Revista de Marina
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The discovery of the strait of Magellan, a feat of globalization

Descubrimiento del estrecho de Magallanes una proeza de la globalización

  • Published at: 01/09/2020. Visto 1941 veces.
  • Abstract (spanish):

    El descubrimiento del estrecho de Magallanes es una hazaña que permitió encontrar una vía marítima que conectara dos océanos, posibilitando abrir nuevas rutas de navegación para el comercio hacia el viejo continente. Sin lugar a duda, al analizar la importancia que tuvo este descubrimiento, podemos afirmar que la globalización, como concepto, no comenzó con la explosión de las comunicaciones y el internet, en el siglo XX, sino que se fundó en la mente y los corazones de aquellos que buscaban en Las Indias, el comercio y la riqueza para la Europa de hace 500 años.

  • Keywords (spanish): Globalización, Estrecho de Magallanes, Hernando de Magallanes.
  • Abstract:

    The discovery of the Strait of Magellan is a grand achievement that enabled a seaway that connected two oceans, allowing new trade routes to the old continent. Analyzing the importance that this discovery had, we can affirm without a doubt that globalization, as a concept, didn´t begin in the 20th century with the internet or communication boom, but it was founded in the hearts and minds of those that searched the Indies, for trade and wealth in the Europe of 500 years ago.

  • Keywords: Ferdinand Magellan, Strait of Magellan, Globalization.

The activities commemorating the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the earth are part of the international agenda of those countries that were part of this global feat, which had significant relevance for all mankind.

As far as Chile is concerned, the first great milestone of Magellan's expedition was the discovery and transit of the strait, which is described brilliantly and in a detailed manner by historian Mateo Martinic in his book “A Memorable Journey”.

This essay describes and narrates aspects of the aforementioned title. First, the discovery nature of this voyage that enhances the spirit of a sailor that sets sail in search of new horizons, full of uncertainties, but with the will to push ahead. Secondly, the prowess nature of this feat, identifying succinctly those features that history assigns to those who achieve this kind of feat, which could well be compared to mankind colonizing our solar system and establishing human life in the planet Mars. Lastly, we can affirm that globalization as a concept that did not begin in the 20th century with the internet and communication boom but was established in the hearts and minds of those that pursued in the Indies, trade, and wealth for the Europe of 500 years ago.


The era of great discoveries by sea had begun at the end of the 15th century, with the monumental milestone such as the discovery of America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. This feat coincided with the victory of the Catholic kings in Granada, Spain, and the commencement of the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. But also, in 1497, Vasco de Gama had already arrived in the Indies, implementing a commercial route by sailing around Africa and rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1501-1502, Amerigo Vespucci completed the surveillance of the eastern coast of Brazil and discovered Uruguay, the River Plate, and the Atlantic Patagonia.

This overview permits the visualization of the context of the expeditions to present date and identifies how the crowns of Portugal and Castile are at the forefront of geographical knowledge and exploratory enterprise. Adding to this context is the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain. The Treaty is of vital importance to the events that were to occur in the following years, as well as in 1519, on the eve of departure to the Terra Incognita.

This essay does not give detailed descriptions about Magellan´s actual preparations for the expedition or why the Portuguese sailor sailed under the flag of the Spanish crown instead of following King Manuel I of Portugal. For further details, I suggest reading the abovementioned book by Mateo Martinic as a motivation to deepen the knowledge and understanding of the strategic and political situation of those years which shaped the world scenario of power, trade, and world economy.

It is worth noting that in September 1519 Magellan's expedition had set sail with five ships from Sanlucar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River in Spain. By October 1520, only four ships were in conditions to enter an area described by the pilot Francisco Albo in his memoirs as:

…at 21st of the said day, I observed the sun at 52 degrees, 5 leagues from the coast and there we saw an opening shaped as a bay, and has at the entrance, on the righthand side, a very long sandy point and the cape that we had discovered is named “Cape of a Thousand Virgins”…

From the previous paragraph we can observe that the navigation officer keeps rigorous astronomical observations which allowed, a posteriori, to have clarity with regards to the geographical landmarks discovered by the expedition and which later on will have greater relevance. Likewise, from the readout of those documents and other sources, we can grasp the contribution made by this expedition with the astronomical observations, which would eventually change the understanding of celestial navigation. In fact, pilot Francisco Albo, as well as Pigafetta, describe how, as they kept sailing southward, the observation of the North Star began to fade, but at the same time a set of four shining stars started to appear, forming a permanent quadrilateral arrangement and the section that joins the outer stars remains aligned in the general direction of the south (Southern Cross).

