nowadays known as the Strait of Magellan), on November 28th, 1520 Magellan arrived in the South Pacific. Noting the calmness and stillness of this newly found water, Magellan named the body of water Mar Pacifico, or the Pacific Sea (same etymology as the word ‘pacifist’, with pac- meaning peace). It is from Magellan, almost five hundred years ago, that we take the ocean’s current name.

In elementary school and in common folklore, we are taught to believe the myth of Magellan, that is he was the first man to circumnavigate, that is, travel completely around, the globe. This is not true. After Magellan and his crew entered the Pacific Ocean, he proceeded northwest, discovering islands along the way until he landed on the island of Cebu, in modern day Philippines. Typical of other explorers of the time (‘cough cough’ Pizarro and Cortez), Magellan proceeded to proselytize and convert the natives to Christianity. Unfortunately for Magellan, the natives were not too pleased with his preaching, and attacked Magellan and his crew. Shot by a poison dart in battle, Magellan died on April 27, 1521 in the Philippines. As Magellan failed to make it back to Spain, it would be incorrect to say that he was the first man to circumnavigate the world. This epithet may more appropriately be given to Magellan’s translator, Enrique, who originated from the Spice Islands, got taken to Spain in 1511 as a slave, and journeyed on Magellan’s voyage back to the Pacific. It was Enrique, not Magellan who was the first to circumnavigate the globe. Suffice to say, myth busted.

On a final note, while Magellan’s fleet did arrive back in Spain with spices from the Orient (sans Magellan of course), it came at a heavy price. Of the five ships and 270 men that set sail from Spain on August 10th, 1519, only one ship and 18 men made it back to Spain in September 1522. I think it is safe to assume that if you were looking for a safe, stable career in the sixteenth century, exploring was probably not for you.

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November 28, 2013 · 8:45 am