How did the Portuguese come to the Moluccas

Ferdinand Magellan The discovery of the Strait of Magellan


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The Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan sailed to where the pepper grows. In 1520, while sailing around the world, he discovered a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific: the Strait of Magellan, named after him. His adventure was his undoing on April 27, 1521.

By: Alexandra Klockau / Dorit Kreissl

As of: 04/26/2021

500 years ago, cloves, nutmeg and pepper were very popular. The Portuguese knight and navigator Ferdinand Magellan was therefore drawn to where the pepper grows: to the Indonesian archipelago of the Moluccas, the Spice Islands. On August 10, 1519, the Portuguese, who was in Spanish service, started his largest, most dramatic and last undertaking. He also wanted to prove that the earth is round, which only a small part of the crew experienced.

Ferdinand Magellan is supposed to give Spain a head start

Since Christopher Columbus' voyage to America in 1492/93 and the sea route around Africa to India discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1498, Spain and Portugal competed for overseas territories and raw materials. 1494 was with the blessing of Pope Alexander VI. the Treaty of Tordesillas concluded: It awarded the Spanish the western part of the then known world, the Portuguese the eastern part. Means: The eastern route was blocked by the Portuguese, the Spaniards only had the sea route to the west. Magellan was therefore on the instruction of the Spanish King Charles I "in the areas that belong to us and that are ours in the ocean" to push for new shores, discover spice deposits, "and other things, with which we are very useful and from which these our empires will be of great benefit ".

Magellan's task is to find out: Was the earth flat - or was it round?

Magellan's mission was none other than to circumnavigate the American continent and reach the Far East via completely unknown waters through the back door, which the Portuguese had targeted by sea around Africa. This could only work if the earth was actually round and not a disk. However, it was not entirely certain that the ships would not plunge into the abyss on the western edge. Magellan himself was confident that he would find the western sea route to the Moluccas. The Spanish crown equipped his expedition and, as a reward, promised him part of the riches he brought back from his journey.

"He was definitely not one of those warhorses with whom explorers and conquerors are often associated today. He enjoyed a certain education, was a squire at the court of the Portuguese king, and also had a certain interest in foreign cultures. What now does not mean that he was not entirely violent as a captain. So a certain authority and violence was certainly also his own, but also a positive spirit of discovery. "

Georg Jochum, sociologist, Technical University of Munich

More than 230 men set off into the unknown with Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan (1485-1521)

The scion of an impoverished aristocratic family, Ferdinand Magellan (actually Fernão de Magalhães) set sail in 1519 at the age of almost forty. His fleet included five ships - the flagship Trinidad, the San Antonio, the Victoria, the Concepción and the Santiago - with a crew of 237 men. The ships started from Seville on August 10, 1519 and went down the Guadalquivir to the mouth of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. On September 20, 1519, the fleet was finally fully loaded and ready to go, and the journey into the unknown began.

"The ships of discovery were rather small, and therefore agile, and could also enter smaller bays. They were relatively fast for the conditions at the time. With Columbus, the main speed is indicated as twelve knots, that is more than 22 kilometers an hour, which is at least was enough for long journeys. "

Georg Jochum, sociologist, Technical University of Munich

Magellan wants to trade bad knives from Germany

The ships were equipped with weapons, gunpowder, wine, live cows and pigs, garlic, rusks, legumes and raisins, among other things. The provisions were laid out for two years. Cloths, hats, combs, fishhooks, bells, glass beads and around "four hundred dozen knives of the worst kind from Germany", as Christian Jostmann writes in "Magellan or The First Circumnavigation of the Earth", were provided for swapping. Rat traps, urinals, missal books and altar cloths were also deemed necessary.

Magellan sails from Brazil to Patagonia - including mutiny

The fleet passed the equator and headed for Brazil first. Magellan hoped in vain to find a passage in the ramified Rio de la Plata. The expedition reached the southern tip of what is now Patagonia, where it was forced to hibernate in the bitter cold. Because the loner Magellan spoke too little to his hungry, exhausted and increasingly demotivated team, the Spaniards suspected the Portuguese of secretly spying for his home country. Three of the captains subordinate to him rebelled and wanted to murder their captain general. However, the conspiracy was exposed and the ringleaders quartered, stabbed to death or abandoned in Patagonia.

Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific discovered: Strait of Magellan

After the freezing winter, Magellan continued looking for a passage. The Santiago was shipwrecked. The reduced fleet sailed on and on October 21, 1520 sighted a cape near the 52nd parallel, which was christened "Cape of the Virgins". Magellan sent the San Antonio and the Concepción to explore the bay beyond. Because a storm was approaching, the ships could not turn back and had to drift further into the branched interior. They discovered an opening into which they could run. In fact, it was the passage we were looking for from the Atlantic to the Pacific! It was named "Strait of Magellan" in honor of Magellan.

Magellan's crew must eat leather

On November 1, 1520, the whole fleet ventured into the treacherous strait. Magellan neatly maneuvered her through the maze. However, the crew of the San Antonio deserted in the meantime and returned to Spain, the fleet thereby lost its largest supplies. After the passage, the remaining crew, marked by hunger, thirst and scurvy, crossed the Pacific for four months. "In order not to starve to death, we ate the leather with which the large yard was wrapped to protect the ropes," wrote Antonio Pigafetta in his eyewitness report.

Ferdinand Magellan is killed on April 27, 1521 in the Philippines

In March 1521, the men finally landed in the Philippines. However, the planned takeover, including the Christian missionary work of the Filipinos, failed. Chief Cilapulapu from the island of Mactan refused to recognize the power of the King of Spain and refused to proselytize. Magellan ordered the fight, but he underestimated the locals: the around 60 men who disembarked with him equipped with heavy armor, swords and lances were faced with around 1,500 islanders with arrows, stakes and lumps of earth. Many crew members - including Magellan himself - were killed on April 27, 1521 in the erupting chaos.

Juan Sebastián del Cano succeeds Captain General Ferdinand Magellan

After the lost fight and due to previous losses, the team was now only about 115 men strong. There were not enough forces to maneuver the remaining ships. The Concepción was given up because of all ships in the worst condition. The Trinidad and the Victoria sailed on. The new captain was Juan Sebastián del Cano, a simple boatswain. He steered the two ships towards the Moluccas via Borneo. About six months after Magellan's death, on November 8, 1521, they arrived at the Spice Islands. The men could fill the holds with dozens of hundredweight of spices, mostly cloves and pepper.

Only sailing ship Victoria returns to Spain

But when the team wanted to leave, the Trinidad leaked and had to stay on the Spice Islands. Later, the Portuguese, who had also set out, confiscated the ship and its cargo and took the crew prisoner. Only one ship, the Victoria, returned across the Indian Ocean, around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, back to Spain, to the port of departure at Sanlúcar. After almost three years and more than 46,000 nautical miles, on September 6, 1522 there were no more than 20 of the originally more than 230 men left.

Spain is making a profit thanks to the spices

Upon arrival, Spain celebrated the first circumnavigation of the world - and Captain del Cano, who was officially appointed captain and knighted. The spices brought with them brought in a substantial profit: "The cloves that are brought back even have a value that is roughly just above the cost of the entire expedition - that is, commercially a profit of around five to ten percent," reports the sociologist Georg Jochum. The team lost almost 90 percent, "but from a purely economic point of view it is of secondary importance".

"And in that sense, economic globalization begins here. The processes that follow later are ultimately based on this journey."

Georg Jochum, sociologist, Technical University of Munich

In 1914 the Panama Canal replaced the Strait of Magellan

Many subsequent ships failed because of the difficult passage of the Strait of Magellan. But especially in the 19th century it became an important trade route. It was not replaced by the Panama Canal until 1914. Today the 570 kilometer long strait with its many islands and branches in the south of Chile is a natural paradise.

Magellan as a pioneer of globalization

Ferdinand Magellan is now regarded as a pioneer of globalization. The first historically documented circumnavigation of the world finally proved that the earth is round and not flat. Thanks to the expedition, it was possible to create improved maps that were still used by many subsequent seafarers. At that time, however, the great fame was not bestowed on Magellan, but on Juan Sebastián del Cano, who successfully completed the project.

Literature tips

  • Christian Jostmann: Magellan or The First Circumnavigation of the Earth, C. H. Beck, Munich 2019.
  • Antonio Pigafetta: Around the Earth with Magellan - An eyewitness report of the first circumnavigation, Römerweg GmbH, Wiesbaden 2009.
  • Stefan Zweig: Magellan - The man and his act: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt 1983.

The navigator Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus was actually called Cristoforo Colombo. Cristoforo Colombo was Italian: he was born in Genoa in 1451. Like his father, he became a woolen weaver. He is said to have lived in this house in Genoa as a child.