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.

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