21 October 1520: Magellan finds the path to the Pacific

On this day in 1520, a fleet of five ships, led by Ferdinand Magellan in search of a passage to the Pacific, first entered the waterway that now bears his name.

In the 16th century, Portugal was making a fortune from sailing to the Moluccas, the legendary spice islands in the Pacific. Once there, they would load up their ships with the aromatic cargo and sell it for a king's ransom back in Europe. It wasn't long before Spain wanted in on the action.

However, owing to the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, only Portugal was allowed to sail eastwards to the islands. So in 1519, the Spanish king, Charles I, dispatched Portuguese explorer, Fernão de Magalhães, AKA Ferdinand Magellan, with five ships – Magellan's ship the Trinidad, plus the San Antonio, the Concepcion, the Santiago  and the Victoria. He was to sniff out a westerly route to the islands, a route that would, if successful make Magellan's expedition the first to circumnavigate the globe.

After leaving Seville, hopping off the Canary Islands and bouncing off the coast of Brazil, Magellan arrived at Cape Virgenes in October 1520. On 21 October, four ships – the Santiago having been wrecked while searching for the passage in April – entered the waterway that still bears the expedition leader's name, looking for the Pacific. Finding it wasn't as easy as it sounds: the strait is 360 miles long and varies in width between 2.5 and 70 miles. Along its flanks are countless fjords, and any one of those could either be the route out to the open ocean or end in a blind alley. While searching for the route, the crew of the San Antonio mutinied and the ship returned to Spain. 

Magellan never quite made it to the spice islands, however. The devout Catholic had a habit of insisting on converting the locals to Christianity. This didn't always go down well with the islanders, and Magellan died fighting in the Philippines the following April.

Therefore, contrary to most pub quizzes, Ferdinand Magellan wasn't the first person to circumnavigate the globe, since he never made it back. But a Basque sailor named Juan Sebastian Elcano and 18 of the original expedition's 241 members did, sailing the spice-laden Victoria back to Spain in 1522.

But the really surprising thing is that even Elcano may not be the man deserving of the credit. Magellan had a slave called Enrique, who came from what is today Malaysia. So, in effect, when Magellan set off on his round-the-world voyage, Enrique was heading very close to home. So, was Enrique the first person to circumnavigate the globe? We'll never know for sure.

Recommended

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain
This day in history

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain

On this day in 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced in Britain, bringing an instant pay rise to 1.9 million low-paid workers.
1 Apr 2021
27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party
This day in history

27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party

Responding to the need for a single political party to represent the trade unions, the Labour Party was formed on this day in 1900.
27 Feb 2021
24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement
This day in history

24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement

On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer made their engagement official in front of the world's press at Buckingham Palace.
24 Feb 2021
24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down
This day in history

24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down

On this day in 1809, celebrated playwright Richard Sheridan was effectively ruined when the Drury Lane theatre went up in smoke.
24 Feb 2021

Most Popular

How will Joe Biden’s capital gains tax rise affect crypto prices?
Bitcoin & crypto

How will Joe Biden’s capital gains tax rise affect crypto prices?

The US president wants to increase capital gains tax – and that’s going to hit a lot of American cryptocurrency speculators. Saloni Sardana looks at h…
14 May 2021
US stocks look expensive – here’s what to own instead
Investment strategy

US stocks look expensive – here’s what to own instead

Right now, US stocks are among the most expensive in the world. So if you want a decent return on your investments, you should look into diversifying …
17 May 2021
Inheritance tax planning: the rules around gifting
Inheritance tax

Inheritance tax planning: the rules around gifting

There are plenty of legal ways to minimise an inheritance tax bill. Perhaps the simplest is to give away assets to reduce the size of your estate. Dav…
11 May 2021