Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Magellan expedition’s circumnavigation of the globe opened the westward passage to the Spice Islands. The voyage explored and named the Pacific Ocean, demonstrated that the earth is round, and proved the existence of a New World distinct from Asia.

Summary of Event

Ferdinand Magellan was born of an aristocratic family in north Portugal around 1480 and was reared as a page in the royal household, where he learned navigation, astronomy, algebra, and geometry. At age fifteen, he enlisted as a volunteer to sail to India, where he served with distinction and was wounded in the Portuguese siege of Melaka in 1506. In 1508, he returned to India, where he was again wounded at the Battle of Diu the following year, and in 1510, he was rewarded with a captaincy for his numerous services and bravery. After seven years abroad, Magellan returned to Portugal in 1512 to enlist in a campaign against the Moors in Africa, where he was again severely wounded. Following this venture, Magellan unfortunately found himself unemployed and passed over for further service, as he was out of favor with the court of King Manuel I, being humiliated by accusations of financial irregularities and trading with the Moors. Though the charge was later dropped, Magellan apparently could see no future for his skills in Portugal. He denounced his nationality and emigrated to Spain in 1518. His biographers have described Magellan as an imaginative, resourceful, and energetic man, but one of quiet dignity who apparently felt thwarted at home by continual intrigue. Exploration and colonization;Spain of the New World Exploration and colonization;Spain of Asia Charles V (1500-1558) Magellan, Ferdinand Pigafetta, Antonio Rodríguez de Fonseca, Juan San Martín, Andrés Elcano, Juan Sebastián de Balboa, Vasco Núñez de Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Pigafetta, Antonio San Martín, Andrés Rodríguez de Fonseca, Juan Elcano, Juan Sebastián de Magellan, Ferdinand

Magellan and his expedition at the Strait of Magellan—later named in his honor—connecting the South Atlantic with the South Pacific as it winds 350 miles (563 kilometers) through southern Argentina and southern Chile.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

These personal intrigues were only a small component in global politics designed to seize as much territory as possible in the New World. According to the revised papal donation of Alexander VI, Portugal had been granted all the new lands of the east up to longitude 46 º west. The Peninsular statesmen, however, were not sure what islands and areas in Asia fell east and west of longitude 134 east, the continuation of the line of demarcation on the opposite side of the globe. Meanwhile, the Spaniards, in the second decade of the sixteenth century, had established a strong footing on the new continent. After Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s discovery of the South Sea in 1513, explorers looked westward, feeling that they had an opportunity to extend their influence to the wealthy lands of Asia. As it turned out, they were mistaken. Longitude 134 east, while placing most of Japan, Australia, and New Guinea in the Spanish sphere, passed far to the east of the Spice Islands Spice Islands (Moluccas). Yet, in 1519, neither Magellan nor his new employers were aware of this.

In the winter of 1518, Magellan visited the imperial court of Charles V at Valladolid and convinced Charles, as king of Castile and Holy Roman Emperor, to authorize a major voyage westward to explore a route to the Spice Islands. Magellan’s task of persuasion was easier than that of Christopher Columbus had been, for Magellan had the discoveries of the previous two decades to support his arguments. Armed with the royal commission, Magellan moved to Seville, where he spent more than a year outfitting his fleet.

The five ships granted to Magellan were not completely seaworthy. They were old, were ill-maintained, and had repeatedly been subject to accidents and repair. This somewhat decrepit fleet comprised the San Antonio(120 tons), the Trinidad (110 tons), the Concepción (90 tons), the Victoria (85 tons), and the Santiago (75 tons). Unfortunately, only the 85-ton Victoria was destined to complete the voyage, which would ultimately cover 45,000 miles (72,420 kilometers), and it would arrive with only 18 survivors from the original complement of 237 men.

Magellan experienced considerable difficulty enlisting crews, particularly since sea travel paid low wages and presented high risks to seamen. Also, the population of Castile was drastically reduced by the bubonic plague. Consequently, the company was composed of sailors from Portugal and all over Europe, as well as Levantines and Africans. Not only were language and ethnic differences a disadvantage, but conditions of health and morale were also such that they would later result in general discontent and even several mutinies. Magellan’s enterprise was further jeopardized by having inexperienced, court-appointed Castillian ships’ officers, many of whom were arrogant, pompous landlubbers, unqualified as either leaders or seamen. Finally, Magellan’s situation was complicated during the voyage by several plots to have him killed by enlisted assassins.

The fleet, replete with all these difficulties, set sail from San Lúcar on September 20, 1519. In addition to the sailors Magellan had managed to enlist, he carried with him noted Venetian naturalist Antonio Pigafetta, who kept records of the voyage; Andrés San Martín, Spanish scholar and Magellan’s ill-fated pilot; and Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, a Spanish bishop interested in the conversion and exploitation of the New World. The fleet made an Atlantic run of more than two months, which landed them in Brazil. From there, they held closely to the coast of South America, being always on the lookout for a strait that would take them to the South Sea. When summer ended in the Southern Hemisphere in 1520, Magellan decided to go into winter quarters in southern Patagonia. In this dreary region, the expedition remained from March to August, 1520, but its stay was not uneventful; mutiny broke out, the San Antonio was deserted, and the tiny Santiago was smashed to pieces on a reef while exploring and charting the coast.

