On This Day

Ferdinand Magellan, Ferdinand Magellan portrait, Magellan
Library of Congress
Ferdinand Magellan

On This Day: Explorer Ferdinand Magellan Killed by Pacific Tribe

April 27, 2011 06:00 AM
by Christopher Coats
On April 27, 1521, explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed by a Filipino tribe, months after he had become the first man to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The surviving members of his crew would sail back to Spain, completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

Magellan Killed During Circumnavigation

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had secured the support of Spanish King Charles I for a voyage to the Spice Islands of modern-day Indonesia. Magellan would travel west, around the newly discovered Americas.

He departed from Spain in September 1519 with five ships and 250-270 men. He reached Patagonia in March 1520 and decided to settle for the winter. During this time, several of his Spanish captains attempted a mutiny; Magellan was able to quash the uprising and execute or maroon its leaders.

Magellan lost one of his ships that May when it sunk during a reconnaissance mission. Magellan resumed his voyage in August, leading his expedition south, where he discovered a strait through present-day Argentina. Though one ship deserted during the passage, the remaining three ships made it safely through the strait—known today as the Strait of Magellan— and reached the Pacific Ocean in November.

Magellan became the first man to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, a name he gave to the ocean because of the peaceful waters he encountered as he entered it. He greatly underestimated the size of the Pacific, believing that the trip to the Spice Islands would take only a few days. Instead, his crew suffered through a brutal four-month voyage.

“The crew began to starve as food stores were depleted,” describes the Mariners’ Museum. “The water turned putrid and yellow in color. The crew survived on sawdust, leather strips from the sails, and rats. Without the benefit of vitamin C in fresh fruits and vegetables, the men also came down with scurvy.”
In late March, Magellan landed on Mactan Island in the Philippines. Praising divine intervention for his success, Magellan decided to convert the local population to Christianity. After having luck with one chief, Magellan turned his attention to his first convert’s rival, Lapu Lapu. But Magellan mistakenly believed the rival tribe woud be easily defeated by his arsenal of European cannons and muskets.

He led a small band of non-soldiers against Lapu Lapu, but things went wrong immediately. First, a planned cannon assault was thwarted by the presence of a coral reef that kept his ships out of firing range.

Then, Magellan and his crew struggled ashore in full armor, but Lapu Lapu’s fighters quickly discovered all they had to do was aim arrows at the invading party’s unprotected legs. Many of Magellan’s men fled, but the explorer fought on. Finally, felled by poisoned arrows and spears, he collapsed into the shallow surf of Mactan Island.

Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar who accompanied Magellan, described in his diary: “An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain's face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian's body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. … [T]hey rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.”

Del Cano Completes the Voyage

Though Magellan died, his expedition continued. Basque explorer Sebastian del Cano (or Elcano), who had been part of the mutiny against Magellan, took control of the expedition. He led two ships, the Trinidad and Victoria, to the Spice Islands, where they were loaded with spices. From there, the Trinidad sailed east to return across the Pacific, while the Victoria continued west around Africa.

The Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese, but the Victoria managed to return to Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, completing the first ever circumnavigation of the globe. Fewer than 20 of the original crewmembers survived the three-year voyage.

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