13 Things You Should Know About Ferdinand Magellan

iStock
iStock

In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) set sail in search of a westward route to the Maluku Islands of modern Indonesia, which brimmed with nutmeg, cloves, and mace. His trip to these “Spice Islands” would lead to the first successful round-the-world voyage and turn Magellan into a larger-than-life figure. Get reacquainted with the world’s most famous (almost) circumnavigator.

1. BEFORE HE WAS A SEA CAPTAIN, HE FOUGHT IN THE MILITARY.

Magellan got his first taste of sea life when he joined a Portuguese military fleet headed for India at the age of 25. At the time, Portugal was hungry to control global trade, and that meant taking strategic points along the Indian Ocean. Magellan fought in a number of pivotal naval conflicts and learned the ropes of navigation. (He also fought in Morocco, where he suffered a leg injury that caused a permanent limp.)

2. PORTUGAL REGARDED HIM AS A TRAITOR.

Magellan’s military stint in Morocco was unsuccessful: Not only was he wounded, he was later accused of illegally trading with the Moors, a charge that tarnished his reputation in his home country of Portugal. Afterwards, he had trouble landing a job. He bickered with the king. In 1517, Magellan became so fed up that he left Portugal and soon pledged allegiance to his country’s most bitter rival—Spain. Portugal considered it an act of treason.

3. PORTUGAL TRIED TO STOP HIS VOYAGE TO THE SPICE ISLANDS.

By 1517, Portugal controlled access to the Spice Routes, the trade routes from Europe eastward to what is now Indonesia around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. (This was a big deal: Spices at the time were worth their weight in gold.) Magellan told Spain’s king, Charles I, that he knew a possible workaround: Sail west. Charles approved, and Portuguese officials were livid. When Magellan left Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships, destined for the Spice Islands via the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Portuguese tried—and failed—to chase him down.

4. MAGELLAN WAS GUARANTEED HIS OWN ISLAND AS PART OF THE DEAL.

When Spain’s king approved Magellan’s plan, he reportedly offered the explorer a number of perks: Magellan, along with his partner Rui Faleiro, would automatically become governor of the lands they found. They would gain the right to levy fees for any upcoming trips. And, most interestingly, they would get their very own islands.

5. HIS VOYAGE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN APPROVED WERE IT NOT FOR HIS INTERPRETER—AND SLAVE—ENRIQUE.

Years earlier, in 1511, Magellan helped invade the port city of Malacca and came home with a Malay-speaking man known now as Enrique de Malacca. Enrique would become Magellan’s most vital resource. Not only did he join Magellan on his 1519 voyage, but his fluency in the Malay language—and his skills as an interpreter—were a major reason why Spain’s king agreed to fund Magellan’s search for a westward spice route.

6. HIS SHIPS WERE STUFFED WITH BOOZE ...

Magellan traveled with large amounts of sherry on board—more than 253 butts and 417 wineskins—and reportedly spent more money supplying his ship with booze than he did on weapons. As we'll see, this might not have been his greatest idea.

7. ... AND CRIMINALS.

An engraving of the Victoria, the first ship to circumnavigate the globe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Santiago, and Victoria set sail in September 1519 with a crew of about 270 sailors. Few of them had extensive seafaring experience. In fact, many of them were criminals loaned from prisons. Others joined because they were avoiding creditors. (Many experienced Spanish sailors refused to join Magellan, possibly because he was Portuguese.)

8. WHEN HIS CAPTAINS STARTED A MUTINY, MAGELLAN SHOWED NO MERCY.

In March 1520, Magellan’s ships reached what is now Port San Julián in southern Argentina. Here, three of his captains—all Spaniards who were reportedly jealous that the position of commander had been bestowed to a Portuguese man—vowed to kill Magellan. Long story short, Magellan killed them instead. To show he wasn’t to be messed with, Magellan had their bodies drawn, quartered, and impaled on stakes on shore.

