500 years ago today, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set sail on the Atlantic from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain—an expedition that circumnavigated the globe for the first time.
A hardy sailor at a young age, Magellan was born into a Catholic society that believed it was their mission to convert the world to Christianity—but there was another goal. Seven years earlier, he captained a voyage to the legendary Spice Islands in Asia (the Moluccas), home to nutmeg and clove trees. These precious exotic flavors were worth their weight in gold—and Magellan's share in their sale back in Europe sparked his desire for more wealth. Extremely charismatic, he convinced the King of neighboring Spain to bankroll his latest expedition—to discover a new passage to the Spice Islands, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which would avoid Portuguese battle ships in the southern horn of Africa.
The 270 men carried supplies to sustain two years of travel aboard five ships, but they were essentially “wooden tubs” that had no toilets, privacy, or kitchens on board—and as the mood soured, a mutiny broke out. Despite that, the tenacious Magellan reached the southern tip of South America and discovered a cape. His fleet sailed into the labyrinth of unpredictable winds and currents at Tierra del Fuego and the 350-miles of narrow waterways claimed one ship (while another took advantage of the confusion and fled back to Spain). But Magellan was ultimately victorious, using his longed-for passage to reach the Pacific Ocean in six weeks... (1519)