Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: John Fiske  | Date: 1520

The Voyage of Magellan to the Pacific

Our chief source of information for the events of the voyage is the journal kept by a gentleman from Vicenza, the Chevalier Antonia Pigafetta, who obtained permission to accompany the expedition, "for to see the marvels of the ocean." After leaving the Canaries on the 3d of October, the armada ran down toward Sierra Leone, and was becalmed, making only three leagues in three weeks. Then "the upper air burst into life" and the frail ships were driven along under bare poles, now and then dipping their yard-arms. During a month of this dreadful weather, the food and water grew scarce, and the rations were diminished. The spirit of mutiny began to show itself. The Spanish captains whispered among the crews that this man from Portugal had not their interests at heart, and was not loyal to the Emperor. Toward the captain-general their demeanor grew more and more insubordinate; and Cartagena one day, having come on board the flag-ship, faced him with threats and insults. To his astonishment, Magellan promptly collared him, and sent him, a prisoner in irons, on board the Victoria (whose captain was unfortunately also one of the traitors), while the command of the San Antonio was given to another officer. This example made things quiet for the moment.

On the 29th of November they reached the Brazilian coast near Pernambuco; and on the 11th of January they arrived at the mouth of La Plata, which they investigated sufficiently to convince them that it was a river’s mouth, and not a strait. Three weeks were consumed in this work. This course through February and March along the coast of Patagonia was marked by incessant and violent storms; and the cold became so intense that, finding a sheltered harbor with plenty of fish at Port St. Julian, they chose it for winter quarters and anchored there on the last day of March. On the next day, which was Easter Sunday, the mutiny that so long had smoldered broke out in all its fury.

The hardships of the voyage had thus far been what stanch seamen called unusually severe, and it was felt that they had done enough. No one except Vespucius and Jaques had ever approached so near to the South Pole; and if they had not yet found a strait, it was doubtless because therewas none to find. The rations of bread and wine were becoming very short, and common prudence demanded that they should return to Spain. If their voyage was practically a failure, it was not their fault; there was ample excuse in the frightful storms they had suffered and the dangerous strains that had been put upon their worn-out ships. Such was the general feeling, but when exprest to Magellan it fell upon deaf ears. No excuses, nothing but performance, would serve his turn; for him hardships were made only to be despised, and dangers to be laughed at; and, in short, go on they must, until a strait was found or the end of that continent reached. Then they would doubtless find an open way to the Moluccas; and while he held out hopes of rich rewards for all he appealed to their pride as Castilians. For the inflexible determination of this man was not embittered by harshness, and he could wield as well as any one the language that soothes and persuades….

At length, on the 24th of August, with the earliest symptoms of spring weather, the ships, which had been carefully overhauled and repaired, proceeded on their way. Violent storms harassed them, and it was not until the 21st of October (St. Ursala’s day) that they reached the headland still known as Cape Virgins. Passing beyond Dungeness, they entered a large open bay, which some hailed as the long-sought strait, while others averred that no passage would be found there. It was, says Pigafetta, in Eden’s bredth. On both the sydes of this strayght are Magellanus, beinge in sum place C. x. leaques in length: and in breadth sumwhere very large andin other places lyttle more than halfe a leaque in bredth. On both sydes of this strayght are great and hygh mountaynes couered with snowe, beyonde the whiche is the enteraunce into the sea of Sur…. Here one of the shyppes stole away priuilie and returned into Spayne." More than five weeks were consumed in passing through the strait, and among its labyrinthine twists and half-hidden bays there was ample opportunity for desertion. As advanced reconnoissances kept reporting the water as deep and salt, the conviction grew that the strait was found, and then the question once more arose whether it would not be best to go back to Spain, satisfied with this discovery, since with all these wretched delays the provisions were again running short. Magellan’s answer, uttered in measured and quiet tones, was simply that he would go on and do his work "if he had to eat the leather off the ship’s yards." Upon the San Antonio there had always been a large proportion of the malcontents, and the chief pilot, Estevan Gomez, having been detailed for duty on that ship, lent himself to their purposes. The captain, Mesquita, was again seized and put in irons, a new captain was chosen by the mutineers, and Gomez piloted the ship back to Spain, where they arrived after a voyage of six months, and screened themselves for a while by lying about Magellan.

