Biography of Ferdinand Magellan Through 10 Interesting Facts


Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães in Portuguese and Fernando de Magallanes in Spanish) was a Portuguese explorer who is famous for co-leading the first circumnavigation of the earth. Magellan spent his early career in Asia where he fought several battles for his native country. However, after he fell out of favour with King Manuel I of Portugal, Magellan decided to shift his allegiance to Spain. Spanish king Charles I agreed to sponsor his ambitious expedition and Magellan set sail from Spain in 1519 on would go on to be a historic journey. He became the first man to reach Asia by sailing west from Europe but couldn’t complete the circumnavigation as he died during a battle against the ruler of the Philippine island of Mactan. Magellan is one of the most renowned explorers in history and an iconic figure in the field of navigation. Know about his family, life, expedition and death through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 His parents died when he was a kid and he served as a page in Queen Leonor’s court

Ferdinand Magellan was born c. 1480 in northern Portugal either at Gaia in Porto District, or at Sabrosa in Vila Real District. He was the son of Rodrigo de Magalhães and his wife Alda de Mesquita. His parents were members of minor Portuguese nobility. Ferdinand’s parents died when he was only 10 years old and two years later Ferdinand moved to the Portuguese capital Lisbon to serve as a page at the court of Queen Leonor, wife of King John II of Portugal. Here he was educated at the Queen’s School of Pages. While at the court, Ferdinand developed an interest in cartography, astronomy and sea exploration.

Leonor of Viseu
Leonor of Viseu – In whose court Magellan served as a page


#2 Magellan participated in important battles for Portugal during his early career

In March 1505, Magellan enlisted in a fleet of 22 ships heading for India. Trade with the east was crucial for western economy and Portugal, at that time, was trying to establish a presence in India. Magellan spent most of his early career in the east and it was during this period that he acquired invaluable knowledge regarding navigation. Magellan participated in several battles for Portugal against Indian kings including the Battle of Cannanore in 1506 and the Battle of Diu in 1509. He was also part of an expedition to the city-state of Malacca in present day Malaysia. Here he played a crucial role by warning the commander of impeding attacks by Malays and saving the life of Francisco Serrão, who was his close friend and possibly a cousin. In 1511, Magellan participated in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca under famous general Afonso de Albuquerque.

Portrait of Afonso de Albuquerque
Afonso de Albuquerque – Famous Portuguese general who led the Conquest of Malacca


#3 He shifted his allegiance to Spain after being repeatedly denied by King Manuel I of Portugal

Following the Portuguese conquest of Malacca, Magellan was promoted and given a share of the rich plunder. He then did military service in Morocco and during a skirmish in August 1513, he sustained a leg wound that caused him to limp for the rest of his life. Due to reports of irregular conduct on his part and accusations of trading illegally with the moors, Magellan fell out of favor with King Manuel I of Portugal. On three separate occasions the king rejected Magellan’s proposal of finding a new water route to the Spice Islands (Maluku Islands in modern Indonesia). There was great rivalry between Portugal and Spain for the dominance of the spice trade and Magellan left his native country for Spain; arriving in Seville on October 20, 1517.

King Manuel I of Portugal
King Manuel I of Portugal


#4 He married the daughter of Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa

Soon after arriving in Seville, Magellan became friends with his countryman, the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa who had also traveled to India. In 1516, Barbosa had written the Book of Duarte Barbosa (Livro de Duarte Barbosa), one of the earliest examples of Portuguese travel literature. He later accompanied Magellan in the famous expedition which would go on to circumnavigate the earth. In December 1517, Ferdinand Magellan married María Caldera Beatriz Barbosa, daughter of Barbosa from his second wife. The couple had two children named Rodrigo and Carlos; both of whom were to die at a young age. Magellan’s wife Beatriz died in Seville around 1521. Thus his wife and children were dead before the circumnavigation of the earth was complete.

Ferdinand Magellan
Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan


#5 Magellan’s expedition was financed by Charles I, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the two countries. It set a line of demarcation; the east of it belonged to Portugal while the west belonged to Spain. The treaty reserved for Portugal eastern routes to Asia; and Spain desperately needed a new commercial route to the continent. In 1518, the Spanish Empire was ruled by 18-year old Charles I, who was new to the throne; and eager for fame, glory and finances to become the next Holy Roman Emperor. Magellan presented a proposal to Charles I by which he would find a route to the Spice Islands by sailing westward. Magellan’s proposal was granted royal consent in March 1518. Among other things, the emperor promised Magellan a monopoly of the discovered route for 10 years and a fifth of the riches obtained on the voyage.