Finally, in August, Magellan recommenced his long voyage westward, eventually discovering and entering, on October 21, the strait—Strait of Magellan Magellan, Strait of —that now bears his name. Thirty-eight days were spent traversing the 320 miles (515 kilometers) between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This was a relatively slow passage, but Magellan was fortunate with favorable climatic conditions. Finally, on November 28, 1520, seven years after Balboa had first sighted the South Sea, Magellan, with a fleet reduced to three ships, entered the waters of the Pacific, thereby solving the riddle of the westward passage.

What followed was a great contest of endurance. The seemingly interminable crossing of the Pacific reduced the ships’ companies to a diet of rats, weevil-infested hardtack, sawdust, and leather. His crew probably suffered more severely from scurvy than any other trans-Pacific exploration. Not until they reached Guam in the Ladrone Islands on March 6, 1521, did the ships drop anchor. After replenishing their food and water, they then set sail for the Philippines Philippines;Spain and , arriving at Cebu on April 7. There Magellan formed an unfortunate alliance with the local ruler, which later involved him and his crew in a small war that resulted in the death of Magellan and forty of his men.

Following Magellan’s death, the expedition disintegrated. For lack of a crew, the Concepción was burned. The Trinidad attempted to sail to Panama but was eventually captured by the Portuguese. It remained for the Victoria, under Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano, to complete the circumnavigation alone. He steered the ship through the Spice Islands and across the Indian Ocean for South Africa, deliberately avoiding normal shipping lanes, beset with scurvy, starvation, and Portuguese harassment. With only eighteen Europeans and four Malays, scarcely enough to staff the ship, the resourceful de Elcano sailed into San Lúcar on September 6, 1522, and arrived at Seville on September 8, 1522, three years less twelve days after his departure.


After the tragedy of the captain’s death, the completion of the voyage was left to his few remaining crewmen. Magellan’s goal had arguably been achieved, however, once he had reached Asia by sailing west from Europe. In fact, Magellan’s westward journey had probably passed beyond any eastward points that he had touched during his Portuguese service in 1513-1514. Consequently, some historians claim that Magellan in person had indeed been around the world. Though his ill fortune did not allow him to make a single circumnavigation from Spain back to Spain, he had discovered a westward route to the Spice Islands, thereby succeeding where Columbus had failed. Moreover, Magellan proved definitively the roundness of the earth by linking west Europe with east Asia, revolutionized perceptions of relative land mass in comparison to large bodies of water, and demonstrated the existence of a New World of the Americas separate and distinct from Asia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. New York: William Morrow, 2003. Engaging and dramatic narrative of Magellan’s voyage, which is portrayed day by day according to ship’s logs and the journals of crew members. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joyner, Tim. Magellan. Camden, N.J.: International Marine, 1992. One of the most thorough and well-researched accounts of Magellan, his voyage, and his crew, dealing with the various phases of Portuguese political intrigue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Written by a noted historian, this work contains a well-researched and annotated chapter on Magellan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nowall, Charles E., ed. Magellan’s Voyage Around the World. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1962. A useful compendium of historical accounts, particularly the ethnographic accounts and descriptions of flora and fauna encountered by Antonio Pigafetta, as well as the records of Maximilian of Transylvania, who, as secretary to Charles V, debriefed the Magellan expedition survivors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliveira, Fernando. Another Report About Magellan’s Circumnavigation of the World: The Story of Fernando Oliveira. Translated by Pedro Sastre. Edited by Karl-Heinz Wionzek. Manila, Philippines: National Historical Institute, 2000. Firsthand account of Magellan’s voyage, written by a member of his crew. Includes illustrations, maps, and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parr, Charles McKew. Ferdinand Magellan: Circumnavigator. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964. Originally published under the title So Noble a Captain in 1953, this work provides a comprehensive survey of secondary Portuguese and Spanish archival sources. It explains the sociopolitical intrigue to extend national influence and to break the new spice trade monopoly held by Portugal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parry, J. H. Europe and the Wider World, 1415-1715. London: Hutchinson, 1949. This older work emphasizes the rivalries within sixteenth century Europe and the subsequent political and socioeconomic impact upon Magellan’s voyage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penrose, Boies. Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Provides an appraisal and recognition of the importance of Magellan’s circumnavigational voyage in chapter 10. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pigafetta, Antonio. Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. Translated by R. A. Skelton. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1994. English translation from a French text of Pigafetta’s Italian journal. Full of detailed descriptions of the events of the voyage, the lands discovered, and the habits, customs, and tales of the indigenous peoples encountered, as well as examples of their vocabulary.

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1502: Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

Sept. 29, 1513: Balboa Reaches the Pacific Ocean

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

1565: Spain Seizes the Philippines

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

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