We know shockingly little about the early life of Ferdinand Magellan. We don’t even know for sure in which year he was born; historians have generally settled upon the suspiciously round number of 1480, but the real date might just as easily be a few years later or earlier. According to a will which Magellan prepared before leaving his homeland on his first big maritime adventure in 1505, his infant self came into the world in the tiny inland village of Sabrosa, well up in the highlands of northern Portugal. If this is correct, however, he must have left the village where he was born at a young age: a claim filed by a relative shortly after his death states that he lived as a child in the Portuguese harbor town of Porto.

It is a testament to the priorities of Magellan’s era that we know far more about his genealogy than we do of the child himself. For the class of European nobility into which he was born transcended the lines which divided the continent’s countries from one another on a map. His roots lay in Burgundy, a French-speaking region which for centuries resisted assimilation by the much larger kingdom of France in much the same way that Portugal did assimilation by Spain, albeit ultimately less successfully. (The Duchy of Burgundy finally became a part of France in 1477.)

The family we call “Magellan” came to Portugal in the eleventh century, beginning with a knight from Burgundy named De Magalhais, who did stellar service in a Christian Crusade against the Muslims who occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula at that time. His reward for his service from his duke and his pope was a small fiefdom not far from Porto, at the very northwestern tip of Portugal. The record goes dark after that for a good long while, but picks up again around the turn of the fifteenth century with Ferdinand Magellan’s great-grandfather. The line as we find it then was not among the premier houses of Europe by any means — it was numbered amongst the fifth of the six accepted grades of Portuguese nobility — but it was stolidly respectable, so much so that its members were sometimes able to marry a rung or two above their station. Ferdinand’s paternal grandmother, for example, came from the more elevated de Sousa line of Portuguese nobility, and Ferdinand’s older brother Diogo commemorated that union by taking “de Sousa” rather than the less august “Magellan” as his surname. Ferdinand himself was the third and last child of his parents; in addition to his brother Diogo de Sousa, he had an older sister named Isabel Magellan, about whom we know even less than we do of her brothers.

But we do know that the children’s father served at some point as sheriff of the port of Aveiro, some distance south of Porto. We don’t know, on the other hand, whether this was before or after the family lived in Porto, or for that matter whether they ever moved to Aveiro at all, given that the job of sheriff was a largely ceremonial position, generally bestowed upon someone who had done the crown of Portugal a good turn in one way or another. It thus appears that King John II of Portugal knew Magellan’s father personally and thought highly of him, even to the extent of feeling that he owed him something, although we have no idea why or what. Further evidence of some debt of gratitude is provided by the fact that both Diogo and Ferdinand were invited to Lisbon to become pages in the king’s court when they reached the age of fourteen or so. Such an honor was not usually bestowed upon provincial junior nobility such as them.

And make no mistake, this was a fine privilege indeed. Their duties were light, leaving plenty of time for a first-rate education in languages, mathematics, and orthodox Christian theology, along with the fencing and riding that every lusty young nobleman worth his salt was expected to master. This was, as we’ve seen, a time of enormous excitement in the capital, with Portuguese ships embarking yearly on groundbreaking voyages of exploration. It’s hard not to imagine the young Ferdinand watching from the parapets as the vessels sailed away and returned again, laden to the gunwales with the spices and ivory of exotic foreign lands.

He would certainly not have been alone in feeling the call of the sea. Exploration had become Portugal’s national obsession, with every young man at court dreaming of becoming the next Vasco da Gama. He and his brother likely studied the arts of sail and compass, capstan and astrolabe no more nor less enthusiastically than their peers. But as matters transpired, court politics kept them on dry land for a long time. King Manuel I, who succeeded John in 1495, belonged to a different royal faction from his predecessor who had showered such favor on the Magellan family. The brothers found themselves trapped in a sort of sociopolitical limbo in Lisbon, neither in the king’s favor nor officially out of it, biding their time hunting and fencing while others were given the prestigious assignments they craved. The situation must have been especially frustrating for Ferdinand, who as the younger brother had no foreordained role of family patriarch to graduate into, who was expected to find his own path of honor in life. The traditional career of noble second sons was with the Church, but Ferdinand, although deeply religious, wasn’t cut out for the priesthood; he was just too robustly physical for the spiritual life. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-twenties that he got his chance to make a place for himself in the world, when Portugal mounted an expedition so large that it had need of every able-bodied gentleman who was willing to join it.

