On September 20, 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out with five ships, a crew of about 700 mariners and two years’ worth of supplies to find a spice route to Asia by sailing west.
Magellan was Portuguese – his name was actually Fernão de Magalhães – but he’d fallen out of favor in Portugal and so gone to work for the king of Spain. (There he was called Fernando de Magallanes.) Since the Portuguese controlled the eastern spice routes by treaty, Spain was eager to find a way west.
Columbus had made it clear there was something between Spain and India thirty years earlier and only six years before, Balboa had made it to the edge of the Pacific. A western route looked increasingly possible.
The little fleet spent the fall and winter sailing down the coast of South America. A mutiny broke out in April and two captains had to be executed and marooned, respectively. It took all summer to get down to Tierra del Fuego, by which time one ship had been lost and another deserted and returned to Spain.
On November 1, 1520, three little ships sailed through All Saints Channel – his name for it because of the date, but what soon was called the Strait of Magellan. At the end of the month they entered the South Pacific.
By spring they had reached the Phillippines, where on one island they were welcomed, though not so much on others. Magellan got involved in a local feud and was killed in a battle on the island of Mactan on April 27, 1521.
With only enough crew to man two ships, the third was abandoned and the Victoria and the Trinidad set off. They reached the Spice Islands in the fall, but the Trinidad sprang a leak that could not be fixed. Finally. loaded with precious cloves and other spices, the Victoria sailed on across the Indian Ocean under Captain Juan Sebastian Elcano.
The Victoria reached Cape Verde in May, finally arriving in Spain in September of 1522, three years after leaving. During the last few weeks of the voyage, they had no food but a little rice and twenty crewmen died.
Magellan had never intended to circumnavigate the globe, only to find a western route to Asia, It’s possible he’d have turned around and gone back the same way he came, but Juan Elcano made a different choice. Four years later, Elcano was part of a second expedition sent to the Spice Islands – he, along with several others, died of malnutrition in the Pacific.