top of page

 Peter Takes on History 

September 20, 1519

Magellan Circumnavigates The Globe! Almost.

So, in the mid 1400’s everybody was in the spice game. That’s where the big money was. Spices were used in cooking, sure, but they were also coveted for their medicinal qualities. They were used in preserving food and masking the taste of bad meat and, before the Frigidaire, there was a lot of bad meat. Cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and black pepper; all extremely valuable. Cloves were literally worth more than their weight in gold. And so, “The Spice Islands” became a very popular place! The islands are part of modern Indonesia but, in terms of the imprecise geography of the 15th century, the generic term for the region was “India.”
Now, there was already a commercial route to India. Overland. But the Ottoman Turks messed that up in 1453 when they took Constantinople. So, Spain and Portugal become the big players, battling it out, looking to control a shipping route to the far east.
That’s where Columbus came in. Looking for a passage to India, right? That’s why native Americans are called Indians. Until the day he died Chris was convinced America was India, just maybe East India.
But you gotta wonder, why did Columbus sail west? Yeah, there’s the whole “proving the earth is round” thing but, that’s a red herring. An embellishment invented by Washington Irving in his 1828 biography the man.
And the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias had sailed around the southern tip of Africa in 1488. That looked like a promising route. Why didn’t Columbus follow Dias around the Cape of Good Hope? Well, the reason Columbus didn’t follow Portugal’s lead was, the pope said don’t.
See, Portugal and Spain were both rich Catholic nations, and the Pope wanted them to keep throwing change in the collection basket, not wasting their riches on gunpowder and cannonballs. So, in 1494 Pope Alexander says, “Enough already! I’ve got no choice but to separate you two!” So he comes up with the Treaty of Tordesillas. He divides the world in half and gives half to Spain and half to Portugal. He tells King John of Portugal, “You’re working on the eastern route. Keep it up. Put your man Vasco Da Gama on it, right?”
But Spain says, “Hey, wait? What about us? We’ve got as much right to invade, subjugate and steal from the people of India as Portugal does.” But the Pope’s like, “C’mon. Columbus is dancing around telling everyone he can reach India sailing west. Let him go. You got your conquistadors. Lay a little Cortés on the Aztecs, a little Pizzaro on the Incas, you’ll do just fine.”
Now, if you are a child of the 1490’s, like say, Ferdinand Magellan, you’ve heard about these explorers your whole life and you’re aware of the price of cloves. If you’re an adventurous and ambitious child of the 1490’s, you want in on The Spice Race.
By the early 1500’s Magellan’s already in the Portuguese navy, a veteran, knows his way around a ship and he’s read all the current charts. He goes to the Portuguese King Manuel I and says, “I think Columbus was onto something. Set me up with some ships and I’ll find you that passage to India.” The king turns Magellan down … over and over. Finally, Magellan says, “Fine! You don’t want to do it, I know someone who does!” Magellan petitions King Charles I of Spain, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Charles green lights the project right away. King Manuel of Portugal is livid! He calls Magellan a traitor, sends troops to trash Magellan’s family home and puts a contract out on the guy. Now Magellan is more determined than ever so, on this day in history, September 20th, 1519, Magellan shoves off. He’s got five ships, 280 men and the Portuguese Navy on his tail. Magellan outruns them and the Portuguese eventually give up. A month later Magellan found himself at the southern tip of South America.
Imagine the task ahead! Magellan’s facing one of the most treacherous passages on earth, no charts, nobody’s done this before. He’s a Portuguese captain of a Spanish fleet. And, though King Charles supplied him with ships, he wasn’t so generous with the crew. They were mostly prisoners and debtors, some had never been to sea! They’ve already lost one ship in a storm, the crew of another ship says, “Un uh. Magellan’s crazy. We’re out of here!” And they head back to Spain. But Magellan’s a strong leader. He puts down two mutinies and for God, gold and glory, he heads off into the void … with limited success.
He did make it through the straights and into the far calmer waters of what Balboa called the South Sea. But, after the tossing, tumbling and terror of rounding the cape, Magellan called it the peaceful sea. In Portuguese “Mar Pacifico.” The Pacific. Magellan 1, Balboa 0.
And Magellan made it all the way to what we now know as the Philippines … where he died. The God part of the God-Gold-Glory equation got him. Even though it wasn’t in his job description, Magellan was a devout Catholic and tried to convert every native he encountered. One group took exception and put a spear through his head.
But, on the bright side, the crew soldiered on and found the Spice Islands. They loaded up on cloves and in 1522 the last remaining ship, with just 18 of the original 280 crew, came limping back to Spain. King Charles sees the cloves, which are worth more than all five ships combined and net/net declares the entire venture a success!
Poor Magellan never got the gold but he certainly got the glory. We know this southern passage as the Straits of Magellan. He’s credited with naming the Pacific Ocean. And every school child knows Magellan as the first person to circumnavigate the globe … even though he didn’t.
Net/net, a success.

More stories ...

bottom of page