21 October 1520: Magellan finds the path to the Pacific

The Magellan Straits © Getty Images
The Magellan Straits: the path to the Pacific

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, to sniff out a westwards route to the islands – a route that would make Magellan the first circumnavigate the globe.

After leaving Seville, hopping off the Canary Islands and bouncing off the coast of Brazil, Magellan arrived at Cape Vírgenes in October 1520.

On 21st, his fleet of five ships entered the waterway that still bears his 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 be the route out to the open ocean – or end in a blind alley.

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 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.