Expeditions: Magellan

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Admiral Ferdinand Magellan didn’t know much, but at least he knew they wouldn’t fall off the edge.

People were still operating on “the world is flat” school of thought, but Magellan proposed a plan to circumnavigate the globe and by doing so, prove the world is round. Inspired by Christopher Columbus’ journey to North America and, coincidentally, disowned by his native country of Portugal, Admiral Ferdinand Magellan took his allegiance and his impressive maritime knowledge and experience to Spain’s King Charles V, to finance a journey sailing around the world. Blessed by King Charles, Magellan and a fleet of five ships began their voyage September 20, 1519.

The first leg of the journey led them to Brazil, then Patagonia, where one crew mutinied and another ship wrecked. Down to a fleet of four, Magellan made it to a strait just north of the southernmost tip of South America in October 1520, a waterway now known as the Strait of Magellan. It took the convoy a month to pass through the strait and after another ship deserted the journey, Magellan found himself down to a flotilla of three, with more than half of his journey left to complete.

At this point Magellan and crew realized how sorely unprepared they were for the length of the expedition. The crew of the remaining three ships found themselves plagued by scurvy and terrifyingly low on food and water supplies. According to Magellan’s own records from the voyage, the crew had to resort to eating maggot-infested hardtack, rats, and boiling bits of leather from the ship itself. His notes also indicate they were forced to drink “yellow water” – unfortunately, that’s exactly what it sounds like.

Finally, they reached present-day Guam but this was no saving grace. Natives, who vastly outnumbered the starving, exhausted Europeans, attacked and killed the remainder of the crew. Magellan, himself, was fatally stabbed in the face by a native’s spear. Juan Sebastian Elcano, Master of the Victoria – the expedition’s only remaining ship – was able to order men to gather as many spices as they could (clove and cinnamon in particular, which would be valuable back in Europe) and race back to board the ship.

Nearly three years after they set out, the Victoria and the remaining crew made it back to Spain. Of the original 237 on board, only 18 survived, not counting the others lost on the Concepcion, Trinidad, San Antonio and Santiago. Though Magellan lost his life on his quest, his name has come to be synonymous with world exploration and, through will or pure ego, the first European journey to circumnavigate the globe, proving our world is indeed round.

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