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The Man Who Sailed the World

Ferdinand Magellan's global journey gave him fame, but took his life

The journey proved difficult. The natives populating the southern tip of South America were very hostile to the Spaniards; previously, they had captured and eaten another, less-known Spanish explorer. When Magellan and his crew finally found a natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (now known as the Strait of Magellan), they thought it was only a large bay, much like the ones they had already encountered. To be sure it wasn't a strait, Magellan sent in two ships with strict orders to return within five days. During this time, however, a large storm passed over the fleet. As Magellan prepared to leave on the fifth day, the two ships returned and said the body of water was indeed a strait.

"Other Spanish voyages had tried to go through [the strait] and got lost," says Nadar. "Getting to the Pacific by ship, without having to go over land, was the biggest challenge of that period, and he's the one that solved it."

Thirty-three days and 344 miles later, Magellan and his crew reached what was then known as the New Sea, which Magellan named the Pacific for its peaceful waters. Like most Europeans at the time, however, Magellan thought Asia was much closer to South America than it actually is. The crew had expected to find many islands along the way to get food, water and other necessities, but did not. To make matters worse, Magellan steered the fleet too far north, possibly to avoid meeting any Portuguese ships, extending the voyage.

The crew lived without fresh food for more than three months. Hard rain and high wind complicated their travels, and the men were plagued with disease despite efforts to keep the boats sanitary. Over the course of the crossing, Magellan lost 19 crew members and one boat.

By the time the crew reached the Philippines, which they first thought to be the Spice Islands, Magellan had become intense and irrational. He didn't find any spices, instead deciding "to become the exclusive European merchant and official for one of the islands in the Philippines," says Nadar. Historical accounts show he joined one island ruler in trying to conquer another Philippine island. The most credible version of what happened next says Magellan insisted on only bringing 60 half-armed men into what is known today as "The Battle of Mactan" and refused any outside help, to show the natives his invincibility. The Spaniards were quickly defeated and Magellan was speared to death.

The remaining crew members continued back to Spain, though only 18 men and one boat returned safely. The strait, originally named Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints) by Magellan, was renamed the Strait of Magellan by the Spanish king in the fallen explorer's honor.

Today, Magellan is still recognized as the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe, although he himself never completed the journey. His legacy lives on today in both Portuguese and Spanish cultures. "He was very much a part of the crucial generation of Portuguese that opened up eastern Asia," Levenson says. "He was an important figure in the history of Portuguese history, and then because of all the treatment he got, he became an important figure in Spanish history. It's quite interesting."


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