On October 21 1520, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan discovered a strait separating mainland South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south. The strait, named after Magellan, is the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
After realizing that the Americas were another continent and not part of Asia, it became a matter of urgency for Spain to find a new commercial route to the latter. However, as the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) reserved for Portugal the eastern routes that went around Africa, Spain commissioned expeditions to find one to the west.
In the meanwhile, Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan planned an expedition to the Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands, after his cousin, who was part of the first expedition to the islands, told him about their beauty and richness. Magellan asked King Manuel I of Portugal for funding his expedition several times but was rejected. A few years later, Magellan got permission from the King to serve another master and decided to ask Charles I of Castile and Aragon (future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) for funding. The King accepted the proposal, knowing that, if successful, Spain would have a spice route without damaging relations with the Portuguese.
The Discovery of the Strait
On 10 August 1519, Magellan and his crew left Seville with five ships and descended to Sanlúcar de Barrameda. After staying there for five weeks, they finally set sail on 20 September 1519. On 26 September, the fleet made a stop at Tenerife in the Canary Islands to collect the final supplies. There, Magellan received a message from his father-in-law warning him that some of his Castillian captains were planning a mutiny and that the King of Portugal had sent two fleets of caravels to arrest him.
On 3 October, they departed the Canary Islands sailing south along the African coast to evade the Portuguese caravels. Soon afterwards, Magellan’s captains started to challenge his leadership, accusing him of putting the King’s ships at risk by choosing another route. One of the captains, Cartagena, claimed that he would not take orders from him, and Magellan got him arrested and replaced.
A little more than a month after their departure, the ships reached the coastline of Brazil and sailed southward looking for a passage that would take them through South America and into the Pacific Ocean. In March 1520, the crew was forced to make a stop at Port San Julian, as the weather conditions made it dangerous to navigate. In the meanwhile, Magellan sent one of his ships, the Santiago, to explore the route ahead. The ship was shipwrecked during a storm but most of the crew members survived and discovered the Port of Santa Cruz. After some of the survivors managed to reach San Julian and told Magellan about their discovery, he decided to spend the rest of the winter there.
The fleet spent six weeks in the Port of Santa Cruz until the weather improved and they were able to sail again. On October 21, Magellan finally found the passage he was looking for. At first, he referred to it as the Estrecho de Todos Los Santos (“All Saints’ Channel”), because the fleet travelled through it on 1 November. A week after finding the strait, they reached an island which could be passed in one of two directions so Magellan decided to split up his fleet and regroup a few days later. However, one of these ships, the San Antonio, would never rejoin them. By November 28, the fleet completed the journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Magellan's Death and Legacy
Magellan and his crew sailed the Pacific Ocean for three months before they finally reached the island of Guam in March 1521. Then, they sailed on to the Philippines, landing on the island of Cebu. There, Magellan befriended the indigenous people and sought to convert them to Christianity. That is why when the Cebu asked for his aid in fighting their neighbours on the island of Mactan, he agreed. The explorer died during the battle against the Mactanese on April 27, 1521. Even though Magellan never made it to the Spice Islands, two of his ships reached the Moluccas on November 5, 1521. Only one of them, the Victoria, completed the voyage around the world and arrived back in Seville in September 1522.
Although the route via the Strait of Magellan was impractical because it was too dangerous and long, Magellan’s expedition contributed to the expansion of European geographic knowledge, as he had found a massive ocean and discovered that the Earth was much larger than previously thought. Moreover, although it was no longer believed that the Earth was flat, his circumnavigation of the globe discredited the medieval theory conclusively. Nowadays, his expedition is considered the greatest sea voyage in the Age of Discovery and the passage he found receives the name of the Strait of Magellan.
- charles v
- juan i
- pacific ocean
- spice islands
- south america
- atlantic ocean