The Circumnavigation that proved the World was Round

3rd March 2016


Many ancient cultures throughout history considered the world to be flat, with depictions including a floating in the ocean. Although it was not widely accepted until the 16th century, the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, was thought to be the first to suggest the world was round in the 6th century BC.

In 1494, at a time where many educated circles still remained in doubt over the curvature of the earth, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed by Pope Alexander VI. This divided the world in half, with the Americas and surrounding islands being promised to the Kingdom of Spain and sovereignty of the eastern hemisphere handed to the Portuguese.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailor, had gained a name amongst the people as a successful sailor and explorer for his role in the conquest of Malacca (Indonesia). He returned to Portugal in 1512 but ended up falling out of favour with the Portuguese monarchy for taking leave without permission. King Manuel I of Portugal repeatedly refused Ferdinand Magellan’s persistent requests to lead an expedition to the Spice Islands from the east.

He studied recent charts with the help of cosmographer, Rui Faleiro, in an attempt to determine a gateway from the Atlantic to Pacific which would avoid damaging relations with Spain. The passage he planned on sailing would take him through the southern tip of South America and is known to this day as the Strait of Magellan. In 1517, Magellan, along with his partner, Rui Faleiro, made successful contact with Juan de Aranda of Spain. With his support, they presented their project to the Spanish King, Charles I (also known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor).

The Spanish crown accepted and funded the project based on their terms and conditions. King Manuel I of Portugal was furious and ordered a naval detachment to pursue Magellan, but he managed to evade them. A fleet of five ships was sent on the expedition, which departed Spain in 1519 on a journey that later became an attempt to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.

It is worth noting that Magellan was Christian evangelist, which could well have been the cause of his death. After successfully navigating the Strait of Magellan and sailing across the Pacific Ocean, he reached the Philippines, where he remained adamant on converting all those that he met to Christianity. King Lapu Lapu of the Philippines, however, refused to convert, so Magellan burnt his village on the island of Mactan. The king continued to refuse and an ensuing battle saw Magellan struck by a spear and stabbed multiple times. To this day, the Philippines regard Magellan as a tyrant, rather than a hero and the Battle of Mactan is re-enacted every year.

Lesser known Basque mariner, Juan Sebastian Elcano, commanded the return voyage on board the only ship that would survive the circumnavigation. He and 18 survivors of the original crew of 260 arrived in Seville on September 6, 1522. Upon arrival, Elcano was presented with a coat of arms by Charles I of Spain. It featured the motto: “Primus circumdedisti me”, which is Latin for “You went around me first”.

Although the circumnavigation alone did not entirely prove the earth was spherical (it could have been cylindrical or irregularly globular), this journey provided a concrete example of the possibility of being able to sail around the planet. It would be 58 years until another attempt at a circumnavigation would be completed. This took place in 1577; when the well-known English navigator, Sir Francis Drake, became the first survive a complete circumnavigation. He returned to England on board the Golden Hind in 1580.

Despite many technological advances being made in the way we move around the world, cruising remains a popular way to travel. Today, Star Clippers can provide an opportunity to revisit a bygone era of traditional sailing, whilst taking you to blissful destinations in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, Caribbean, Cuba and Far East Asia.