The Age of Exploration and Discovery


This historical study chronologically follows the teaching of the Renaissance for its primary focus is upon the explorers of the New World. However, exploration by Europeans began with the Vikings and later with Marco Polo—among others—and these historical figures are also investigated. Student activities associated with this study include map-making, illustrations, charts, and composition writing.

Lesson Eleven: Ferdinand Magellan

A Portuguese captain of intrepid spirit and tremendous abilities would achieve what Columbus set out to do: reach the Indies by sailing west. Moreover, the remnant of his fleet would continue the voyage and become the first maritime expedition to circumnavigate the globe.

Ferdinand Magellan gets the credit for leading the first voyage to sail around the world–a voyage of unbelievable hardship. In the end it was a bitterly ironic achievement because Magellan was among the majority of sailors who perished en route. Nonetheless, his intrepid leadership was the driving force leading to the eventual success of the expedition, despite the fact that he himself did not survive the perils of the voyage.

Magellan was a Portuguese nobleman who was orphaned as a boy. He served in India and the East in the Portuguese-controlled areas. There he developed his seamanship and along with it a desire to circumnavigate the globe, an accomplishment no one had yet come close to attaining. He wanted to do what Columbus had set out to do, travel to the East Indies by sailing west. The Portuguese crown was not interested in financing such a dangerous journey, so Magellan–like Columbus before him–went to Spain to seek a sponsor. The Spanish king, Charles V, was intrigued by the idea and gave his support. Magellan set sail in September, 1519 with about 280 sailors in five mediocre vessels.

Fortunately for posterity, one of the crew, an Italian named Pigafetta, kept a journal and later wrote an account of the voyage. The expedition had problems from the outset, one being that the Spanish and the Portuguese did not get along well. The Portuguese were in the minority, being 37 in all. Perhaps the contentiousness of the crew was an ill omen. In the end, only one of the five ships, the Victoria, was to complete the long voyage.

Magellan sailed southwest toward the southern end of South America. The fleet searched in vain for a passage around the cape and settled for the winter in Port St. Julian in present day Argentina, farther south than Europeans had ever sailed. The journey had been slow because they had explored every harbor to see if it would prove to be a channel running through the continent. Due to the length of the voyage and the prospect of a winter in a desolate region far from home, the rumblings of mutiny began after the New Year passed. The sailors were superstitious and their fears of encountering monstrous creatures increased when they saw penguins, unrecognized bird species and llamas, all for the first time.

On April 1st, Magellan invited his highest officers, most of whom were Spanish, to dine with him. None of them came. Instead, later that day Magellan received a message from them demanding that the fleet return immediately to Spain. Magellan was faced with a mutiny. The commander responded quickly and brilliantly, and with the ruthlessness that characterized naval protocol of that era.

Passing Through the Straits

When a small boat was dispatched from the mutineer’s ships to give Magellan their demands, Magellan cleverly positioned his vessel between the small boat and the mutinous ships. The mutineer commanders could not see that Magellan arrested the party and put men loyal to him in the boat to take back his message. When they arrived at one of the mutineer ships, one of the men–acting under Magellan’s orders–immediately stabbed and killed the leader of the mutiny on that vessel. At the same time, men loyal to Magellan clambered on board the other rebellious ships. The bold move worked, as the mutineers, with their leader dead, did not resist.

Consequently, in that era’s horrific mode of naval punishment, Magellan had the remaining captains of the mutiny executed in front of the assembled crew. Magellan sentenced to death the men who had gone along with the mutiny. Then, in a stroke of brilliant psychology, after letting them despair for some time, Magellan announced that they were pardoned. As a result, the grateful men forged unswerving loyalty to their commander. They would need it, for Magellan would lead them through terrible ordeals.

After more than a year from the date of their departure, in October of 1520, Magellan found a strait, now bearing his name, which would allow them through the frigid waters at the tip of South America. Leaving one hapless mutineer behind in Patagonia, Southern Argentina, he continued the journey. It took 38 days to negotiate the narrow strait and during that time one of the ships deserted and turned back for Spain. Magellan was never to know what happened to it. When the deserting ship reached Spain, the officers and crew began to spread lies about Magellan.

