It was the 16th Century’s equivalent of the Apollo 11 moon landing. On Sept. 20, 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan left Sanlucar de Barrameda on the southwest coast of Spain with five small ships and 270 men in what became the first circumnavigation of the globe.
Only one ship and 18 members of the original crew returned, the expedition’s commander long dead, docking in Spain almost exactly three years later on Sept. 6, 1522.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego recognized the monumental voyage with a special lecture Friday night aboard the steam ferry Berkeley.
“For the first time, all the world was linked by the oceans and the multitude of ‘world systems’ began inexorably to merge into one,” said Dr. Raymond Ashley, president and CEO of the museum.
“Over the last half millennium, the entirety of the modern world unfolded and with it the greatest movement of peoples, ideas, plants, animals, germs, languages, beliefs, technologies, and power—most of it across oceans—that has ever taken place,” he said.
It was an unimaginably difficult voyage, pushing the limits of that era’s maritime technology and human endurance, and fraught with discontent, factions and mutinies.
“This is an inspirational story, but it’s also a pretty dark, grim story,” said Ashley.
The Spanish and Portuguese explorers weren’t worried that the world was flat and they would fall off an edge, but they didn’t know how large it was and whether they could cross the oceans without starving.
They were driven not by a desire to explore, but a lust for profit. Their objective was a faster, cheaper route to the spice islands of what is now Indonesia, the source of the nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves that made European food palatable.
All five ships reached the coast of what is now Brazil in late November, sailed south along the coast and spent the southern hemisphere winter off what is now Argentina.
Magellan had to quell a mutiny, and one ship was lost, before the four remaining vessels set off in October 1520 on a seven-month-long search for the passage at the tip of South America that we now call the Strait of Magellan. During the search, the crew of one ship mutinied and headed back to Spain.
But they found the passage, and Magellan thought it would now to be a short sail to the spice islands.
“What he didn’t realize was that he has to cross half the world,” said Ashley.
Four months later, in March 1521, with the crew suffering from scurvy, the three remaining ships arrived in the Philippines. A month later, Magellan was killed in a battle with natives, as were dozens of his men. They abandoned and burned one of their three ships because they now lacked the manpower to sail it.
The two remaining ships headed for the spice islands, now known as the Moluccas, and reached them in November. After loading the valuable cargo, the smallest, the Victoria, headed for the Indian Ocean, while the other remained for repairs, then attempted to return to Spain in the opposition direction, ultimately being wrecked.
In the end the tiny Victoria, the smallest ship of the original five, sailed around Africa and returned to Spain under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano.
“It circumnavigated the world, sailing more than 60,000 miles,” said Ashley, signalling the “advent of an oceanic humanity” and forever changing the world.
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