In September 1519, five ships manned by 250 sailors left Spain to the thunderous salutes of cannon. Magellan’s ship took the lead. “Follow my flag by day and my lantern by night,” he ordered the other captains. The expedition crossed the Atlantic Ocean and probed the coast of Brazil, searching for a passage.
But the coastline, thick with jungle, stretched southward without break. As they continued south, ice formed on the rigging, and the crew began to mutter among themselves that the voyage was doomed. Some men rebelled. Magellan crushed the mutiny and refused to turn back. For six months during the winter (which lasts from May to October in the Southern Hemisphere), the miserable crew huddled together on the southern tip of Argentina.
In November 1520, the ships finally rounded the tip of South America and entered a new body of water. Magellan, marveling at the calm waters, called it the Pacific, meaning “peaceful.” By this time, only three of the five ships remained. One had been wrecked and the other had fled home.
For the next two months, the three ships sailed across the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Food ran dangerously low and the sailors began to starve and die from disease. Finally, after 97 days, the ships landed on Guam, where the crew eagerly feasted on fresh fruits and meat.
On April 27, 1521, Magellan led a party ashore on the Philippines and was ambushed by warriors. As the men scrambled back to the ships, Magellan was struck down and killed. Mourning their fallen leader, the surviving sailors burned one ship and continued on in the remaining two. But one ship began to split apart and was left behind for repairs.
The sole surviving ship and crew continued on to Africa, rounded the southern tip of the great continent, and arrived in Spain on September 8, 1522. The Spanish were shocked by the arrival, almost three years after the voyage began. Of the 250 men who began the voyage, only 18 gaunt survivors returned.
The Spanish king honored the surviving captain, Juan Sebastian del Cano, as the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But many historians say that Magellan, who had previously voyaged to the Indies, was indeed the first man to circle the globe.
Ferdinand Magellan is credited as the first man to circumnavigate the world. However, his death in the Philippines during the expedition meant that he never enjoyed the glory of his achievement.