What Happened to Ferdinand Magellan's Ships?

Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe.
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Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who sailed for the Spanish crown and who in 1519 organized and set off on an expedition that would mark the first European circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan's voyage occurred in the heyday of Portuguese and Spanish exploration and though he himself was killed in the Philippines and many of his ships were destroyed or turned back, one ship returned to Spain in 1522 to complete this feat of circumnavigation.

1 Portuguese and Spanish Exploration

European exploration of the world was at this time dominated by Portugal and Spain. Portugal had first explored and colonized parts of the African coast under Prince Henry the Navigator in the early 15th century and by 1488 Portuguese ships had rounded the tip of Africa and soon after reached India. Spain, after its unification under monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, also began financing exploration, most famously with the voyage of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 purportedly discovered the Americas. Magellan's voyage in 1519 came at the height of Portuguese and Spanish dominance of exploration.

2 Early Voyages

Born in 1480, Magellan gained early experience in traveling and exploration when he served in a Portuguese fleet in India in 1505. Soon after, Magellan participated in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca, gaining fame and fortune. However, a dispute with the Portuguese King Manuel I led Magellan to seek employment with the Spanish King and later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was eager to challenge the Portuguese dominance of trade routes to India by finding a western route across the Pacific ocean. He thus hired Magellan for his famous expedition which would circumnavigate the globe.

3 Voyage

Magellan set out in August of 1519 with five ships and 270 men. In March of 1520 in Puerto San Julian, Argentina, several of Magellan's men mutinied and were subdued and put to death by the commander. One ship was then wrecked as Magellan sought a way through the turbulent waters of the southern tip of South America, though the crew largely survived. Another ship deserted and returned to Spain. The three remaining ships and the 150 remaining men passed through the strait on the southern tip of South America, now called the Strait of Magellan, in November of 1520.

4 Death and Return

In the Philippines, Magellan's men became involved in a local conflict after Magellan sought to convert the locals to Christianity. Magellan and several of his sailors were killed. The remaining 115 were not enough to guide three ships so they abandoned one, and sailed with the remaining two, the flagship "Trinidad" and the smaller "Victoria." The "Trinidad," however, began to leak and the crew were forced to split up and and some embarked on the journey aboard the "Victoria." The "Trinidad" crew attempted to return to Spain via the Pacific after several weeks of repairs in the Spice Islands, but was captured by the Portuguese and never made it back to Spain. The "Victoria" made its way west back to Europe, but many crewmen died of starvation, and by the time it reached Spain in September of 1522, only 18 men remained.

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.