Ferdinand Magellan: Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

In this lesson you will learn about Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to sail west into the Pacific and the first to lead an expedition that circled the globe. When you're finished, take the quiz to see what you've learned.

Ferdinand Magellan

Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan

Have you ever really wanted to do something but someone kept saying no? Maybe you really wanted to surf a big wave or take a trip or learn to fly a plane, but someone was always telling you why you couldn't or shouldn't do what you wanted. That's what happened to Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer in the early 16th century. Back then, many people knew the world was round, but no one had actually proven it. As a young man, Magellan had traveled east from Portugal all the way to India and the Spice Islands (now called the Maluku Islands). He was certain he could reach these same islands if he traveled west, going around or through South America in order to get there. The problem was the king of Portugal kept saying no; he refused Magellan's request to travel west around the world multiple times. So Magellan shared his plan with the king of Spain, and he finally got what he wanted--the first trip around the world.

In the Name of the King, for the Queen

Ferdinand Magellan was born to a noble family around 1480. His parents died when he was young, and he became Queen Leonora's page. She enrolled him in school, and there he learned about navigation and cartography.

His knowledge sparked an interest in travel, and in 1505, Magellan volunteered for an expedition to bring the first viceroy of India, Don Francisco de Almeida, to India. While there, he participated in battles where his loyalty and heroism earned him favor. He returned to Portugal in 1512.

Still seeking travel, he was badly wounded while serving in Morocco in 1513; he would limp for the rest of his life. He was also accused of illegally trading with the Moroccans. He was proven innocent, but he lost favor with the king. Magellan wanted to seek a western route to the Spice Islands and complete a journey around the world, but the king would not grant permission or funding for the trip.

The Voyage

In 1517, Magellan moved to Spain. Spain had taken possession of the Americas but quickly realized that Columbus had not reached Asia. Still, the Spanish were hoping there would be new treasures, and as a result they agreed to the Treaty of Tordesillas. The treaty was between Spain and Portugal, and it drew an imaginary north-south line from 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal possessed all lands east of the line, while the Spanish had everything to the west. That meant that only the Portuguese could sail east to the Spice Islands. The Spanish didn't want to be told no either though; they still wanted to profit from the Spice Islands, and Magellan's plan of reaching them by sailing west both abided by the terms of the treaty and got them what they wanted.

In 1519, after convincing Charles V of Spain of his plan and getting enough funding together, Magellan set sail with five ships. The expedition had trouble from the start because King Manuel of Portugal sent ships to pursue it. King Manuel wanted Magellan arrested for treason, but Magellan's crew avoided capture. He sailed west across the Atlantic and landed in Puerto San Julian for the winter. On Easter three of his five captains decided that the trip was too dangerous, like many crews of the period, and mutinied. One was killed in the action, a second was executed and a third was marooned. Despite the mutiny, the expedition continued.

The Santiago was sent south to explore the South American coast but was wrecked. After winer ended, Magellan rescued the crew and continued. When the team got to the southern tip and started exploring what would turn out to be the Strait of Magellan, the passage through South America from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, the crew of the San Antonio deserted the expedition and returned to Spain.

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