With supersonic air travel, it takes less than three days to travel around the world. Five hundred years ago, it took three years.
When Ferdinand Magellan left Spain in 1519, he embarked on an adventure that was rife with danger and uncertainty. His flagship, if you can call it that, was a mere 75 feet long and had room for just over 60 people. He had no map and would be guided primarily by a crude form of celestial navigation. In reality, his destination was undetermined.
But, his ultimate goal was to discover a better, faster, and shorter trade route.
Not content to accept his place in life, Magellan was ambitious and yearned to become important by achieving what many believed was impossible. He also wanted to confirm his own conviction that such a trade route existed. In many ways, he was akin to a test pilot who wanted to attempt something that couldn’t be proven on paper. When his plan was rejected by his native Portugal, he sought financial backing from Spain, but accepting such largesse required him to renounce his citizenship.
Five hundred years ago, there were two spheres of influence in the world, Spain and Portugal. They vied with each other over any number of issues, but the most critical battle was over conquest, trade, and bringing wealth home to the mother country. So powerful were these two countries that to prevent conflict, the Pope intervened and divided the world outside of Europe between them.
The Treaty of Tordesillas created the famous Line of Demarcation. This line allowed Spain the lands to the west of it and Portugal the lands to the east. But, in addition to allocating land for colonies, the line also sanctioned trade routes. Even from its native ports, Spain would need to sail west toward the Americas and Portugal east.
Before the Spanish fully exploited Columbus’ conquest and found the gold that animated further expeditions, the main commodities were spices. And the spices so much in demand were confined to an area in the South Pacific. But with Portugal controlling trade to the East, Spain could not sail around Africa and would need to find a western route.
Magellan understood this uncharted territory. When he proposed a voyage around the globe, the King of Spain jumped on the chance to support this mission. He would underwrite the cost, knowing that if Spain could find a shorter route, then it could dominate the spice trade.
Thus, a trade war began that focused not on prices, but on transportation.
Magellan was uniquely qualified for such an expedition. His prior service to Portugal had placed him in the very thick of naval warfare and foreign conquest. He was involved in a number of significant battles in both the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, and each of these battles involved trade and exploiting the wealth of other countries.
In short, Magellan knew how to sail, and he knew how to fight. Plus, he understood that the primary reason for sailing and fighting was to acquire territory that contained natural resources, which could be traded with other nations. He also learned that trade was the key to personal financial success and to the growth of his country.
While others might be content with rural subsistence, Magellan and his ilk were motivated by more. His experience showed him there was a vast, unexplored world with countless riches, but the resources needed to find these new sources of wealth could only come from a sovereign. In this case, King Charles of Spain had not only the financial resources and ambition, but also a vision of colonized trade
It was a risky endeavor to support Magellan’s expedition. It is hard to imagine proposing a trip with no exact destination and no idea of the material requirements based simply upon the hunch that the reward would be great enough to make the risk acceptable. If there was a manual for best practices, this certainly was not it.
It is easy to take Magellan’s work for granted and write him off in unflattering terms. Yes, he had an ego; sure, he was a ruthless leader; and, of course, his means of conquest were brutal. But, 500 years ago that was reality.
Sailing in the expanse of the ocean was not for the faint of heart, and not seeing land or familiar landmarks would stir fears in anyone. Every conceivable terror would be conjured by the darkness of night. Others would turn back, and some mutinied, but Magellan was unwavering. His belief in success was so strong that he pushed day after day, until finally he found what he was looking for - a westward path from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
In his little 75-foot ship, he managed to navigate around South America. Other ships that sailed with him were lost, and a number of his crew died from illness. A few days prior to his discovery of the route, some would even turn back. The route would carry his name as the Straits of Magellan, and a once uncertain passage would become a routine course of travel and trade. But he was the first, and with all his faults, his courage never failed nor his belief in himself and in a fundamental view of how the earth was comprised of land and ocean convinced him that he was correct.
Regrettably, Magellan would not live to see his home again. He would die in a battle in the Philippines against natives interested in neither conquest nor trade. Eighteen of his crew would survive the ordeal, and 500 years ago this month, they arrived back in Spain.
But, with Magellan dead and with fame on the line, none of the survivors wanted to give him credit. They desired the wealth for themselves. But at least one survivor would remember Magellan. Antonio Pigafetta kept a diary of the entire journey, and the later publication of his eyewitness testimony rehabilitated Magellan’s reputation while also crediting him with the leadership, motivation, and skill to circumnavigate the globe.
Five centuries ago, Magellan’s discovery was a critical step in human exploration and one reason why the sixteenth century would become known as the “Golden Age of Spain.”
Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org