As for that commander, in Richard Eden’s words, "when the capitayne Magalianes was past the strayght and sawe the way open to the other mayne sea, he was so gladde thereof that for ioy the teares fell from his eyes, and named the point of the land from whense he fyrst sawethat sea Capo Desiderato. Supposing that the shyp which stole away had byn loste, they erected a crosse uppon the top of a hyghe hyll to direct their course in the straight yf it were theyr chaunce to coome that way." The broad expanse of waters before him seemed so pleasant to Magellan, after the heavy storms through which he had passed, that he called it by the name it still bears, Pacific. But the worst hardships were still before him. Once more a sea of darkness must be crossed by brave hearts sickening with hope deferred. If the mid-Atlantic waters had been strange to Columbus and his men, here before Magellan’s people all was thrice unknown.

"They were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea";

and as they sailed month after month over the waste of waters, the huge size of our planet began to make itself felt. Until after the middle of December they kept a northward course, near the coast of the continent, running away from the antarctic cold. Then northwesterly and westerly courses were taken, and on the 24th of January, 1521, a small wooded islet was found in water where the longest plummet-lines failed to reach bottom. Already the voyage since issuing from the strait was nearly twice as long as that of Columbus in 1492 from the Canaries to Guanahani. From the useless island, which they called San Pablo, a further run of eleven days brought them to another uninhabited rock, which they called Tiburones, from the quantity of sharks observed in the neighborhood. There was neitherfood nor water to be had there, and a voyage of unknown duration, in reality not less than 5,000 English miles, was yet to be accomplished before a trace of land was again to greet their yearning gaze. Their sufferings may best be told in the quaint and touching words in which Shakespeare read them:

"And hauynge in this tyme consumed all theyr bysket and other vyttayles, they fell into such necessitie that they were inforced to eate the pouder that remayned therof beinge now full of woormes…. Theyre freshe water was also putrifyed and became yelow. They dyd eate skynnes and pieces of lether which were foulded abowt certeyne great ropes of the shyps. But these skynnes being made verye harde by reason of the soonne, rayne, and wynde, they hunge them by a corde in the sea for the space of foure or fiue dayse to mollifie them, and sodde them, and eate them. By reason of this famen and vnclene feedynge, summe of theyr gummes grewe so ouer theyr teethe [a symptom of scurvy], that they dyed miserably for hunger. And by this occasion dyed xix. men, and . . . besyde these that dyed, xxv. or xx. were so sicke that they were not able to doo any seruice with theyr handes or arms for feeblenesse: So that was in maner none without sum disease. In three monethes and xx. dayes, they sayled foure thousande leaques in one goulfe by the sayde sea cauled Pacificum (that is) peaceable, whiche may well bee so cauled forasmuch as in all this tyme hauyng no syght of any lande, they had no misfortune of wynde or any other tempest…. So that in fine, if god of his mercy had not gyuen them goodwether, it was necessary that in this soo greate a sea they shuld all haue dyed for hunger. Whiche neuertheless they escaped soo hardely, that it may bee doubted whether euer the like viage may be attempted with so goode successe."