Balboa had seen the ocean earlier and named it the great Southern Sea. It was Magellan who called it the Pacific (peaceful) due to the gentle winds that he found as he entered. Today the water passage between the two great oceans (the Atlantic and Pacific) is named the Strait of Magellan in the explorer’s honor.

Magellan resisted the pleas of the timorous, who wanted to turn back for Spain, and continued across the vast emptiness of the Pacific. It was to be one of the most difficult voyages in the history of navigation. After two months of sailing they were nowhere near any major land mass. During the bleak Pacific crossing, Magellan’s men ate the last of their biscuits, now rotten or reduced to insect-infested powder. When the biscuits were gone they ate sawdust, the leather from their belts and shoes (boiled until softened) and any rats they could catch. The going price for a rat was half a crown, a small gold coin. Even when drinking the putrid water from the barrels on board, the men held their nose due to the brackish stench. Fortunately, occasionally flying fish would leap on board, and the men would pounce on this source of fresh seafood.

Not surprisingly the men developed scurvy. The sailor’s gums bled and turned black; “their gums grew fat,” wrote Pigafetta. They became feverish and docile, unable to work or even move. Dozens of them died. They were given last rites and were thrown overboard. About thirty more were so ill from scurvy that they could not work and in many cases could not move. The men despaired of surviving the voyage.

According to Magellan’s maps, he should have been in Asia. Little did he know he was not even half way across the vast Pacific. He threw the maps overboard in disgust. The very next day they spotted an island and landed briefly, but found little in the way of supplies. The crew decimated; they finally reached an island with bananas, coconuts, sugar cane and yams. The waters were teeming with fish. Magellan’s crew had sailed half way across the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on the planet.

By February 13th they had crossed the equator, and in March they landed in Guam. He called the island Ladrones (thieves) when the islanders tried to rob his boats. Today they are called the Marianas. On March 16th he landed on an island in what was to become known as the Philippines. They reached the Ladrone Islands and two weeks later the Philippines. They had sailed half way around the world. On one of the Philippine Islands, Magellan was given a basket of ginger and a bar of solid gold. He realized that the wealth of the Spice Islands must be near at hand.

Magellan continued westward and reached the island of Cebu, which he claimed for Spain. The commander must have been relieved and deeply satisfied. He had sailed half way round the world and had proven that the great water ways and oceans of the world were interconnected. He had demonstrated that it was possible to arrive in the east by sailing west. And now he had opened up a fabulous trade route for Spain. But here the story turns tragic for Magellan.

The people of Cebu and their ruler were peaceful and amicable at first, even when Magellan claimed the island for his king. When he tried to convert the chieftain to Christianity, the island leader seemed agreeable. Magellan did not realize that his seeming acceptance of the intentions of the Spaniard was superficial and insincere. It was customary among the island people to show politeness, grace and hospitality, but they would only bend so far.

The chieftain of Cebu had designs of his own; he thought to use the Spaniard’s presence to his advantage against a traditional enemy. He told Magellan that the nearby island of Cilapulapu was resisting Spanish authority by refusing to acknowledge the dominion of the Spanish crown. Magellan accompanied a large group of soldiers to the island where they made the mistake of attacking the main village. They were immediately confronted by a much larger band of armed islanders. The two groups exchanged volleys of arrows and spears for some time, but eventually Magellan decided to break off the attack. As his men retreated to the boats, Magellan was struck in the face by a spear. He fell to the ground and before his men could attempt a rescue, a swarm of islanders fell upon him and hacked him to death. Magellan’s men were disconsolate at the loss of their leader. They sailed back to Cebu and told the rest of the crew of the disaster. With the death of Magellan, the crew fell into squabbling and behaved like pirates among the natives. Finally a leader emerged who was able to organize them sufficiently to continue their voyage. He was Juan Sebastian del Cano.

