On a Circumnavigation

Your history books will tell you that Ferdinand Magellan captained the first expedition that sailed around the world in the early 1500s. If you remember your high school class, you’ll recognize that Magellan actually was killed by the inhabitants of what is now the Philippines, and it fell to one of his officers named Elcano to complete the voyage and, thus, become the person to get credited with the first around the world trip.

That period of history in Europe was filled with firsts, of course. Since Columbus made his trip only thirty years before, voyage after voyage left Portugal and Spain and went to the Americas. Those ships returned to Europe with the treasures of the newly recognized lands–gold, silver, other raw materials–and humans as well. The slave trade is a direct result of the Age of Exploration. In fact, Magellan took a slave with him on his ill-fated voyage, a man who had been given the name Enrique. No one, including Enrique, seemed to know his origin, but he was bought by Magellan as his personal slave for the journey.

Magellan’s trip had issues from the start. He himself was Portuguese, but he sailed for the King of Spain. Magellan’s Spanish crew resented him for this. By the time the first leg of the journey was completed in what is now Argentina, much of the crew mutinied. Magellan swiftly put down the mutiny and regained control by beheading the mutiny leaders and offloading others on the unfriendly coastline. That was followed by the harrowing journey through what is now the Strait or Straits of Magellan at the toe end of South America. The crew then didn’t see land for over 100 days. Scurvy, other sicknesses, and more talk of mutiny ensued. Finally, the voyage reached what was probably Guam, where the grateful crew spent some time enjoying land under their feet (and several local inhabitants were killed as well, sadly).

Finally, the voyage reached the Philippines. Without going into the details, the Europeans and the locals clashed, and the result was Magellan’s death at the hands of the locals. Despite the firepower of the Spanish men’s muskets, Magellan was felled by a poison arrow fired at him during a skirmish with one of the tribes there. That was when the expedition’s leadership fell to Elcano. With only one ship remaining and over 80% of the original crew that left Spain the previous year dead from one cause or another, the survivors of Magellan’s trip limped back to their home port in September of 1522 after a journey of over 50,000 sea miles.

Interestingly, it turned out that one of the members of Magellan’s crew had been able to understand and speak the language of the people in the Philippines. That person was Magellan’s slave, Enrique.

Now, if you think about it, Enrique had to have gotten from the Philippines to Spain one way or another. And that makes him–not Magellan or even Elcano–the first person to circumnavigate the globe.

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