In 1505, 22 ships sailed from Lisbon for India under the command of one Francisco de Almeida. As the unusual size of the fleet would imply, this was to be a voyage of consolidation and conquest rather than exploration, reflecting the burgeoning new era of overseas empire of which Portugal stood at the forefront. Almeida was sent to sort out some things in eastern Africa, then to sail on and assume the title and the role of viceroy of Portuguese India. He brought with him 1500 soldiers and 200 artillerymen, his tools with which to bring any troublesome natives to heel. And he also brought 400 “supernumeraries,” adventurous gentlemen who would hopefully be up to the task of falling in with any shows of force that might prove necessary, then of becoming the civil functionaries of empire afterward. Diogo de Sousa and Ferdinand Magellan were among this group, as was a good friend of the brothers from their years at court, a man named Francisco Serrão who would come to play a major role in Ferdinand’s future.

After rounding the southern tip of Africa on June 26, 1505 — a feat which had once seemed so incredible, now become almost routine — Almeida set about rearranging matters on this wilder, more uppity eastern side of the Dark Continent to suit Portugal’s agenda. He deposed one troublesome sheik by orchestrating a palace coup, then deposed another by main force of arms. This was Magellan’s first taste of battle, albeit not much of one compared to what was to come: the booming, smoking muskets of the Portuguese made them angry gods in the eyes of the African natives, whose resistance quickly collapsed. With its duties in Africa thus accomplished, the fleet arrived in India on October 21, 1505, and set about reordering the lands bordering the Arabian Sea along more congenial lines. These societies were more advanced and therefore better equipped to give the Portuguese trouble. Warfare would continue  on and off for many years in this region.

This gave Ferdinand Magellan the chance to step out of the shadow of his older brother for the first time. His name appears with some regularity in the records from this period, often associated with conspicuous displays of bravery under fire. In a letter written by Almeida to King Manuel himself, dated December 26, 1506, Ferdinand is mentioned as one of a few indomitable hands to whom the viceroy has learned to entrust his most important missions. Diogo, by contrast, is made conspicuous by his absence from such missives; he appears to have returned to Portugal in fairly short order after doing his minimal duty and no more, leaving Ferdinand and Francisco Serrão, who became another of Almeida’s trusted inner circle of operatives, to gather the plaudits and the glory to themselves. (Of course, as the elder brother Diogo had familial responsibilities — including that of safeguarding his own person — that Ferdinand did not.)

Between 1506 and 1509, Magellan and Serrão were involved in a series of running sea battles with Indian, Arab, and Egyptian ships. They also probably participated in at least one notorious massacre, as bystanders if not active instigators, when the Portuguese fell upon the Indian town of Dapoli, a hotbed of resistance to their agenda, and carried out orders to kill every man, woman, and child they found there. On February 2, 1509, Magellan and Serrão fought in the Battle of Diu, a pivotal naval engagement between Portugal and Egypt. The former’s fleet was victorious, but Magellan was wounded in hand-to-hand fighting aboard the Egyptian flagship. His injury seems barely to have slowed him down; as soon as he recovered, he and Serrão signed on for an east-bound voyage of discovery whose goal was Malaysia.

Guided partially by maps and logbooks which they had bought or seized from Indian seafarers, four Portuguese vessels, sailing under one Diogo Lopes de Sequeria, reached Malaysia on September 11, 1509, landing at Malacca. The sultan they met there was all smiles and bonhomie, avowedly eager to get a trade in spices started right away. He told the Portuguese that he had a warehouse full of fragrant pepper which he would give them outright as a gesture of goodwill; all they had to do was send a party out to pick it up. Sequeria was thrilled; this was all going better than he had dared to hope. He duly dispatched a substantial portion of his manpower to retrieve the pepper, Serrão among the group. Magellan stayed behind with his commander aboard one of the ships.

Alas, as they say, that which seems too good to be true usually is. The natives ambushed the men who had been sent to retrieve the pepper — sent without guns, for fear of upsetting the sultan who had welcomed the Portuguese with such open arms. Hearing a great commotion from the direction their comrades had gone, nobody left onboard the ships seemed to know what to do. Except, that is, Ferdinand Magellan: he commandeered a longboat and two hardy crewmen and rowed with them to the beach. Rushing ashore, they found the remnants of the shore party making a desperate stand with knives and rocks and fists. The newcomers’ blazing muskets scattered the native attackers long enough for the survivors — Serrão among them — to beat a hasty retreat back to the longboat and out to sea.

Two days later, the Portuguese flotilla sailed for India again. Sequeria had largely fulfilled his primary mission of reconnoitering that which lay between India and the fabled land of China. Yet he was able to think only of the fortune in pepper which he had briefly believed the duplicitous Malaysian sultan was about to simply hand him. Obviously the Portuguese would have to win their trading concessions in Malaysia from behind the barrel of a gun, just as in so many other places.