Two of the remaining vessels developed leaks and became too dangerous to face the long voyage home, so they were destroyed. Now with only 47 Europeans and some islanders gathered on the way, the newly elected captain, Juan Sebastian del Cano, embarked for Africa. Their troubles were still not over. More men died of scurvy in the Cape Verde islands controlled by Portugal; others were arrested. Only eighteen of the original crew reached Seville at the end of three epic and tortuous years.

When the emaciated sailors disembarked, del Cano led them on foot to two churches where they gave thanks for their successful arrival. Stunned crowds gathered to stare at the stricken sailors who had endured indescribable privation and suffering. In recognition of his service, the king gave del Cano a small pension and a coat of arms with an image of a globe and the inscription. “You were the first to circumnavigate me.” The cargo of 26 tons of cloves which the crew had secured was sold at a tremendous rate of profit. Yet with such staggering losses and expenses for the voyage, the entire expedition barely paid for itself.

Magellan was almost forgotten and did not receive the honor due him until many years later. It is generally agreed by scholars of the voyage that had Magellan survived, many of the difficulties of the latter part of the voyage most likely would have been avoided. Sadly, his wife died when she heard the news of his death.

His voyage is one of the great accomplishments in all of world history. It has been said that up until Magellan’s circumnavigation of the earth, the world was constantly expanding. Since that time it has been growing smaller. Two decades after his death, a chronicler wrote the following tribute to the great navigator: “The track the Victoria followed is the most wonderful thing and the greatest novelty that has ever been seen from the time God created the first man and ordered the world unto our own day. Neither has anything more notable ever been heard or described since the voyage of the patriarch Noah.”

With the passage of time it is clear that Magellan was one of the ablest of the maritime leaders of the period. He combined leadership with diplomacy uncommon among the Spanish and Portuguese captains of conquest. Had he not tragically been killed, it is likely that many more of the original crew would have retuned home alive.

Lesson Activities

1. Narrate the story of Magellan’s voyage. What were some of the obstacles to a harmonious journey?

2. Have the students look at a globe. Point out the Pacific Ocean. They can see that it covers almost half the planet. Imagine what it must have been like for Magellan’s crew to keep sailing for over three months without ever seeing land. Imagine the endurance it must have taken to continue this almost impossible voyage.

3. Ask the students to draw a map showing Magellan’s voyage. It will essentially be a map of the world.

4. Painting: watercolor of the Straits of Magellan

  • Introduction: the Seventh Grade Child
  • Lesson One: Viking Explorers; Eric the Red and Leif Ericsson
  • Lesson Two: Travels of Marco Polo
  • Lesson Three: Age of Discovery Gets Underway
  • Lesson Four: Prince Henry the Navigator; the Slave Trade
  • Lesson Five: Bartholomew Diaz
  • Lesson Six: Vasco da Gama
  • Lesson Seven: Vasco da Gama continued; the Results of the Spice Trade
  • Lesson Eight: Europe Finds America; Christopher Columbus
  • Lesson Nine: Columbus’ Voyages
  • Lesson Ten: Treaty of Tordesillas; Amerigo Vespucci; Foods of the Americas
  • Lesson Eleven: Ferdinand Magellan
  • Lesson Twelve: The Conquistadors; Cortez and the Conquest of Mexico
  • Lesson Thirteen: Cortez continued
  • Lesson Fourteen: Conclusion of the Conquest of Mexico; After the Conquest
  • Lesson Fifteen: Balboa; Orellana and the Amazon Voyage
  • Lesson Sixteen: Pizarro and the Inca Empire of Peru
  • Lesson Seventeen: Pirates and Buccaneers of the Spanish Main
  • Lesson Eighteen: Cabeza de Vaca
  • Lesson Nineteen: Cabeza de Vaca continued; Spanish Legacy in the Americas
  • Lesson Twenty: Review Questions
  • Bibliography