Tales from the road

500 years on: the world's first circumnavigation in 500 words

Pothole article magellan circumnavigation

It was an age of discovery. Of new frontiers. Of colonisation, monopolies and religious indoctrination. Lines drawn across the high seas - voyages into the Asian unknown, riches beyond the imagination.

1488, Portugal jumped first, wind and currents carrying Bartolomeu Dias south round the bottom of Africa. The passage east was open. Great wealth lay in wait.

1492, Columbus went west. A Genovese sailing for the Spanish, to the Spice Islands he thought. To the Caribbean in reality. He went again, and again. And again. Each time trade winds butted him into the same islands, and a river delta in Venezuela.

A New World. But not Asia.

Baton back to Portugal. Vasco de Gama into the hot seat. He slipped past the Cape of Good Hope and battled across the Indian Ocean. To the victor, the spoils.

Amerigo Vespucci gave Columbus' new continent a name and form. The world map was starting to take shape. To the east, Africa. West... America. First to the Spice Islands wins. The Pope drew a line down the globe and through Brazil with The Treaty of Tordesillas. Stage set.

Enter Fernão de Magalhães. Ferdinand Magellan to you and me. Sights set on that westward passage. A Portuguese mariner and soldier, of note and notoriety - hero turned villain to King Manuel I. Just like Columbus, Portugal's reject became Spain's great hope.

20th September 1519. Magellan, five ships and 270 men set sail from wealthy Seville. Treachery detected, the Portuguese pursued to no avail.

The convoy reached Rio, long before it was a Marvellous City. They bounced downwards between river mouths as latitudes ticked upwards. In Patagonia they weighed anchor, storm clouds overhead and on deck - a Castilian mutiny at hand. Magellan stood firm; two captains killed, two left behind.

Five carracks became four when Santiago sank, three when San Antonio fled for home. Magellan pushed on, plotting a course through the straits that would soon bear his name. He found a sea so calm he called it Mar Pacifico. Uncharted waters - the other side of America.

99 days of water ahead. Scurvy and starvation caused numbers to dwindle. At Guam Magellan found little favour. At Cebu, better luck. His Malay slave put to translating. Common ground found, trades were made. Food aplenty.

A clan leader converted to Christianity. Another refused. A foolhardy battle left Magellan wounded. Mortally so. The fleet lost its captain. Concepción was torched and two ships sailed on.

Two years on from departure, the promised land at last. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. Gold in spice form. Mission accomplished.

Trinidad sprang a leak, lost to history. Victoria, homeward bound, crossed an ocean and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. 8th September 1522 - one little ship and its 18 men sailed triumphantly into Seville. Captain Elcano took the acclaim.

Expedition complete - the world was round, the seas were vast, the riches lay east and west. A feat not repeated for six decades, when Drake went on a mission for the Queen.

An age of discovery indeed.

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