Likewise, the description of the landmark where the eastern inner bay begins, known today as Point Dungeness, was named “Cape of the Thousand Virgins”. This naming has a religious connotation since October 21st is the celebration of Saint Ursula. This martyr of the Catholic Church is said to had been killed in the year AD 383 by Attila, the King of the Huns. By not denouncing their faith, she and eleven virgin maidens were then sacrificed.

After entering the eastern mouth of the strait, Magellan had to ascertain whether this new entrance was what he was looking for or just another dead-end bay. For this purpose, he sent a scouting party ashore, which incidentally constitutes the first landfall in southern Chile. This party, in charge of pilot Juan Carvallo, disembarked on the northern coast of the strait, known now as “Posesion”, and subsequently climbed the 106 meters of “Mount Dinero”. In this position there is a landmark recently built in 2002 by the Chilean petroleum company ENAP, which marks the first geographical spot of the discovery of the strait, in what would later become our present-day Chile.

At the same time, Magellan arranged a task force composed of the “San Antonio” and “Concepción” to navigate the newly discovered bay and verify if it had an exit route. These two ships sailed the first and second narrows, returning later to where Magellan was, encountering on its path a storm of great intensity which lasted more than a day. Meanwhile, Magellan, who had also suffered the intensity of this storm, observed bonfires made by natives on the southern coast of the strait, and incorrectly assumed that his ships had capsized, which in fact never happened.

On this occasion, Magellan names the southern coast of the strait as “Tierra del Fuego” (Land of Fire). Pigafetta describes this event as follows:

“Two days had passed without our seeing the reappearance of the two ships sent to find out the end of the bay, so we assumed they were lost in the storm we had just experienced; and on seeing smoke on land, we assumed that those who had the good fortune of having been saved, had lit fires to announce to us that after the shipwreck, they were still alive.
However, while still in the uncertainty about their fate, we saw them coming back to us, with sails unfurled, flags flapping in the wind, and when closer, shouting with joy, they fired several gunshots.”

During the 37 days that Magellan sailed through the strait, they carried out different activities such as scouting, food and water provisions, and resting for the crew, all of which is fully described in the bibliography of reference. However, the arrival at “Bay of Sardines”, currently known as “Fortescue Bay”, is the most relevant event.

The arrival and what happened thereafter, constituted the decision point in the discovery of this interoceanic crossing.

Having arrived with the remaining four ships, Magellan held a council with his commanding officers. They reviewed the campaign, and after an estimate of the situation some decisions were taken. The first of which was determining which of the different routes will take them to the other body of water (which he would later name “Pacific”). This was a significant task considering they faced an unknown territory and which, for those who have sailed in the southern fiords of Chile, presents numerous options.

Initially, he sends two ships exploring in a southerly course along the coast of Dawson Island, reaching further south of Admiralty Inlet. Only “La Concepción” returned to Fortescue bringing a situation report to his fleet commander. The other ship (“San Antonio”) defected and sailed back to Spain.

At the same time, Magellan decided to explore north of Fortescue, but this time he sends a small boat fitted with sails and oars to carry out a short reconnaissance and gather information of the area. This way he kept the two ships in a position to receive news from the other task unit.

This type of activity, which presently is still carried out when sailing in areas not previously explored, yielded the expected results. Lieutenant Roldan de Argote, along with three other sailors, presumably sailed, initially up the Jeronimo Channel, but upon arriving at Otway Sound, realized that there was no way out and reversed course, continuing west of that access. Today it is known as “Crooked Reach”, a hill of approximately 300 meters of height, in the shape of a bell. They ascended it from where they could appreciate the extension of the “Long Reach”, concluding that at the end of this channel was the exit towards the Pacific Ocean.

