Maritime Topics on Stamps :


the first complete
Circumnavigation of the World


Ferdinand Magellan, in Portuguese Fernăo de Magelhăes, in Spanish Fernando de Magellanes was born in 1480 in Sabrosa, Portugal and died am 27. April 1521 on the island of Mactan, Philippines.
At the age of 12 he and his brother became pages at the court of Lisbon. He finished a military education with the rank of "Knappe" in 1496.
1505 he was sent to India, where he participated in military raids and was honored for saving a human life and suppressing a mutiny. The next year he joined an expedition to the Spice Islands. In 1510 finally he advanced to captain.

However only a little later he lost his captain's patent again, because he did not stay with the fleet, but secretly stole himself away and continued sailing east. Under Alfonso de Albuquerque he took part in the siege of the port of Malacca in today's Malaysia.
1513, back in Portugal, he was sent to Morocco and fought in the battle of Azamor. On the side he made illegal deals with Moroccans, such that the Portuguese king dismissed him from his services.

500 years after the signing of the treaty of Tordesillas.
Magellan went to Spain and offered his services to king Charles I. He may have seen a map in a Portuguesean archive, which mentioned a passage to the Pacific Ocean in South America. Possibly the bay of Rio de Janeiro or the River Plate delta have been mistaken for a sea strait. He decided to search for a westbound route to the Spice Islands, the Moluccas, because the Portuguese controlled the eastbound route rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

Portugal and Spain at the south west tip of Europe were the first nations checking the new image of the world being shaped like a ball. In the Treaty of Tordesillas they divided the globe between themselves. They agreed to respect a borderline roughly 1.770 km west of the Cape Verde Islands. Any land discovered east of it was Portugal's sphere of interest, while Spain claimed the other half of the world west of it.

Portugal was interested in maintaining and strengthening a monopoly of the enormously lucrative spice trade. To this end they needed peace for their cargo vessels all along the tremendously long sea route around Africa to the Molucca Islands.
Spain secured the "New World" of Christopher Columbus. They were lured by the sagas of an "El Dorado" with huge treasures of gold.

Magellan found influential friends for his plan. On the 22. of March 1518 King Charles the I. of Spain agreed. The king supplied five ships, for the purpose to explore a route to the Spice Islands going west.
Aside from the Spanish Crown, funds for the project were also made available also from the Bank of the Augsburg Fuggers among others.
Finally on August 10, 1519 the big adventure started and the small fleet left the harbor of Sevilla, which is San Lucar.
spice clove
Magellan's endeavor did not long remain a secret to the Portuguese King Manuel I. In order to stop the expedition, he sent Portuguese fleets to Brazil and to the Cape of Good Hope, to block off the Spaniards fleet. But apparently they seemed to have missed the Spaniards.

    Magellan's fleet included five vessels:
  • "Trinidad", 120 tons, 55 men on deck, captain: Ferdinand Magellan
  • "San Antonio", 130 tons, 60 men, captain: Juan de Cartagena
  • "Concepción", 90 tons, 45 men, captain: Gaspar de Quesada
  • "Victoria", 90 tons, 42 men, captain: Luis de Mendoza
  • "Santiago", 60 tons, 32 men, captain: Giovanni Serrano
The crew total was 234 men; including four african und asian interpreters.

On the right hand side is a stamp displaying the navigation equipment around 1500: A compass for steady course keeping, a cross-staff for astronomical observations to determine the geographical altitude, a compass to work on the sea maps, a nocturnal to determine time via the polar star and an hour glass.
Such an hour glass was typically the only clock on board. It also served the crews with the duty changes. It was not usable for navigation, because people would forget to turn it over, or the sand inside became wet and "clumped".
On the left we can see an astrolabe which was used to measure the altitude of sun or star to calculate the latitude, Magellan had one too.

Magellan avoided any confrontation, and sailed via the Canaries to the Cape Verdes and only then crossed the Atlantic Ocean, heading off to Brazil. Because their route was very far down south, they failed to utilize the trade winds and lost time. The Spanish captains confronted their admiral. Magellan considered this a personal affront. His vice admiral in particular, Juan de Cartagena, was challenging him. Magellan reacted fast and placed him in irons.
On December 13 the fleet dropped anchor in the bay of today's Rio de Janeiro.
The natives believed the White People were gods.
In order to not overlook the "paso", the passage to the west into the Pacific ocean, the fleet advanced only slowly. On January 10, 1520 they reached the mouth of the Río de la Plata.