9. HE CLAIMED PATAGONIA WAS THE HOME OF 10-FOOT-TALL GIANTS.

Patagonia
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According to Antonio Pigafetta, a member of Magellan’s voyage who recounted his adventure in a book, Magellan discovered giants in South America “so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.” (They were most likely Tehuelche people who, while tall by 16th century European standards, were definitely not giants.) Regardless, Magellan kidnapped two of them and named them Patagons. To this day, we still call their home Patagonia.

10. HE NAMED THE PACIFIC—BUT HE WASN’T THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO REACH IT.

Ferdinand Magellan's fleet discovers the path to the Pacific
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In October 1520, Magellan reached Cape Virgenes at the southeastern tip of present-day Argentina and concluded that he had found a passage that could cut across South America. His ships traveled 373 miles and reached the other side in late November, and Magellan named the new ocean Mar Pacifico for its peacefulness. (He wasn’t the first European to set eyes on it, though. That accolade belonged to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who crossed the Isthmus of Panama seven years earlier. He had called it the “South Sea.”) Today, the passage across the continent is called the Strait of Magellan.

11. HE DIED A PRETTY GORY DEATH.

The subsequent events in the Pacific were, to say the least, not peaceful. In March 1521, Magellan reached the Philippines and gently converted some of the chieftains to Christianity. Magellan then moved to convert the ruler of Mactan, Datu Lapu-Lapu. When Lapu-Lapu refused, Magellan decided to kill him. Magellan’s men rushed the shore. Mactan soldiers attacked and quickly recognized Magellan as their leader. They charged him. A Mactan warrior thrust a spear into Magellan’s face. Magellan thrust a lance into his attacker’s body. Magellan then tried pulling his sword, but the spear prevented him from extracting it. At this moment, the Mactan soldiers jumped him.

12. ENRIQUE, NOT MAGELLAN, MAY HAVE BEEN THE FIRST PERSON TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE.

A lot of history books say that Magellan was the first person to lead a circumnavigation around the globe. The words to lead do a lot of heavy lifting: Magellan, of course, died before the voyage was complete. His slave, however, might have completed an around-the-world circuit. Shortly after Magellan’s death, Enrique escaped. If he succeeded in returning home (and it’s unclear if he did or not), that would mean that the first human to accomplish the feat was not some European explorer, but a Southeast Asian ex-slave sailing to freedom.

13. DESPITE EVERYTHING THAT WENT WRONG, MAGELLAN’S VOYAGE WAS STILL PROFITABLE.

After Magellan died, the voyage was led by Juan Sebastian Elcano. In the coming months, much of the remaining crew starved, and only one ship managed to make the full trip back to Spain. But that was OK: When Elcano had visited the Spice Islands, he had secured 381 sacks of cloves. Those spices were worth more than all five ships combined.

5 Odd Suggestions About How To Fight the Dust Bowl

It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.

In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.

1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.

Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.

2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.

One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”

3. BOMB THE SKY.


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Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.

Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.

After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."

4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.

Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?

5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.

Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).

One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.

“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.

This story originally ran in 2016.

The Kansas Shoe Salesman Responsible for Veterans Day

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The reason we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th dates back to 1918, when an armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed that essentially ended World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the following November 11th.

World War I was billed as the war to end all wars, but of course it didn't. So by the 1950s, with so many American men and women veterans of World War II and the conflict in Korea, some thought the term "Armistice Day" was outdated.

A NEW DAY

There's a shoe salesman from Emporia, Kansas, who probably isn't in many history books, but he deserves at least a paragraph.

In the early 1950s, a gentleman by the name of Alvin King thought Armistice Day was too limiting. He'd lost family in World War II, and thought all American veterans of all wars should be honored on November 11th. He formed a committee, and in 1953 Emporia, Kansas, celebrated Veterans Day.

Ed Rees, Emporia's local congressman, loved the idea and took it to Washington. President Eisenhower liked King's idea, too. In 1954, Eisenhower formally changed November 11th to Veterans Day and invited some of Emporia's residents to be there when he signed the bill. King was one of those invited, but there was one problem: he didn't own a nice suit. His veteran friends chipped in and bought him a proper suit and paid his way from Kansas to the White House.

In 2003, Congress passed a resolution declaring Emporia, Kansas to be the founding city of Veterans Day.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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