Sept. 8, 2022

The Magellan Expedition Returns Home

The Magellan Expedition Returns Home

September 8, 1522. Spanish navigator Juan de Elcano returns to Spain, completing the first circumnavigation of the globe.


Cold Open

It’s July 9th, 1522, somewhere off the west coast of Africa.

A triple-masted Spanish ship, the Victoria, sways over choppy waters.

Standing on the foredeck, his face gaunt and sunburned, is the ship’s 36-year-old captain, Spanish explorer Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Juan listlessly scans the horizon, one brawny arm raised to shield his eyes from the blazing hot sun. After seven months at sea, the Victoria is running perilously low on provisions. Many of Juan’s crew have already died from malnutrition. If they don’t make landfall soon, Juan knows that he and his remaining shipmates will likely follow them.

But Juan's heart catches in his throat when he spots something – a hazy blue smudge on the horizon. As his ship draws nearer, Juan discerns more features: tall palm trees… a white sandy beach… and ships docked in a small harbor.

Weak-kneed with joy, Juan calls out to his crew: “Land ahead!”

And moments later… the Victoria drops anchor in turquoise waters, some hundred feet from shore.

Juan dispatches several skiffs to the beach, carrying crates of East Indian spices to exchange with the locals for food. Juan grins as his crewmen approach the island, relief flooding through him.

But his smile abruptly fades when he notices ships in port bearing the insignia of Spain’s bitter enemy: Portugal, a country that holds a fiercely-protected monopoly on the trade route to the East Indies. As soon as the Portuguese officials see that Juan’s crew are carrying spices from the East, they’ll arrest and kill any Spaniard on sight. 

Juan bellows a warning to his men, but it’s too late. The Spanish skiffs have already reached shore, where a group of Portuguese officials wait to search their crates. When they find the spices, they unsheathe their swords and surround the dumbstruck Spanish sailors.

Meanwhile, a small fleet of Portuguese ships sets out to commandeer the Victoria and arrest her remaining crew. Juan leaps into action.

He orders his crewmen to raise anchor and hoist the mainsail. Then he scampers to the helm and takes charge of the wheel, turning the rudder and pointing the bowsprit at the open ocean. The wind fills the sails, and the Victoria moves off, outrunning the Portuguese ships, which quickly recede to nothing more than specks in the distance.

Juan’s encounter with the Portuguese is not his first brush with death. Three years ago, Juan embarked from Spain as part of a 250-man expedition to discover a western sea route to the East Indies. The leader of the expedition was a Portuguese explorer who had switched his loyalty to Spain: Ferdinand Magellan.

From the outset, Ferdinand’s voyage was fraught with peril; his sailors were afflicted by stormy weather, rampant disease, and hostile natives. More than 200 of his original crew died along the way. And last year, Ferdinand Magellan himself was killed during a skirmish with locals on an island in the Philippines. In the end, it fell to Juan to take charge and finish the journey.

But Juan’s troubles don’t end with this run-in with his Portuguese enemies. He will face many more trials on his journey to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe; a feat he accomplishes when he finally disembarks and steps foot back on Spanish soil on September 8th, 1522.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 8th, 1522: The Magellan Expedition Returns Home.

Act One: Magellan Sets Sail

It’s August 1511, off the coast of present-day Malaysia; eleven years before the Magellan expedition returns to Spain. Beneath a starry night sky, a fleet of Portuguese longboats cuts through dark waters, advancing toward the port city of Malacca. While he rows, 28-year-old naval officer Ferdinand Magellan points his gaze toward the shoreline, where the town sleeps peacefully in the pale moonlight. Ferdinand’s eyes flash with anticipation. 

Once the landing crafts are assembled within reach of the shoreline, a Portuguese battleship releases an opening salvo of musket fire – heralding the start of a siege.

Ferdinand leaps from the boat and rushes onto the beach, determined to vanquish the town’s defenders and claim yet another territory for the Empire of Portugal.

By the early 1500s, Europe is in the throes of a frenzy of exploration and conquest known as the Age of Discovery. Every year, waves of Europeans venture overseas to establish trade routes and expand their sovereign territories, often at the expense of indigenous populations.

