First Circumnavigation of the Globe

September 6, 2011 | posted in: Tech Chronicles | by

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September 6, 1522

Magellan's Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe. Photo courtesy of thenagain.info

One of Ferdinand Magellan’s five ships–the Vittoria–arrives at SanlÚcar de Barrameda in Spain, thus completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

The Vittoria was commanded by Basque navigator Juan SebastiÁn de Elcano, who took charge of the vessel after the murder of Magellan in the Philippines in April 1521. During a long, hard journey home, the people on the ship suffered from starvation, scurvy, and harassment by Portuguese ships. Only Elcano, 17 other Europeans, and four Indians survived to reach Spain in September 1522.

On September 20, 1519, Magellan set sail from Spain in an effort to find a western sea route to the rich Spice Islands of Indonesia. In command of five ships and 270 men, Magellan sailed to West Africa and then to Brazil, where he searched the South American coast for a strait that would take him to the Pacific. He searched the RÍo de la Plata, a large estuary south of Brazil, for a way through; failing, he continued south along the coast of Patagonia. At the end of March 1520, the expedition set up winter quarters at Port St. Julian.

On October 21, he finally discovered the strait he had been seeking. The Strait of Magellan, as it became known, is located near the tip of South America, separating Tierra del Fuego and the continental mainland. Only three ships entered the passage; one had been wrecked and another deserted. It took 38 days to navigate the treacherous strait, and when ocean was sighted at the other end Magellan wept with joy. He was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. His fleet accomplished the westward crossing of the ocean in 99 days, crossing waters so strangely calm that the ocean was named “Pacific,” from the Latin word pacificus, meaning “tranquil.” By the end, the men were out of food and chewed the leather parts of their gear to keep themselves alive. On March 6, 1521, the expedition landed at the island of Guam.

Ten days later, they dropped anchor at the Philippine island of Cebu. Magellan met with the chief of Cebú, who persuaded the Europeans to assist him in conquering a rival tribe on the neighboring island of Mactan. In subsequent fighting on April 27, Magellan was hit by a poisoned arrow and left to die by his retreating comrades.

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