Made decidedly surly by thoughts like these, Sequeria turned to naked piracy on the way back, ordering his ships to attack the native junks that they encountered. Once again, Magellan distinguished himself in these engagements, snatching his friend Serrão from the jaws of death for a second time on one occasion, rescuing a prize crew who were about to go down with a sinking junk on the other; he did this latter over the objections of Sequeria, who was fully prepared to leave them to their fate. (“Never could there be a better prize,” said Magellan according to legend, “than to save the lives of our men on that junk!”) A fearsome storm later sank two of the Portuguese ships along with the underwhelming plunder which they carried in their holds as a reward for their depredations, but the other two reached India in January of 1510, with Magellan and Serrão safe and sound aboard.

Just days later, Magellan went to sea again, this time without his friend, on a trip which should have been less hazardous: having apparently decided that he had pressed his luck far enough, he was going back to Portugal at long last. But danger and adventure had a way of following him. The merchantman on which he traveled, which was loaded down to the ragged edge of seaworthiness with pepper and other goods, was blown aground by an inclement wind at the Laccadive Islands, just 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the coast of India. There was nothing to be done but sail back to India in the two longboats; the problem was that there was only space in the boats for a fraction of those who been aboard the ship. The officers and gentlemen declared that they would take the boats as one of the prerogatives of rank. This prompted a tense standoff with the crew, who suspected that their betters were about to sail back to civilization and forget about them. If the stories are to be believed, it was, as usual, Magellan who saved the day, displaying as he did so his usual unusual regard for the lives of his underlings. “Let the captains and gentlemen go,” he is supposed to have said. “I will remain with you sailors if [the gentlemen] will give their word of honor that upon arriving they will send help for us!” They did so and he did so, waiting with the rest of the crew for a couple of nervous weeks thereafter, until the promised rescue ship did indeed arrive. (That said, it is reasonable to wonder whether it was really humanity and honor that motivated the ones who had departed to rescue the castaways so promptly, or whether it was all that pepper in the hold of the beached ship…)

Magellan seems to have taken the mishap as a sign that God did not yet wish him to go home. For, rather than booking passage on another Portugal-bound merchantman, he plunged himself back into the hurly-burly of empire-building with renewed vigor. He spent much of the remainder of 1510 fighting in a campaign to subdue the Indian city-state of Goa, which had still insisted on defying the Portuguese. Then, in March of 1511, he and his steadfast brother-in-arms Francisco Serrão sailed with a fleet personally commanded by Afonso de Albuquerque, who had replaced Almeida as viceroy of India. Its objective was Malacca, to avenge the double-cross of two years before. That August, the Portuguese took the city after a pitched battle; the treacherous sultan narrowly escaped with his life, setting up shop again deeper in the jungle, from which position he would intermittently harass the Portuguese for years to come.

Magellan stayed in Malacca for more than a year and a half, setting up defenses against the sultan’s incursions, instituting the bureaucracy of empire, and getting trade off to a smooth start. He established a household of his own there, complete with slaves. One of them, an unusually clever fellow, became a special favorite. Magellan taught him to speak Portuguese and convinced him to convert to Christianity, whereupon he took the name of Enrique.

But whereas Magellan seems to have welcomed a respite from wandering and fighting, Francisco Serrão’s lust for adventure was not yet sated. He left Malaysia already in the fall of 1511, commanding one of three ships sent yet further eastward by Albuquerque, to search for the so-called “Spice Islands,” which the Malays spoke of as a rich source of nutmeg and cloves — yet more exotic flavors for ever-curious European palates. After a series of extraordinary episodes, including sea and land battles, storms, shipwrecks, and a period of time of his own spent as a castaway on a deserted island, Serrão succeeded in becoming the first European ever to set foot on the Spice Islands, which we know today as the Maluku Islands, just west of New Guinea. He liked what he found there so much that he chose to go native, marrying the daughter of a local chief, ignoring his obligation to return to Malaysia and give a personal report of his discoveries. But he did send back to Malacca a junk laden with the precious spices for which his new home was famed and named, along with a letter for Ferdinand Magellan extolling its virtues. In it, he tried to convince his old friend to join him in his life of tropical ease, a just reward for seven years of risking life and limb in service of king and country. Magellan, however, took the letter and the shipload of spices that accompanied it another way. It seemed that there were enormous riches just for the taking in the Spice Islands… if only reaching them from Europe wasn’t so laborious and perilous, demanding as it currently did that one sail south and then north again all the way around Africa, then eastward past India and Malaysia, then yet further eastward for many more hundreds of leagues over temperamental seas. If someone could contrive a faster, safer way of getting there, that someone could expect to be rewarded with wealth and honor beyond his wildest dreams.

Coincidentally or not, in late 1512, shortly after receiving Serrão’s letter, Magellan boarded a ship that was headed back to India, taking the faithful Enrique with him. From India, they caught another ship home to Portugal.

