The Early Circumnavigators

by Les

The idea of the earth being round rather than flat has been known since ancient times. Eratosthenes calculated the diameter of the earth, a few years before he became Chief Librarian of the famous library at Alexandria (Egypt), in 236BC (that’s 2,248 years ago). But it took a long time for anyone to actually try to travel all the way around the earth.

Perhaps the first person to try something like this was Christopher Columbus. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, overland trade between Europe and China ceased. Europeans started to look for ways of restoring this trade, especially the trade in spices.

Portuguese sailors traveled south along the west coast of Africa, then east around the southern tip of Africa, and north (eventually) to India and the Spice Islands (now Indonesia).

Columbus attempted to reach the Indies, including the Spice Islands by sailing west. He first proposed this before Bartolomeu Dias reached the southern tip of Africa in 1488. He finally set out in 1492, and ran into a new world. He did not complete a circumnavigation, though many think he died believing he had reached the Indies. He underestimated the size of the earth, rather badly. Eratosthenes was only about 2% in error, 1730 years earlier.

Ferdinand Magellan is generally credited with being the first person to completely circumnavigate the globe. He did this in multiple voyages, starting by sailing east to the Maluku Islands in 1511, and later sailing west in 1519 to reach the same longitude in 1521. However, the eighteen survivors of Magellan’s 1519 voyage who returned to Spain in 1522 were the first to complete a circumvavigation of the globe in a single expedition.

A Spanish expedition left Spain in 1525 to repeat Magellan’s voyage, but none of the ships survived. A few members of the expedition finally returned to Spain via the Cape of Good Hope eleven years later, so they might be thought of as completing the second circumnavigation.

In 1577 Francis Drake was sent by Queen Elizabeth of England to harass the Spanish on the west coast of South America. He sailed from Plymouth with four ships and 164 men in November, but did not get clear of England until December. He did not reach the Pacific until September, 1578, and did so with only one ship. This ship, the Pelican, he renamed the Golden Hind, and conducted a successful series of raids against Spanish shipping and settlements. He captured enormous quantities of silver and gold, most of it from a single ship which had on board twenty-six tons of silver, as well as large quantities of gold and jewels.

In September, 1580, the Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, laden with enough treasure to pay off the English national debt, and 59 crew still alive. The ship was placed in a dry dock near Deptford, on the south bank of the River Thames, as a tourist attraction, where it remained until it gradually disintegrated from neglect about a hundred years later.

Twelve more voyages around the world were completed before 1626, but the next one was not completed until 1679. There were six more before 1711, then another gap of nearly thirty years.

In 1740, with England again at war with Spain, George Anson set out to repeat Drake’s accomplishment. The Royal Navy supplied him with old ships, minimal supplies, and a crew largely of invalids and raw recruits. Those who could deserted when they found out what was planned. The voyage was in many ways a disaster, and Anson returned to England in 1744 with only 188 of the 1854 men he had left with. But he did capture the Acapulco Galleon, loaded with 1.3 million pieces of eight plus over a ton of silver, enriching once more the British treasury at the expense of Spain. He was quickly promoted to the top post in the Royal Navy. The official report on the voyage was published under Anson’s name, and set the basis for future scientific expeditions to the Pacific.

This voyage was, in a way, the last circumnavigation by adventurers in search of plunder, even though it was an official government expedition. Future circumnavigations were largely more peaceful, and increasingly scientific.