Ferdinand Magellan Research Paper

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The circumnavigation of the globe in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan provided the first empirical proof that the Earth is round. Magellan is also renowned for discovering the strait at the southern tip of South America that now bears his name.

The Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan led a crew whose survivors circumnavigated the Earth from 1519 to 1522. Most people in the sixteenth century understood that the Earth is a sphere; despite longstanding beliefs to the contrary, as early as the third century BCE the Greek mathematician and geographer Eratosthenes proved this fact by geometry. Nevertheless, Magellan’s circumnavigation was the first empirical proof that the Earth is round. Magellan also proved that the Americas were not necessarily a barrier between Europe and Asia; rather, merchants could sail from one continent to the other by passing through a strait Magellan discovered at the southern tip of South America, duly named the Strait of Magellan.

Born about 1480 in either Sabrosa or Porto, Portugal, Ferdinand Magellan was the son of Rui de Magalhaes and Alda de Masquita, both nobles. Queen Leonor of Portugal brought Magellan as a boy to Lisbon, where he served as her page. He joined the Portuguese fleet in 1505 and sailed to the Indian Ocean, where he served until 1512. Wounded in one battle and decorated for valor in another, Magellan rose to the rank of captain in 1512 and returned briefly to Lisbon. The next year he was wounded again, in a battle against Muslim Arabs, or Moors, in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite Magellan’s wounds and heroism, King Manuel of Portugal refused twice to increase his pay, suspecting that Magellan had traded with the Moors. Magellan denied the charge, and in 1517 pledged loyalty to Spain, Portugal’s rival.

The rivalry arose between Spain and Portugal over which nation would the first to circumvent the land route from India to the Iberian Peninsula over which merchants carried spices. The Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus thought he had done this in 1492 by sailing west from Spain, on whose behalf he set out. But by Columbus’s death in 1506, Europe’s monarchs and merchants understood that he had found not India but a new land altogether. In the meantime, Portugal had beat Spain in the maritime race to India when Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, India, in 1498, claiming the Indian Ocean and with it the spice trade.

The Spanish were thus stuck with a new continent they initially regarded as an impediment on the way to Asia rather than an economic opportunity of its own. Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa sparked a glimmer of hope by discovering a new ocean, which Magellan would later name the Pacific, in 1513. If a strait could be found between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Spain would be able to sail west to Asia and contest Portuguese control of the spice trade.

This task fell to Magellan. His status as a nobleman, his service in the Indian Ocean, and his heroism inspired the confidence of Emperor Charles V, the king of Spain, who in March 1518 granted Magellan five ships. After amassing provisions and a crew of nearly 270 men, Magellan sailed on 20 September 1519, southwest into the Atlantic Ocean in search of a strait through South America.

He faced trouble from the outset. Each excursion into a river of South America ended in a cul de sac, and by March 1520, winter in the Southern Hemisphere prompted Magellan to halt at Port San Julian on the eastern coast of South America and put his crew on short rations. Furious that Magellan had not retreated north to warm waters, the captains of three of his ships mutinied. Magellan restored order, only to have one ship run aground. Worse, while in port Magellan discovered that his suppliers had cheated him with provisions for six months rather than the eighteen he had ordered. The men had no choice but to eat anything they could find: worms, insects, rats, or sawdust.

With only four ships and short of food, Magellan renewed the expedition that August, and by October 1520 entered the strait that would lead him to the Pacific and then bear his name. So circuitous was the passage that Magellan had to divide his ships to reconnoiter parts of the strait. His largest ship instead deserted Magellan, sailing back to Spain. After more than a month, Magellan’s remaining three ships at last navigated through the strait and into the Pacific Ocean.

The way to the Indian Ocean now lay open, but Magellan ultimately had little chance to rejoice. Anchoring off the island of Cebu in the Philippines, Magellan and his most loyal men went ashore in April of 1521, lured there by the king of Cebu on the pretense that he was Christian and wanted Magellan’s help in ridding the island of heathens. The natives instead attacked Magellan. Covering the retreat of his men, Magellan was wounded repeatedly and bled to death. Of the remaining three ships, two were in such poor condition that the crew abandoned them. Only eighteen survivors returned in the last ship to Seville, Spain, on 8 September 1522, completing the circumnavigation of the world Magellan had begun nearly three years earlier.


  1. Bastable, T. (2004). Ferdinand Magellan. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac.
  2. Kaufman, M. D. (2004). Ferdinand Magellan. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press.
  3. Kratoville, B. L. (2001). Ferdinand Magellan. Novato, CA: High Noon Press.
  4. Molzahn, A. B. (2003). Ferdinand Magellan: The first explorer around the world. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers.
  5. Thomas, H. (2004). Rivers of gold: The rise of the Spanish empire from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House.

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