Not long ago, the dominant power in the Age of Discovery was the Kingdom of Spain. Spanish-backed explorers like Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes led successful expeditions to the Americas, making vast territorial gains in the New World. But more recently, another country has pulled ahead in the race to conquer the globe: Spain’s great maritime rival, Portugal.

Twenty years ago, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama discovered the first sea route from Europe to Asia by sailing around the cape of South Africa. This discovery provided Portugal with a monopoly on commerce with the East Indies and gave Portuguese merchants the upper hand in the lucrative trade of exotic spices. With exclusive access to the so-called Spice Islands of Indonesia, Portugal quickly became the richest empire in the world, leaving Spain bitter and envious. 

Tonight, Ferdinand and his fellow Portuguese sailors are laying siege to the city of Malacca, a major trading center. If the Portuguese can capture Malacca, they will have consolidated their dominion over the Eastern seas...

But from garrisons situated on the cliffs above, the town’s Malay defenders prepare their artillery and unleash volleys toward the Portuguese invaders. Cannonballs screech overhead as Ferdinand and his fellow soldiers race up the sandy beach. They clamber over the defensive stockades and charge through the streets of Malacca, routing the Malays, and claiming possession of the city for Portugal.

Like many young Portuguese men hungry for adventure and glory, Ferdinand enlisted in his empire's Armada. He embarked on expeditions of conquest in the East, where he dutifully advanced the glory of the Portuguese Empire. But Ferdinand has ambitions beyond serving in the Armada. He believes he is destined for greatness, and that greatness is to be achieved not through military accomplishments… but through overseas exploration.

Ferdinand desperately wants to join the ranks of the great navigators, men like Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama. But Ferdinand isn’t content with equalling the achievements of these men; he wants to surpass them. To do that, he will need to discover something previously deemed beyond the reach of even the most intrepid explorer: a western sea route to the Spice Islands of the East Indies.

During this period, it’s common belief among seafarers that the fastest way to reach southeast Asia from Europe is by sailing west across the Atlantic. The only obstacle to that western route is the continental landmass known as America. Previous explorers have sought to find a navigable ocean passage through America. But while many have tried, none have succeeded. Ferdinand Magellan is determined to change that.

But in order to assemble a fleet of his own, Ferdinand needs the financial support of Portugal’s monarch, King Manuel I. But he hears Ferdinand's plan, the Portuguese monarch declines to offer his endorsement. Manuel already has a monopoly on the eastern sea route; he isn’t interested in financing Ferdinand’s dangerous western voyage.

But the ambitious Ferdinand refuses to take “no” for an answer. And having fallen out of favor with King Manuel, Ferdinand will turn instead to Portugal’s greatest rival, Spain.


In December 1517, in Valladolid, Spain, Ferdinand Magellan strides confidently through the court of the Spanish king. After being snubbed by the Portuguese crown, Ferdinand renounced his nationality. Today, he has come to petition the King of Spain, Charles I, to endorse an expedition to discover a western route to the Spice Islands of the East Indies.

For Spain, a western route to the Spice Islands would provide an opportunity to out-maneuver Portugal in the race for commercial dominance. And crucially, it would do so without flouting a fundamental tenet of maritime law…

Decades ago, in 1494, Spain and Portugal came to an agreement to avoid open conflict. The Treaty of Tordesillas drew a line down the middle of the globe and decreed that Spain could freely explore lands west of that line, while Portugal had access to anything in the east.

Charles is desperate to establish a trade route to the Spice Islands. But he is hesitant to break the terms of the Treaty and risk war with Portugal. Ferdinand’s proposal offers a solution to his problem. So today, when Ferdinand makes his pitch, King Charles I doesn’t hesitate. He offers his full endorsement.

Having secured royal approval, Ferdinand spends the next two years poring over maps and charts. He assembles a fleet of five ships - sturdy, triple-masted Spanish carracks - manned by a crew of 240 sailors. And on August 10th, 1519, his expedition embarks from the port of Seville.