They called the natives Patagonians, since they had large feet.
On March 18th, the fleet reached a bay named Puerto San Julián. Since the southern winter drew closer, Magellan decided to make camp here. Their supplies ran short. Their provisions came to an end. Magellan ordered to make the rations smaller. On April 1st a mutiny hit them. The crews asked to return to Spain.
The leaders of the mutiny were Quesada, Juan de Cartagena, and Juan Sebastián Elcano. They seized control on the "San Antonio". During the fight Magellan managed to enter the "Victoria". Now it stood three ships against two and Magellan could turn down the uprising.
Magellan's revenge was brutal.
The captains of the "Victoria" and the "Concepción", Luis de Mendoza and Gaspare de Quesada, were executed (their bodies mutilated into four parts). The captain of the "San Antonio", Juan de Cartagena, and the Priest Sanchez de Reina, who had led the mutiny, were brought to the shore and left behind, as the fleet continued its voyage after the winter recess. Magellan did not dare to sentence the two to death, because Juan de Cartagena was promoted to captain's rank by the king himself. And to kill a priest, this Magellan would not do.

Magellan Straits
The "Santiago" was sent ahead to scout; she however got shipwrecked on May 22. Only two sailors returned, walking across the land to the hibernation camp and broke the news, the others succeeded with the tiring return only several weeks later.
In October 1520 the four vessels left Puerto San Julián, after seven months of difficult hibernation. Again all bays and river deltas were searched for the "paso" with utmost scrutiny.
On 21st of October the fleet anchored near the "Cape of the Virgins". The "Concepción" and the "San Antonio" were sent on yet another discovery trip to the south. A wild and violent storm forced them to retreat into another bay and then continue into yet another bay and in this way they finally found the entrance corridore to the passage.

However, of the two ships only the "Concepción" returned. Again there had been a mutiny on the "San Antonio". The biggest vessel with most of the supplies deserted and returned to Spain.
Now only three vessels were left. They managed to complete the difficult tacking through the narrows and reached the Pacific Ocean on the 28th of November, 1520. This passage was given the name “Estrecho de Magellanes”, Magellan Straits.

The Pacific Ocean
Magellan called the new sea the "Mare Pacifico", which means the quiet (peaceful) ocean, because they did not experience a storm on it.
They sailed three months and 20 days, until they hit the Marianas on the 6th of March, 1521.
The men got sick with scurvy. The only food left was biscuits, which was full of worms and rat droppings. They softened the leather sheathing of the yards in sea water, fried it and swallowed the leather pieces. Along with this they ate soup made from sawdust and rats, which the sailors dealt among another for half a crown. At least 19 men died. Magellan carefully made sure, that the dead bodies were thrown over board quickly, to not let anyone start eating them.

Magellan called the Marianas "Island of Thieves", because the natives overran them with their boats in large numbers and stole everything that was not tied securely to the ship, among them a life-boat.
In response Magellan took 40 armed men to the shore, burnt roughly 50 huts and ordered several canoes to be destroyed. Eventually they got their boat back, however seven natives lost their lives.

When the little fleet left the Marianas, some hundred canoes chased the sailboats and threw rocks at them.
They did not get any fresh water or food, until they arrived on the Philippines, the next archipelago along their route. At that time out of the 234 men who had left Sevilla, only 150 sailors of the fleet were alive.

Still, on most of the islands the natives were friendly and greeted the Europeans . The islanders came to welcome them with their sleek outrigger canoes, the praus. Magellan fired several cannon shots to impress their kings. They usually were caught by surprise and shocked and frightened. But later on they exchanged presents and invited each other to opulent dinners.


The islanders were naked. Males had beards and long black hair, and they colored their teeth red and black. Some had holes in their earlobes, big enough to put an arm through them. The women "were a pleasure to look at, of beautiful bodies and hair quite often so long, that it reached their knees."
Magellan forbade his men to bring women on board the ships. When three women were smuggled on the "Trinidad", Magellan sentenced the ring leaders to 25 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails. The women were thrown over board - they swam back to the shore.

Sword and Cross !
Magellan discovered that the islanders had many bowls and other things made out of gold. He had to stop his men's desire for gold, since they were out to load their vessels with clove spices.
Magellan claimed and took possession of the islands for the Spanish king. He began to convert the islanders to the Christian faith. He baptized them and asked them to destroy the images of their gods.
In turn they should put up crosses in front of their huts, and prey each day before them. Surprisingly most often the islanders agreed, including the kings, and on the island of Cebu almost 800 people were baptized on one single day. Magellan designed a catechism for them and ordered masses to be celebrated on the shores.

These stamps show the death of Captain Cook,
but it probably looked very much the same when Magellan died
There was one head man on the island of Mactan, who refused to recognize the Spanish king and opposed the conversion to Christianity. Magellan and 60 men in three boats went ashore and were met by 1.500 islanders. There was no way to win against a foe so superior in numbers. As a poisoned arrow hit Magellan's thigh, he ordered his men to retreat. Fighting with his sword he covered his fleeing men even while he was already standing in the water. Finally he was deadly hurt by two lances. With him eight more Spaniards died. It happened on the 27th of April 1521.

