Seville Icons: Magellan, the Man who Sailed Around the Globe

Born into a noble Portuguese family around the year 1480, Magellan became idolised after orchestrating the Spanish expedition to the West Indies from 1519 to 1522, this resulted in the first ever circumnavigation of the earth.


After Christopher Columbus discovered the new world, the Catholic rulers of Spain turned to the Pope to delegitimize any claims from Portugal of ownership of the new lands. The Pope resolved this issue by drawing an imaginary line on a world map. Spain had the ability to claim territories west of the line and east for Portugal. This is called the Treaty of Tordesillas. Both countries wanted trade routes to the ´Spice Islands´ which we now call Indonesia. The spices found here, used for seasoning, preservation and medicine, are worth many times more than gold in weight. However, due to the trade routes Spain couldn’t get to the islands.

treaty of todesillas magellan

Magellan was a Portuguese defector and when he told King Charles the first of Spain that a route to the Spice Islands existed through the West Indies, he was made captain of the Armadar. Magellan was granted 5 ships, 250 men (inc a slave called Enrique who was captured by Magellan) so he could complete this venture. The crew departed on September the 28th 1519 and they travelled South-West from the harbour of Seville. They arrived at Brazil first, exploring every water passage that headed in-land, looking for a route through to the ‘East’.  However, the weather worsened and the crew began to revolt against the idea of having a Portuguese captain, but Magellan crushed them and traitors were either forgiven, marooned or drawn and quartered. Sir Francis Drake found the bones of those whom were executed. Due to the bad weather, the Santiago was wrecked in a storm and then the captain of the San Antonio fled and sailed back to Spain. Magellan was down to three boats and substantially less men.

Magellan boats leaving seville
Magellan´s fleet departing from Seville´s harbour, notice the Giralda tower in the background.

But as the storms cleared on October 21st, a seaway was found in Chile and 27 days later the crew appeared in the Pacific Ocean, exiting what is now called the ´Strait of Magellan´. The new ocean was a lot bigger than previously expected, the crew endured a blue and empty horizon for 98 days before they reached land. Once they did finally step off the boat, Enrique was able to communicate with the natives meaning they could not be far off. As they continued their journey, Magellan was greeted  by Rajah Humabon who convinced the captain to help kill his enemy, the chief of Manctan. This would sadly be Magellan´s last ever venture due to being extremely out-numbered, the captain was put down by the Bamboo spears of Manctan.

Enrique Magellan slave
Enrique the slave

In Magellan’s will it stated that Enrique will become free but the crew still needed him as an interpreter. Enrique is believed to have made a plan with the Rajah to have 30 of the Spanish fleet killed, but Enrique was never seen from again. If he made it to his home in Malacca then he would have been the first person to ever circumnavigate the globe.  Due to casualties, there were not enough men to physically man three ships so they burned down the Concepción. The crew continued and in November 1521 they finally reached the Spice Islands and loaded up on cargo. The Trinidad was sunk after being captured by the Portuguese, meaning the Victoria had to go on alone captained by Juan Sebastian Elcano. Against all odds the vessel made it back to Spain stocked up on Cloves and cinnamon – the crew were down to eating plain rice rations. When they arrived in the port of Seville they walked straight from the boat to the Cathedral without saying a word, a slab in the cathedral honours the lucky 18 survivors. Crew member Pigafetta was an Italian scholar who chronicled the whole venture as well as making the first ever phrase book of native languages. Mangellan´s legacy lives on, he has had space programs and galaxy’s named after him, while Elcano received a Spanish coat of arms and had his face on currency’s.