494 Years and One Day Ago Today

April 28, 2015: One of Europe’s most famous explorers – right up there in the ranks with Columbus (the Americas), Cabot (North America) and Vasco de Gama (India via Cape of Good Hope) – is Ferdinand Magellan.

Of Magellan’s many claims to fame is the discovery of a western route from Europe to the Spice Islands (aka the East Indies or Molucca, present day Indonesia) around the southern tip of South America. This expedition also holds the claim as the first circumnavigation of the globe, although Magellan was no longer a part of it by the time it returned to Spain three years after it had set out so full of promise.

I recently read a book by Laurence Bergreen called “Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.” What got me interested in learning more about Magellan’s expedition is the fact that he was killed in the Kingdom of Mactan. Mactan is located in the Philippines near Cebu.

The date of Magellan’s death? April 27, 1521. Four-hundred ninety-four years and one day ago.

It’s an intriguing tale of exploration, family connections, misadventure and mutiny. The expedition certainly changed the way we look at the world. It proved the world was round and that oceans cover most of it.

Magellan was Portuguese but he sailed on behalf of the King of Spain. When his expedition – the Armada de Molucca – departed in 1519, the New World had already been discovered. He set out with five ships and about 260 sailors on board. What I found surprising was the size of these ships. Victoria, the only one of the five to complete the circumnavigation, was estimated to be between 59 and 69 feet in length with an original crew of 55 sailors. And it wasn’t the smallest ship in the fleet. By comparison, MOKEN is 51 feet with a crew of two humans and one cat.

Magellan’s death was largely on account of the prevailing attitude of European supremacy over the locals. The party that went ashore to conquer Mactan, at the behest of the local chief of neighbouring Cebu (who was enemies with Lapu Lapu, chief of Mactan), were unprepared and outnumbered. Magellan was struck down by a poison arrow and left behind to die…reportedly unaided by his crew on the other ships in the fleet. (There was a lot of resentment among the Spanish crew members at having a Portuguese in command of the fleet.)

Of course, there are at least two sides to every story and Lapu Lapu, the chief of Mactan who led the defence against the European invaders, is a hero in the Philippines. Magellan is remembered as a tyrant and the Battle of Mactan is reenacted every April 27.

Here are a few other interesting facts from the expedition of the Armada de Molucca:

  • Magellan was considered a traitor in his home country of Portugal.
  • The Strait of Magellan, near Cape Horn, was named in his honour about six years after the Victoria returned to Spain.
  • Magellan has a penguin named after him. The Magellanic penguin is found in South America.
  • Magellan gave the Pacific Ocean its name. He called it Mar Pacifico, which means the peaceful sea in Portuguese. Pacific is a definite misnomer.
  • The armada “discovered” Guam and the Marianas.
  • The armada covered nearly 37,000 nautical miles, more than half of which was virtually unknown and uncharted.
  • The international date line did not exist before Magellan’s voyage. As the Victoria neared the completion of its voyage the log keepers realized they were one day short.
  • Only 18 of the original 260 sailors (seven per cent) and one of five ships (20 per cent) completed the circumnavigation of the world. Apparently these ratios were still good enough to call the expedition successful.
  • Magellan doesn’t deserve all the credit. Basque sailor, Juan Sebastian Elcano helmed the Victoria as it finally returned to Spain in 1522. Despite this, Magellan is the one we remember.
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