Magellan's Place in History

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

       A Portugese of noble birth, Magellan developed considerable skills as a ship captain and navigator. His plan to discover a western route to the Pacific through or around South America was rejected by Portugal's King Manual I but accepted by Spain's Charles I (aka: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), and he sailed in 1519 with 5 ships and 265 men. Not very good ships either; the Spanish monarch was hedging his bets.

His search for a western passage along the South American coast was frustrated by many blind alleys and subsequent bad winter weather and a mutiny had to be put down, with 2 ships turning back, 3 ships (Concepcion, Trinidad, Victoria) eventually discovering the Strait that bears his name, launching Magellan into the Pacific.

For three months after that there was no sight of land, during which the crew was obliged to collect rain water and eat parts of the ship. Missing many Pacific islands by virtue of the route he guessed at, he collided with Guam on March 6, 1521 and obtained provisions. Probably on information from the natives of Guam, he headed due West and found the Philippines. There, Magellan was killed by a native army while trying to display the might of European arms as an instrument of God. The Concepcion was lost there but the other two ships reached the Spice Islands (the Molucas - between New Guinea and Borneo), which was the original target of the voyage. From there, the Trinidad attempted to return east, was seized by a Portugese ship and wrecked, while the Victoria continued west, crossing the Indian Ocean and rounding Africa, thus completing a circumnavigation of the world: 39,300 total miles in 3 years. (Some say 50,610 miles, to include meandering.)

What did it accomplish? It revealed the world to be round - there were still a few doubters. It revealed that "the Americas" was a separate land mass, indeed, a separate hemisphere. It proved the rotation of the earth, since the crew returned one day "off" from their carefully kept calendar (*). And it revealed the immense size of the Pacific and the real size of the earth - larger than anyone had calculated.

Magellan himself made it only half way around but his determination, navigation skills, and authority were crucial to pushing through past mutiny, bad weather, absence of food, the loss of ships and men, and the great unknown. The last ship returned to Spain after 3 years, prior to which the early mutineers had returned to inform Spain that "all had been lost", so that, when the rag tag crew finally arrived - a mere 18 from the original 265 (on 9/6/1522), their story was incredulous. The surviving captain was feted and celebrated; Magellan (a Portugese) was forgotten. However, four of the crew from the wrecked Trinidad, who crawled across Panama and found a ship to return them to Spain years later, contributed to correcting events and credit.

Magellan's contribution was essential, yet the captain who finished the journey - no small feat - is a name now unfamiliar to history: Juan Sebastian del Cano. The irony was that he had been a major player in the mutiny, and to secure his own immediate fame, declined to give evidence against the mutineers who had returned earlier to claim that "all had been lost". He died while crossing the Pacific in an attempt (1525) to follow the same route in a second circumnavigation under his own name. History has erased his name from glory, and restored Magellan's.

      (*) The earth rotates East. If you circumnavigate the globe by traveling West - regardless of how long it takes - you will "gain" a day. Circumnavigate by going East and you will "lose" a day.

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