One would gladly know—albeit Pigafetta’s journal and the still more laconic pilot’s logbook leave us in the dark on this point—how the ignorant and suffering crews interpreted this everlasting stretch of sea, vaster, said Maximilian Transylvanus, "than the human mind could conceive." To them it may well have seemed that the theory of a round and limited earth was wrong after all, and that their infatuated commander was leading them out into the fathomless abysses of space, with no welcoming shore beyond. But that heart of triple bronze, we may be sure, did not flinch. The situation had got beyond the point where mutiny could be suggested as a remedy. The very desperateness of it was all in Magellan’s favor; for so far away had they come from the known world that retreat meant certain death. The only chance of escape lay in pressing forward. At last, on the 6th of March, they came upon islands inhabited by savages ignorant of the bow and arrow, but expert in handling their peculiar light boats. Here the dreadful sufferings were ended, for they found plenty of fruit and fresh vegetables, besides meat. The people were such eager and pertinacious thieves that their islands received the name by which they are still known, the Islas de Ladrones, or isles of robbers.

On the 16th of March the three ships arrived at the islands which some years afterward werenamed Philippines, after Philip II of Spain. Tho these were islands unvisited by Europeans, yet Asiatic traders from Siam and Sumatra, as well as from China, were to be met there, and it was thus not long before Magellan became aware of the greatness of his triumph. He had passed the meridian of the Moluccas, and knew that these islands lay to the southward within an easy sail. He had accomplished the circumnavigation of the earth through its unknown portion, and the remainder of his route lay through seas already traversed. An erroneous calculation of longitudes confirmed him in the belief that the Moluccas, as well as the Philippines, properly belonged to Spain. Meanwhile in these Philippines of themselves he had discovered a region of no small commercial importance. But his brief tarry in these interesting islands had fatal results; and in the very hour of victory the conqueror perished, slain in a fight with the natives, the reason of which we can understand only by considering the close complication of commercial and political interests with religious notions so common in that age….

Meanwhile, on the 16th of May, the little Victoria, with starvation and scurvy already thinning the ranks, with foretopmast gone by the board and fore-yard badly sprung, cleared the Cape of Good Hope, and thence was borne on the strong and friendly current up to the equator, which she crossed on the 8th of June. Only fifty years since Santarem and Escobar, first Europeans, had crept down that coast and crossed it. Into that glorious half-century what a world of suffering and achievement had been crowded! Direnecessity compelled the Victoria to stop at the Cape Verde Islands. Her people sought safety in deceiving the Portuguese with the story that they were returning from a voyage in Atlantic waters only, and thus they succeeded in buying food. But while this was going on, as a boatload of thirteen men had been sent ashore for rice, some silly tongue, loosened by wine, in the head of a sailor who had cloves to sell, babbled the perilous secret of Magellan and the Moluccas. The thirteen were at once arrested, and a boat called upon the Victoria, with direful threats, to surrender; but she quickly stretched every inch of her canvas and got away. This was on the 13th of July, and eight weeks of ocean remained. At last, on the 6th of September—the thirtieth anniversary of the day when Columbus weighed anchor for Cipango—the Victoria sailed into the Guadalquivir, with eighteen gaunt and haggard survivors to tell the proud story of the first circumnavigation of the earth.

The voyage thus ended was doubtless the greatest feat of navigation that had ever been performed, and nothing can be imagined that would surpass it except a journey to some other planet. It has not the unique historic position of the first voyage of Columbus, which brought together two streams of human life that had been disjoined since the glacial period. But as an achievement in ocean navigation that voyage of Columbus sinks into insignificance by the side of it; and when the earth was a second time encompassed by the greatest English sailor of his age, the advance in knowledge, as well as the different route chosen, had much reduced the difficulty of the performance. When we consider the frailness of the ships, the immeasurable extent of the unknown, the mutinies that were prevented or quelled, and the hardships that were endured, we can have no hesitation in speaking of Magellan as the prince of navigators. Nor can we ever fail to admire the simplicity and purity of that devoted life, in which there is nothing that seeks to be hidden or explained away.


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Chicago: John Fiske, "The Voyage of Magellan to the Pacific," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.82-91 Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2021,

MLA: Fiske, John. "The Voyage of Magellan to the Pacific." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.82-91, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2021.

Harvard: Fiske, J, 'The Voyage of Magellan to the Pacific' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.82-91. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2021, from