As the news spread that Christians were not invincible, the king of Cebu too renounced his Christianship. He lured the Spaniards into a trap. 24 men were killed. Now the Spaniards did no longer have enough hands to operate three ships. The "Concepcion", was in the worst condition and they burnt her. The remaining crew was split and put partly on the "Trinidad" and partly on the "Victoria".

When the Spaniards tried to land on the island Borneo, a large number of praus and junks attacked them. But the Spaniards remained in control, captured 4 junks and took a few hostages.
On the 6th of November 1521 they reached the Molucca Island Tidore and loaded the so very much desired spices. When they were ready to sail home in Decembre, the "Trinidad" was heavily leaking water. Part of the cargo was unloaded, the whole ship was careened, i. e. laid on one side, and searched fort he leak, but nothing was found. Eventually the "Victoria" sailed off on her own, on the 21.12. 1521, with 47 Europeans and 13 East Indians. The "Trinidad" stayed behind, with 53 Europeans, and the king of Tidore promised to have his craftsmen repair the ship.

El Cano
Juan Sebastian Elcano
Juan Sebastian Elcano, who had been just a boatswain, when they left Spain, now directed the "Victoria" as the captain via Timor, through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and up to the Cape Verde Islands. In March and May the ship was tossed by strong storms several times, and the front mast and a yard broke. Four sailors were swept off the deck, the ship leaked, and the pumps had to be used continously. In addition, they were always hungry , the drinking water was rationed, the majority became sick.

Elcano was forced to halt at the Cape Verdes, although they were Portuguese"enemy territory". They were given some rice, but as they asked for drinking water, 13 men of the Victoria" were seized onshore. Elcano feared Portugese warships, immediately set sails and continued homeward
On 6th September 1522 the worm-eaten and leaking "Victoria" reached San Lucar, the Spanish output port. Only 18 pale, sick men out of once 234 tumbled ashore. The first world circumnavigation had taken 2 years, 11 months and 2 weeks. The final proof for the global shape of the earth was furnished. Long time the earth extent was estimated to small; now one recognized correctly.

Magellan+El Cano
Left Magellan, right Elcano
In October of 1522 Juan Sebastian Elcano was questioned by a court about several events along their route. Elcano, who had been one of the leaders of the first mutiny, accused Magellan of being arrogant and that he had hated Spaniards. He had treated his fellow captains as common men, and had not respected the orders of the Crown, his death was his own fault and on and on.
This became the sentence on one of the most courageous and outstanding seafarers of those days. While Elcano was awarded an own coat of arms and a pension.
The "Victoria" had indeed earned a small profit for the Crown with its load of clove spices. The expedition had cost 8.333.000 Maravedis and 8.680.500 Maravedis resulted from the sale of the spices.
All in all however the western route to the spice islands proved as too long and too difficult. Several follow-on expeditions faltered, among them one lead by Elcano; he missed the Moluccas and died somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

What happened to the "San Antonio?" On 8.11.1520 she suffered a mutiny, just a little short of the Magellan Straits. Most likely the crew was simply afraid of the dangers of unknown seas. The captain, loyal to Magellan, was put in chains.
They elected a new capitain and sailed back to Spain. On the 6. of Mai 1521 they arrived in the port of Sevilla.
They accused Magellan of having murdered Juan de Cartagena, they said, he had not obeyed to the orders of the king to search for a route to the Moluccas. However their claims were not trusted , an investigation was requested and the leaders of the mutiny put into jail.

What happend to the "Trinidad"?
She had been leaking and left behind on the Moluccas and was repaired. On the 6th of April 1522 she started on her return voyage with 48 men.
They hit a storm, which lasted 12 days and turned the "Trinidad" into a wreck. The crew suffered from hunger and thirst. With a few torn shreds of sails they slowly drifted back to the Moluccas. The native king told them of Portugese close by. In their dispair the Spaniards asked the Portuguese for help. But they were imprisoned, the "Trinidad" was sunk.
After an almost endless odyssey the last 3 survivors of the "Trinidad" returned to Spain five years later, on the 4th of August in 1527.

The map shows the routes in faint green
The Italian Antonio Pigafetta privately kept himself busy with mathematics, cartography, geography and astronomy. He accompanied Ferdinand Magellan on his voyage around the world and described it in his diary.
Some scholars maintain, that there had been two originals, which were lost. But four copies were saved. So there is indeed a very detailed - and objective - report of his voyage.
Pigafetta made it a habit writing something on each day. When he came back to Spain his diary showed a one day deviation as compared to Spain. This demonstrated the need to define something what we call now the date line.

Sources :

Wikipedia Internet Encyclopaedia, Ferdinand Magellan

Antonio Pigafetta, Die erste Reise um die Erde, Horst Erdmann Verlag, 1968

historic chart

© Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved.

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