What you probably didn’t know about Magellan’s journey

Get the facts straight about the first recorded voyage around the world

EXPLORER EXTRAORDINAIRE Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan

We all know Ferdinand Magellan as the first-ever explorer to travel around the globe. But do we really know his story? In commemoration of the 500th year since Magellan successfully circumnavigated the earth, here are some of the truths pieced together from existing books, studies, and accounts behind the conquest.

Believe it or not, Portugal and Spain have been long-time rivals even way before football. In the 15th century, spices like nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and black pepper were the epicenter of the world economy, like oil is today, and so, he who controlled the spice controlled the world. This was the reason the two countries were competing for spice monopoly. To reach the source of the hot commodity, the Spice Islands, traders would sail eastward.

Enter Fernão de Magalhães, a Portuguese navigator who at that point in time seemed to have been in a rebellious phase. He was the only seafarer smart—or crazy—enough to go in the opposite direction. Because why use the easy route when you can take the long way and traverse dangerous and uncharted waters, right? The answer lies in 1494’s Treaty of Tordesillas, a decree from Pope Alexander VI that basically divided the world in half between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish were desperate to find an alternate path considering the agreement placed the more practical eastern route under Portuguese control.

OCCEAN MADNESS An artwork showing Magellan's crew swearing allegiance to him after an unsuccessful mutiny (Photo by Stefano Bianche)

But then why did a Portuguese man represent Spain? Let’s just say 1513 was not a lucky year for Fernão. Aside from receiving a permanent limp that he had to live with for the rest of his life after a battle in Morocco, he was also accused of stealing. Although proven innocent of theft, his reputation had already been ruined. Upon returning to his home country, he petitioned three times to Portuguese King Manuel I to explore the west, however, not once was he allowed to do so. Fernão also asked the king to give him a raise, 3/4th increase of his Moradia (allowance) that he was also denied of. This was when he decided to move to Spain becoming Fernando de Magallanes. In Valladolid, he met with Spanish King Charles I who agreed to sponsor his voyage.

Note: The English translation and most recognizable version of his name is Magellan, which we will be using moving forward.

It was on September of 1519 when Magellan set sail to Eastern Asia. The fleet he commanded, the Armada de Moluccas, consisted of over 270 men and five ships namely the Trinidad (of which he rode and captained), the Santiago, the Victoria, the Concepcion, and the San Antonio. On his expedition, he had gone through the All Saints' Channel, now called the Straits of Magellan. He also entered into what was back then a new ocean that he named the Pacifico, meaning peaceful, now the Pacific Ocean. On March 16, 1521, Magellan reached the Philippines.

BOAT LIFE A replica of the Nao Trinidad, the vessel that Magellan sailed on

While it was not an official part of his mission, Magellan, a staunch evangelist, took great pains to convert all the indigenous peoples he encountered to Christianity. As a matter of fact, because of him, the first mass took place in the country on March 31, held in Mazaua, Southern Leyte.

With the aid of Rajah Kolambu, Magellan reached Cebu on April 7. On April 27, Magellan was embroiled in the rivalry between Raja Humabon and Datu Lapu-Lapu, meeting his end after being shot by a poison arrow from a skirmish against the men of the latter in what is now known as the battle of Mactan.

After his death, the last of Magellan’s men continued the excursion on the remaining ship, the Victoria, captained by a Basque sailor, Juan Sebastian Elcano. They managed to return to Spain in September 1522, and along the way mapped new routes for European trade, and set the stage for modern globalism.

UNEARTHING WHAT WAS NOT TAUGHT IN SCHOOL Dr. Penélope Flores Ph.D., former Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University

These are just some of the things taught to us in school. But there is more to the odyssey than what is written in our textbooks.

Magellan’s servant was brought to Portugal, and was later able to go to the Philippines, Malacca, and back to Spain via the returning Victoria. The first one to physically circumnavigate the world was therefore the brown Malay man Enrique.

One of the biggest revelations as discussed in an article by Dr. Penélope Flores, Ph.D., former Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University, is the existence of Enrique de Malacca, Magellan’s most vital resource in his exploit. The story goes that in the early 1511 Magellan helped invade the port city of Malacca and acquired the 16-year-old Malayan (Sumatran) slave Enrique. It is assumed that Enrique’s fluency in the Malay language and his skills as an interpreter was a major factor that made the king of Spain agree to fund the venture.

SLAVE OR PIONEER? The Malay slave Enrique de Malacca

Some historians deduce that Enrique, who was able to speak Cebuano, must have been Filipino. Others speculate that at the time, Malay was the lingua franca in the entire Southeast Asia. The Malay is richly cognate with the Visayan dialect.

On the issue of Magellan being declared posthumously as the first to circumnavigate the world, renowned author and National Artist F. Sionil José, Philippine biographer and historian Carlos Quirino, academician Dr. Penélope, and many other scholars and historians believe that the accolade rightfully belongs to Enrique.

Magellan’s servant was brought to Portugal, and was later able to go to the Philippines, Malacca, and back to Spain via the returning Victoria. The first one to physically circumnavigate the world was therefore the brown Malay man Enrique.