Standing at the helm, his dark beard flecked with salt spray, Captain Ferdinand Magellan surveys the glittering horizon. He is excited but anxious for the long journey ahead. By the time this fleet returns to Spanish shores, three years will have passed, four ships will have been lost, and Ferdinand Magellan - along with more than two hundred of his men - will be dead.

Act Two: Mutiny, Glory, and Death

It’s approaching midnight on April 1st, 1520; two years before Magellan’s crew returns home.

Ferdinand’s five carracks float on the frigid black waters off the South American coast. Below the deck of the fleet’s flagship, the Trinidad, Ferdinand tosses and turns in his bunk, troubled dreams flickering beneath his eyelids…

Following a grueling trans-Atlantic voyage, Ferdinand and his fleet made landfall in Brazil last December, before continuing south, spending three months exploring the Argentinian coastline in search of the rumored westward passage, but finding nothing. Soon, winter was upon them. And the Europeans were forced to shelter from the freezing conditions in a quiet bay. When the spring comes, they will resume their search.

Tonight though, Ferdinand is restless, and not on account of the cold. Rebellion is brewing among the captains of his five ships. Three of his five are Spanish - and they’re growing tired of taking orders from a Portuguese commander.

A few weeks back, Ferdinand was forced to imprison the captain of one ship, Juan de Cartagena, for stirring up insubordination among his crew. But arresting Cartagena didn’t squash the spirit of rebellion. Unbeknownst to Ferdinand, Cartagena’s mutiny has already spread to two other ships. Now, the captains of those vessels, Spaniards named Quesada and Mendoza, have hatched a plan to release Cartagena and launch an insurrection.

Finally, Ferdinand’s eyes grow heavy, and he drifts off to sleep. As he snores, a fleet of longboats glide silently across the starlit surface of the bay. On board are thirty men, their faces blackened with charcoal. The boats pull up alongside the San Antonio - the ship on which Cartagena is imprisoned. Wordlessly, the mutineers throw grappling hooks over the portside beam before clambering on deck. They subdue the crew of the San Antonio and release Cartagena.

At first light, the mutineers dispatch a group of envoys to the Trinidad to present their demands. The mutineers want Ferdinand to relinquish command of the fleet. When Ferdinand hears this, he doesn’t cower. He and his crew fight back; they overpower the envoys, place them under arrest and remove their uniforms.

Then Ferdinand orders a detachment of his crew to disguise themselves in the envoys’ clothes and return to mutineers’ ship. In a separate skiff, Ferdinand sends his deputy, Gonzalo de Espinoza, with a written reply to the mutineers’ demands - and a dagger concealed in his cloak.

Later that day, Gonzalo boards the Victoria, where the ringleaders of the mutiny are gathered. One of the rebellious captains, Mendoza, steps forward to receive Magellan’s letter. With an expression of stony contempt, Gonzalo extends the message - but in the same movement pulls out the dagger and slits Mendoza’s throat.

Before the mutineers can react, Ferdinand’s disguised men leap aboard, brandishing swords and muskets. They overcome the Victoria’s crew and take back control of the ship.

With the Victoria lost and Mendoza dead, the remaining ringleaders of the mutiny surrender. Ferdinand re-establishes order over his fleet and punishes the insubordinate captains. Quesada is beheaded, while Cartagena is marooned on a remote island.

Having crushed the revolt, Ferdinand resumes searching for the elusive westward passage. His fleet continues southward until they reach the archipelago of Patagonia. Along the way, one ship is wrecked in a storm, while another - spooked by the perilous conditions - abandons the expedition and sails back to Spain. By November, Ferdinand is down to just three ships.

For a moment, all seems in peril. But then, a breakthrough occurs.

One afternoon, Ferdinand’s fleet is venturing along a narrow coastal inlet in the far south of Argentina, when all of a sudden, a break appears on the horizon. A short while later, the ships pass through the straits that will one day bear Magellan’s name, and emerge into open ocean.

Ferdinand nearly weeps with joy. He’s just discovered what was thought to be a fable: the mythical ocean passage past the Americas. The waters appear remarkably calm and placid, so Ferdinand names it El Mar Pacifico - the Pacific Ocean.