This news was received with great joy by the crew of the remaining three ships of the expedition. Therefore, on November 11th, 1520, Magellan arranged the celebration of a holy Mass ashore conducted by the fleet´s chaplain, Father Pedro Valderrama. Today this location is referred to as Wigman Island, in Fortescue Bay.

Finally, they sailed for six days exiting the strait, via what Magellan named “Cape Deseado”, for everything that had meant to him and all his crews for such a long time until that moment. Today this location is marked by the Felix Lighthouse.

The rest of Magellan's story in his journey across the Pacific; his adventures in Southeast Asia; his death in the Philippines and the subsequent return of Sebastian Elcano in command of a crew of only 18 of the 265 men who initially set sail, is a must for readers who like adventures. In this case, I strongly recommend reading Pigafetta, as a primary source and witness of all that transpired.


There is no doubt that the undertaking of circumnavigating the globe in these three-mast vessels, with an average displacement of 100 tons each, roughly 21 meters in length, 7 meters beam, and a draft of 3.5 meters, can be considered quite precarious. But in spite of these conditions, Magellan did not due without provisions for this expedition. He had anchors, ropes, pulleys, pumps, carpentry, and blacksmith tools embarked. The ships were also equipped with guns, including small arms and their ammunition for seafaring use or defense in case of attacks. Weapons, such as swords, spears and crossbows were also included.

The expedition´s food supplies was planned according to the use and custom of the seafarers of the 1500´s, which Spain had standardized from their experiences in their voyages to America.

These provisions included dry foods such as rice, beans, garlic, dried fruits, wine, and vinegar. For protein, they brought livestock such as cattle, pigs, and chickens. Water was carried in jars, which were replenished with rainwater while underway and during port calls or anywhere along the coast that had a capacity for water replenishment.

This enterprise based its success on the ability of positioning their ships in open seas and find proper courses, allowing them to reach the unknown latitude of the supposedly interoceanic crossing. For this purpose, they embarked seven astrolabes, twenty-one wooden quadrants, thirty-five compasses and six pairs of compasses to plot the position and courses on the charts. They also included twenty-eight hourglasses and twenty-four nautical charts, as well as papyrus and leather for the elaboration of new charts during the voyage.

According to Pigafetta, Magellan, with the title of “Fleet Captain General”, was of Portuguese origins, but at the service of the King of Spain. Magellan´s main challenge was his crew. His captains were predominant Spanish and some Portuguese, and a mixed multinational crew. This diversity led to noxious effects on the cohesion of the fleet and especially among his ship´s Captains. The results were riots, indiscipline, trials, death sentences and various sorts of justice to maintain discipline and good order on board the ships.

Paradoxically, the only volunteer, unpaid, and supernumerary of the expedition, was the chronicler Antonio Pigafetta. Of Italian descent, originally from Vicenza and who had no executive role on board has been quoted in extenso during this account. Fate had him survive three years on board these ships and save himself from famine, the Philippine tribes, and various diseases and calamities of which he endured along with the rest of these epic crews. There is no doubt that this was a feat, an unparalleled accomplishment in the history of humanity which allowed globalization as we know it today; in other words, the globe communicated through sea routes that man sought to explore, to navigate, and to trade, and that for this purpose, as nowadays, 500 years ago, they chose the sea.


Magellan's expedition is the result of a reality and political-strategic context of the 15th century. Columbus´ discovery of the Americas in 1492; the route to the Indies established by Portugal via the southern tip of Africa, triggered Spain to find an ocean-political alternative to dispute the control of maritime trade towards the Indies. Likewise, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas created the conditions for a commercial war between these two maritime and commercial powers, and whose main booty was access to the species that Europe, at that time, valued as much as the gold imported from the newly discovered America.

Magellan, a Portuguese navigator, but in service to the King of Spain, managed to organize an expedition to satisfy the political objective of Spain. To this end, he set sail from the Iberian Peninsula five hundred years ago, in September 1519, with five ships and 265 men, for a projected two-year voyage.

On October 21st, 1520, he accessed the eastern mouth of the strait, which still bears this name, navigating this passage for 38 days. One of the most relevant activities during this period, was taking possession of this land, in the name of the Spanish crown. Later, at Bay of Sardines, in what would eventually be the future Governorate of Chile, he consolidates his feat of transiting towards the Pacific.

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