Magellan, Ferdinand (Portuguese: Fernão de Magalhães)(1480?–1521), a Portuguese navigator. He commanded the expedition that accomplished the first voyage around the world. The voyage, sponsored by the king of Spain, took almost three years, from 1519 to 1522. Magellan did not complete the voyage, but was killed by natives in the Philippine Islands.
In importance, Magellan's voyage rivals the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. As a test of skill and courage. Magellan's voyage surpasses that of Columbus. Magellan achieved Coiumbus's goal—the discovery of a western sea route to Asia—and became the first in recorded history to sail the Pacific Ocean, which he named for its calm waters. The voyage revealed the true circumference of the earth, the vast extent of the Pacific, and much of the coastline of South America. He discovered the Philippine and Mariana island groups.
Magellan was born to a Portuguese family of the lower nobility and in his youth served as a page to the royal court. He enlisted in the navy in 1504 and served with distinction in expeditions to India, the East Indies, and Morocco. In 1513 he was charged with dishonest handling of finances and his career appeared at an end. Deeply hurt and angered, Magellan renounced his nationality and in 1517 came to the court of King Charles I of Spain (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). He persuaded Charles to finance his plan to reach the Spice Islands (Moluccas) by sailing westward.
Magellan departed from Spain with five ships and perhaps 280 men on September 20, 1519. He sighted South America near what is now Recife, Brazil, on November 29, and sailed along the coast. In January, 1520, he explored the La Plata delta region, hoping to find a strait leading to Asia. He then continued southward into unknown waters.
On March 31 Magellan decided to winter at what is now San Julián, southern Argentina. There he crushed a mutiny, headed by some of his chief officers who wanted to return to Spain. The sailors spent several months gathering supplies, and one ship was wrecked by a storm while surveying the coast. Magellan called the natives of this area Patagonians (Big Feet) because of their size and height, which were exaggerated to gigantic proportions in the chronicles of the survivors.
Continuing southward, Magellan on October 21, 1520, reached the straits that would later bear his name. The voyage through the treacherous waters of the 350-mile (560-km) strait took 38 days, and one vessel deserted to return to Spain. To the south Magellan observed an island that he called Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) for the campfires of the natives.
The expedition now entered the Pacific—the ocean discovered seven years earlier by Balboa, who had called it the South Sea. Though supplies were running short, Magellan pressed on. For 98 days the voyagers sailed on a northwesterly course, encountering only two barren coral islands. Suffering from hunger and thirst, they had to drink spoiled water and eat rats, wormy biscuits, sawdust, and leather.
At last, on March 6, 1521, Guam was sighted. Magellan called the Mariana Islands Islas de los Ladrones (Isles of Robbers) for the thievery of the natives. Proceeding to the Philippines, Magellan formed an alliance with the ruler of Cebu Island, Rajah Humabon, who professed Christianity in return for a Spanish invasion of the neighboring island of Mactan. Magellan was killed there by natives on April 27. Afterwards Rajah Humabon turned on Magellan's men and killed several of the expedition's leaders.
The survivors, led by Juan Sebastian del Cano (?–1526), fled in two ships. They sailed first to Borneo and then to the Moluccas, where they received a cargo of spices. The flagship Trinidad had to be abandoned as unseaworthy and its crew was left behind. (Almost all of these men perished in their effort to return to Spain.) The Victoria continued westward, rounded Africa's Cape of Good Hope, and in July, 1522, landed at the Cape Verde Islands. Here 13 sailors were taken captive by the Portuguese.
The Victoria reached Spain on September 6, 1522, with only 18 men. The cargo of spices more than paid for the expenses of the voyage. Del Cano was hailed as the first circumnavigator and was made a nobleman.
An eyewitness account of the voyage is given in the diary, or “Relation,” of Antonio Pigafetta, a survivor. It was not published until the 20th century. R. A. Sketton's Magellan's Voyage (1969) is an English translation.