As the fleet embarks on the next leg of their journey, spirits are high. In Ferdinand’s mind, the difficult stretch is over, and he expects to cross the Pacific in a matter of days. Instead, four months pass before Ferdinand’s men next see land.

By the time they reach the tropical shores of Guam - an island in the South Pacific - malnutrition, dehydration, and disease have ripped through the men, killing many and leaving the survivors emaciated and exhausted. And Ferdinand’s troubles are just beginning.

In March 1521, his ships make landfall in the Philippines. Ferdinand and his men disembark and introduce themselves to the indigenous islanders. At first, relations are amicable. But soon, the situation takes a turn.

One of the island chiefs, Lapu Lapu, refuses to pay homage to Ferdinand or recognize the supremacy of the Spanish crown. Ferdinand is determined to teach the disobedient native a lesson, so he sends 60 heavily-armed Europeans to force compliance. Believing Europeans to be inherently superior to the savages, Ferdinand arrogantly expects his 60 men to overwhelm Lapu Lapu’s force of 1500.

He is mistaken.

On April 27th, on the shores of the island of Mactan, Ferdinand’s men are slaughtered by the indigenous forces. Ferdinand himself, head-to-toe in steel armor, is struck by a poison-tipped arrow just above his breastplate. Stumbling, he is quickly set upon by scores of natives, who tear him limb from limb.

With Ferdinand Magellan killed by his own folly, the fleet will come under the command of a new leader; a Spanish sailor, Juan Sebastian Elcano. With Juan at the helm, the remaining men will set sail once again, summoning the last of their endurance for the long journey home.

Act Three: Elcano Returns

It’s September 6th, 1522.

Just off the coast of Spain, a decrepit ship - the Victoria - creaks as it drifts slowly northward. A light breeze pushes whitecaps across the surface of the sea and catches in the Victoria’s ragged sails.

Juan Sebastian Elcano, the ship’s captain, walks slowly across the quarterdeck. He looks like a ghost. His tattered clothes droop from his bones like the rigging on his ship, and his skin is near translucent from lack of nutrients.

Up ahead, a narrow strip of land materializes between sea and sky. Juan knows he’s looking at Spain. But his eyes register no happiness.

Juan and his seventeen crew members are the last surviving sailors from Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition to find a western sea route to the East Indies. The journey was a success; Magellan and his fleet reached the East Indies via a narrow strait through South America. But the discovery came at a tremendous cost.

More than 200 of the fleet’s original crew died along the way - including their captain, Ferdinand Magellan. Now, Juan and the remaining survivors are about to arrive home after more than three years at sea. Their ship is stocked with a cargo of exotic spices. But they can’t muster the energy to feel any hint of joy.

Two days later, on September 8th, the Victoria arrives at the bustling harbor of Seville. A walkway is lowered from the dock. And on unsteady feet, the disheveled sailors make their way to dry land, thus becoming the first people to circumnavigate the globe.

Shortly after their return, Juan and his crew will be presented before the Spanish King, Charles I, who applauds their heroic achievement. Three years later, Juan will be shipped back to the East Indies, as part of a crew sent to occupy the Spice Islands for Spain. And for the next decade, Spain and Portugal will continue their bloody, bitter struggle over control of the Eastern spice trade.

But the journey that Ferdinand Magellan began, and Juan Sebastian Elcano completed, will have a lasting impact that goes far beyond commerce. The expedition discovered the elusive South American Strait that bears Magellan’s name. And it demonstrated the true immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2019, just under 500 years after the Magellan Expedition returned to Spain, an application was sent to the United Nations asking for Magellan’s Route to be made a World Heritage Site, a special landmark with international legal protection. The petition was sent as a joint application from Spain and Portugal - an act of unity between two former rivals that would have been inconceivable back when the survivors of the Magellan Expedition returned to port having circumnavigated the globe on September 8th, 1522.


Next on History Daily. September 9th, 1971. Prisoners seize control of Attica Correctional Facility in the bloodiest prison uprising in US history.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.