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Magellan’s Fatal Voyage

The renegade Portuguese explorer masterminded a Spanish expedition that completed the first circuit of Earth, although it cost him his life. Pat Kinsella tells the tale of a triumph beset by mutiny, malnutrition and disaster
Magellan discovered the elusive passage that now bears his name, but it was too far south - and far too perilous - to be of practical use to traders
ALAMY X1, GETTY IMAGES X1

If all had gone to plan during Ferdinand Magellan’s life-defining expedition, almost no one would know his name now. As it happened, everything went disastrously wrong for the Portuguese sea captain, yet he has gone down in history as the first explorer to circumnavigate the planet, even though he died in the middle of the journey.

Magellan did, however, become the first European to lead a voyage into the Pacific Ocean - although future sailors would regularly raise alarmed eyebrows at the name he bequeathed to it. The expedition he led (or at least one of the five ships that set out from Spain in 1519) performed the first known complete loop of the globe.

Although Magellan could never have predicted the extraordinary events that would follow perhaps the thought of reputational immortality would have provided the 41-year-old with a crumb of comfort on 27 April 1521, as he floundered in the shallows of a beach on the island of Mactan in the Philippines, mortally injured and weighed down by his armour.

He had been identified as the leader of the invading alien force by the enraged warriors of island chief Lapu-Lapu, and was about to suffer a pointless and wholly avoidable death after his ill-advised show of military might spectacularly backfired.

Magellan’s final moments were frenzied and violent. But if he hadn’t made the fateful decision to lead a small force against a defending army of 1,500 battle-ready men, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been remembered as one of the greatest explorers of his era.

DISCOVERY CHANNEL

A child of the Great Age of Discovery when the Iberian powerhouses of Portugal and Spain were sending ships into the great unknown, expanding European knowledge of the globe in pursuit of spices and treasure, Magellan would end his life in the service of his own country’s greatest rival.

Born into an aristocratic Portuguese family in 1480, Magellan was orphaned as a young boy and at the age of 12 he entered the royal court in Lisbon as a page of Eleanor of Viseu, consort of King John II. Thirteen years later, he enlisted in the fleet of the Portuguese viceroy to the Indies and spent seven years learning the ropes of his future career during action-packed voyages in Asia and Africa.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

He allegedly stole from the rich to give to the poor, wore Lincoln green and shot arrows with astonishing. But did Robin Hood actually exist? We take a closer look at the enigmatic hero and some of the medieval outlaws who may have inspired his legend Plus: The Jazz Age superstar turned French Resistance agent, Magellan’s circumnavigation of the Earth, when classified ads were front page news, three-day countdown to WWII, plus the definitive A-Z of gangs and gangsters