by Laurence Bergreen

Ferdinand Magellan, celebrated as the first circumnavigator, has long been the orphan of history. Although he did not survive his famous voyage, Magellan became both an icon of exploration and an outcast—disowned by his native Portugal, which he abandoned in search of financial backing for his scheme to pioneer a route over sea to the Spice Islands, and by Spain, for whom he sailed. Ironically, had he survived the complete circumnavigation and returned to Seville in September 1522, he would not have been greeted with accolades or cheering throngs or recognition from young King Charles I of Spain. Instead, he would have faced trial for treason and the possibility of imprisonment or execution for sending several Spanish officers and members of the nobility to their deaths for mutiny during the voyage. The Spanish preferred to honor Sebastian Elcano, who succeeded him as the Captain General of the fleet, even though Elcano was a Basque, and thus as much an outsider as Magellan.

The English viewed with appreciation and envy the imperialistic ambitions of Spain and Portugal and elevated Ferdinand Magellan (always pronounced with a hard “g” in England) to his status as a peerless explorer. King Charles sent out several Spanish expeditions designed to emulate Magellan’s circumnavigation, but they all met with misfortune. It was no accident, then, that Sir Francis Drake, the second circumnavigator (but the first to complete the journey himself), happened to be English. His voyage was part exploration and part piracy on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, reflecting the rising imperial ambitions of the English throne. Drake’s success—and England’s—rested on the shoulders of Magellan, and his vision of global trade and conquest by sea rather than by land struck a resounding chord in the British Isles.

Because of the loss of his voyage’s logbooks, little is known of Magellan’s own views on his adventures or discoveries. Instead, his complex and contested feat is reflected in other documents illuminating his voyage. Although copious, these sources are often politically biased and self-serving, charged with the motives of those who kept them. Then there are the lacunae. Portugal, for instance, was entirely secretive about its exploration and discovery of distant parts of the world. Producing or even owning a map pertaining to exploration was illegal. When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the New World, he immediately set about writing letters to describe and publicize his exploits to his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella. If Columbus had sailed on behalf of Portugal, he would not have been given a forum; he would have been muzzled, his exploits known only to a few court insiders, and perhaps lost to history. As improbable as that sounds, consider the possibility that two Portuguese explorers, Estêvão Froes and João de Lisboa, located and explored what we now call the Strait of Magellan in South America several years before Magellan himself arrived. Unlike Magellan’s well-documented voyage, their journey was known mainly through a sketchy account that surfaced mysteriously in Germany, rather than through the expected official records.

Even though Magellan sailed for Spain, the dead hand of Portuguese secrecy regarding exploration reached out to crush him as well. After his death in a tribal battle in the Philippines, the flagship of his fleet, Trinidad, was captured by the Portuguese as she attempted to return to Spain. They swiftly impounded all of Magellan’s personal logbooks, navigational instruments, and other items of interest. Some of those precious artifacts and documents eventually reached apparent safety in Lisbon, where scholars might have eventually been able to examine them, but on November 1, 1755, the disastrous Lisbon earthquake reduced the entire city to ruin, and the materials relating to Magellan’s voyage were lost. None of the surviving records—including individual, legal, and personal accounts—reflect Magellan’s own view of his exploration and travails. Magellan’s lost records might have also afforded a window into the mind of the most brilliant navigator of the age. Instead, he is strangely absent from his own epic, and those seeking to recreate his voyage or come to terms with this difficult, driven individual are thrown back on other sources. Barring some unforeseen discovery of previously unknown records of his exploits, Magellan will never be able to plead his case before the court of historical consideration and judgment. He stands mute before rivals, accusers, and imposters.

Current historians and students come to know Magellan through his well-documented actions rather than his almost nonexistent words. We can only guess at what he intended, but we know for certain what he did, and frequently just how he did it. We know what transpired on that voyage on an almost daily basis, for these events were recorded in nearly excruciating detail, down to the number of fish hooks the fleet took along. King Charles’s detailed formal orders to Magellan, the official correspondence regarding the expedition, and Magellan’s will (signed shortly before his departure) have all been preserved in the Archive of the Indies in Seville.

Two surviving accounts also shed valuable light on the circumnavigation, those by the historian Gaspar Corrêa and Francisco Albo, Magellan’s pilot. Elcano, who succeeded Magellan, commissioned his own version of the voyage, De Orbe Novo, “The New World,” written by the Italian priest and scholar known as Peter Martyr and published in 1526. Then there are the hundreds of pages of testimony from the mutineers aboard Magellan’s ship, men who rebelled against the captain’s tyrannical, yet lawful, command. All these men sought to portray the Captain General as a villain in order to defend themselves from their very serious offense against his authority.

Given the appeal of Magellan’s example to Great Britain, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the best published works about his life and voyage are in English. The American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s vast compilation, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages (New York: Oxford, 1974), contains several fascinating and seminal chapters about Magellan, and F. H. H. Guillemard’s Life of Ferdinand Magellan (London: George Peters, 1890) offers one of the more sophisticated accounts of the explorer’s life.

All these voices, as varied and noteworthy as they are, represent only the western European point of view of complex and controversial encounters with foreign cultures, languages, and political and economic systems. Nearly all the South American tribes visited by Magellan’s fleet were pre-literate, and thus left no records of their experience with these visitors from afar in their battered black ships. Some of the survivors’ records suggest that the Europeans, attired in their peculiar garb and speaking in strange tongues, were taken to be supernatural beings fulfilling prophecies of visitors from afar. If the tribes of Patagonia had recorded their encounters with the devout, fearful, and occasionally rapacious Magellan, modern impressions of his circumnavigation might be very different.

The most vital chronicle of Magellan’s voyage, and the best insight into this elusive figure, comes from the pen of Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian papal secretary who found himself in the midst of the most ambitious ocean voyage of his age quite by accident. In Seville as Magellan’s expedition was in formation, Pigafetta introduced himself to the Captain General, and even though he had never before been to sea, was hired on the spot as the journey’s official chronicler and illustrator. He was everything Magellan was not—broadly educated, tolerant, courtly—and, most important for posterity, among the lucky handful of survivors of the voyage. Of approximately 225 men who set out in 1518, only eighteen returned to Seville three years later. Along the way, Pigafetta kept a diary of the voyage and its many pains, recounting Magellan’s courage and cruelty, and the wonders of exploration. He published his extraordinary record in two volumes under the title First Voyage Around the World, revealing Magellan in all his heroism, cunning, and ruthlessness. His account is bursting with botanical, linguistic, and anthropological detail.

Pigafetta recorded a stirring eyewitness account of the death of Ferdinand Magellan in Mactan harbor on April 27, 1521, as he faced an overwhelming tribal army led by the bellicose Lapu Lapu: “An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the Captain General’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay his hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only larger.” Wounded, Magellan “turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats.” Without that concern, “not a single one of us would have been saved in the boats, for while he was fighting, the others retired to the boats.” Eventually, the blows he suffered took their toll. “That caused the Captain General to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated as best we could to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

Pigafetta revered Magellan, and his feelings were revealed in his inscription of the slain hero’s epitaph: “I hope that . . . the fame of so noble a captain will not become effaced in our times. Among the other virtues that he possessed, he was more constant than ever any one else in the greatest adversity. He endured hunger better than all the others, and more accurately than any man in the world did he understand sea charts and navigation. And that his was the truth was seen openly, for no other had had so much natural talent nor the boldness to learn how to circumnavigate the world, as he had almost done.”


Laurence Bergreen is an award-winning biographer, historian, and chronicler of exploration. His books include Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (2007) and Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (2003).

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