The man who stepped ashore in Lisbon early in 1513 was a far cry from the callow courtier who had left almost eight years earlier. His skin had been scorched by the equatorial sun and scarred by blades and ropes and winds. And his tongue was as weather-beaten as his body; he had little patience anymore for the niceties of court protocol. No one in polite society was quite sure how to take him; the inscrutable dark-skinned slave who accompanied him almost everywhere he went only caused him to cut that much more of an unnerving figure.

It may have been just as well, then, that he was given no time to rest on his laurels. He and his brother Diogo were enlisted to defend Portuguese trading settlements on the coast of Morocco from some parts of the native Muslim population who were attempting to eradicate them. As was his wont, Ferdinand rushed headlong into the heavy fighting, while Diogo took a more circumspect role. In one battle, an enemy cavalryman plunged his lance deep into Magellan’s knee; he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life as a result. With his help, the native insurrection was put down.

Magellan’s relations with King Manuel had always been cool, but following his return to Lisbon from Morocco he got himself well and truly sideways with his monarch. Reasonably enough on the face of it, he thought he deserved a stipend from the crown and most of all an elevation in his noble rank in return for his years of stalwart service in many different capacities and many different places. But he pressed his case in the most blunt, undiplomatic way imaginable, taking few pains to hide his soldierly disdain for the sleek, perfumed King Manuel, a man who had never known anything but silk sheets and tender vittles. For his part, the king viewed with suspicion Magellan’s long friendship with Francisco Serrão, who, by deciding to stay in the Spice Islands in direct defiance of orders to return, was now officially branded a traitor to his country. On top of this, there was a corruption case cooked up by some personages whom Magellan had offended in Morocco, who claimed that he had personally profited by selling off several herds of goats, camels, and horses that ought to have been delivered to his superiors for disposal.

Magellan became something of a joke among the chattering classes at court, who, egged on by the king’s self-evident distaste for him, went so far as to whisper that his limp was faked. He was such a spitting image of an old salt that Lisbon society, accustomed to airs and deception as a way of life, couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe that he really could be just what he appeared to be.

Matters came to a head in late 1515 or early 1516, when Magellan asked for and was grudgingly granted his latest audience with the king. But instead of the usual litany of tired grievances, he simply asked Manuel this time if he could do his sovereign a service, one through which he could clear his name of the accusations that had come to besmirch it and re-earn His Majesty’s trust (and, presumably, a generous royal pension). Left confused and impatient by this newly roundabout way of importuning, Manuel told his supplicant cruelly that he could not; Portugal had no further use for him now that he was lame. The insult struck its target like a slap in the face. And yet it got even worse. When a stunned Magellan bent over to kiss the king’s hand, as was customary for a nobleman taking leave of his monarch, Manuel compounded the humiliation by refusing to give it to him. Magellan stumped out of the room to the tittering of the courtiers, an old soldier who, he finally realized, could best please everyone by simply fading away.

But he had no intention of doing so; a daring scheme was taking shape in his mind. When he had asked his king how he could serve him, he had intended the question as a prelude to introducing it. Now, however, he judged that he had satisfied the demands of honor by giving Manuel his chance.

The clue to his plans lay in a letter he had already written to his old friend Francisco Serrão, who was continuing a tenuous trade and communication with Portugal from the Spice Islands despite being considered a traitor in other contexts. “God willing,” the letter read, “I will soon be seeing you, whether by way of Portugal or Spain, for that is the way my affairs have been leaning. You must wait for me.”

If Portugal’s king was not interested in reaching the riches of the Spice Islands by an easier route, perhaps the king next door would be. Magellan was about to follow in the wake of Christopher Columbus, that other would-explorer who had been rejected by a Portuguese king. And in the process, he would get himself branded a blacker traitor than ever Serrão had been.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

7 Comments for "Chapter 2: The Young Man and the Sea"

  • Leo Vellés

    Not sure, but I believe that “King Manual I, who succeeded John in 1495” should be King Manuel

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes! Thanks!

  • Paul Dunne

    I will now have the phrase “tender vittles” stuck in my head as an earworm for some time.

    • Jimmy Maher

      It used to be an American brand of cat food. I don’t know whether it’s still around or not…

      • Martin

        “These potentially-harmful ingredients have made semi-moist food one of the most criticized varieties, and this criticism seems to have led to its disappearance. Purina discontinued Tender Vittles in 2007 due to declining customer demand and low sales.”

        So I guess the answer is no.

  • Sirona Aldri

    I’ve always been far more familiar with Spanish colonial history than Portuguese, so I’m really enjoying this.

    Typo: “Coincidentally or not, in late 1512, shortly after receiving Serrão’s letter, Magellan boarded a ship that was headed back India, taking the faithful Enrique with him.”

    Should be “headed back to India”.

    • Jimmy Maher



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