#6 The Portuguese king send ships to capture him when his expedition began

In August 1519, Magellan left Seville with around 270 men and five ships named Trinidad (commanded by Magellan), San Antonio, Victoria, Concepcion and Santiago. The Spanish authorities were wary of Magellan as he was a Portuguese. They replaced his mostly Portuguese crew with men from Spain. Apart from Spanish and around 40 Portuguese, the crew also included men from Greece, Sicily, England, France, Germany and even North Africa. Magellan’s historic expedition set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain on 20th September 1519. King Manuel I of Portugal, who had previously tried to disrupt Magellan’s preparations, ordered a Portuguese naval detachment to pursue Magellan’s fleet in the hope of capturing the navigator. However, Magellan was able to evade the Portuguese ships.

5 ships of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition
Depiction of the five ships of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition


#7 He crushed a mutiny by 3 of his 5 ships during the early phase of his expedition

On December 13, 1519, the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan entered the bay of Rio de Janeiro in present day Brazil. His Spanish crew resented being led by a Portuguese captain. Soon a mutiny broke out which involved three of the five ship captains. Magellan took quick and decisive action. He sent a party which killed Luis de Mendoza, the captain of Victoria, and recovered the ship. Concepcion was forced to surrender by the well armed Trinidad and soon the head of the mutineers on San Antonio, Juan de Cartagena, also capitulated. The captain of Concepcion, along with several mutineers, were executed; while Juan de Cartagena was left to die on an island off the Patagonian coast, along with another man. On 21st October 1520, Magellan found the passage to the Pacific Ocean he was looking for. It is now known as the Strait of Magellan. He then navigated through the strait becoming the first European to do so.

Strait of Magellan or Estrecho de Magallanes
Strait of Magellan or Estrecho de Magallanes – At South America’s southern tip


#8 Magellan was the first European to cross the Pacific and find a westward route to Asia

On reaching the other side of the Strait of Magellan, Ferdinand named the vast ocean Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean) for its apparent peacefulness in comparison to the difficult waters of the strait. Magellan had expected the trip across the Pacific to be rapid as no one in Europe knew the vastness of the ocean. It took 99 days for his fleet to cross the Pacific. During the trip his men had to ultimately eat rats, sawdust and leather to survive. Many of them starved to death or died of scurvy. On March 6, 1521, Magellan’s fleet made landfall at Guam in the Mariana Islands. They became the first Europeans to cross the Pacific. Magellan thus succeeded in finding a westward route to Asia, the task in which Columbus and others had failed. On March 16, his 150 surviving crew members reached the island of Homonhon in present day Philippines becoming the first Europeans to reach the Philippine archipelago.

Map of the first world circumnavigation
Map of the first world circumnavigation under Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano


#9 Ferdinand Magellan was killed in a battle in the present day City of Lapu-Lapu in Philippines

Death of Ferdinand Magellan
Depiction of the Death of Ferdinand Magellan

Magellan was a staunch Christian and attempted to convert all the indigenous people he encountered to Christianity. In Philippines, he baptized King Humabon of Cebu along with many of his subjects. However, the chieftain of Mactan Island, Lapu-Lapu refused to convert. On 27th April 1521, Magellan sailed to Mactan with 49 men to force Lapu-Lapu to convert to Christianity. During the ensuing battle, Magellan was struck by a bamboo spear, and later surrounded and finished off with other weapons by Lapu-Lapu’s troops. Modern Philippine society regards Lapu-Lapu as a hero for resisting Spanish colonization. After Magellan’s death, his expedition went on to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe under the command of Spanish explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano. 18 of the original 270 men on the ship Victoria arrived at Spain on September 6, 1522 to complete the circumnavigation, around 3 years after they had set sail on 20th September 1519.

#10 Two craters on moon and one on mars are named after him

Magellan was undoubtedly one of the greatest European sailors of his time whose path-breaking voyage contributed immensely to the Age of Exploration. Among the numerous contributions of Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation was that it provided empirical evidence that the earth was spherical and revealed to European scholars the true size of the planet. For centuries after Magellan’s death, Portuguese historians disregarded his contributions as they considered him a traitor, while the Spanish only highlighted the achievements of the Spanish explorer Elcano. However, later Magellan was given credit for his enormous contributions. Many things are now named after him including two of the closest galaxies which were observed during his expedition; two craters on the Moon and one on Mars; a railcar which served as the Presidential Rail Car in US; and a spacecraft launched by NASA in 1989.

1 thought on “Biography of Ferdinand Magellan Through 10 Interesting Facts”

  1. The most difficult obstacle for Fernão de Magalhães (Magellan) to surpass was not the ocean or the strong winds. It was the Spanish mutineers paranoia and jealousy, just because he was Portuguese and had been ordered by the King of Spain to command the expedition


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