Ferdinand Magellan


Ferdinand Magellan was one of the most significant explorers of all time. His three-year voyage (which he did not survive) was the first successful circumnavigation of the globe and arguably represented the peak of the Age of European Exploration. Magellan’s life represents a fascinating case study of this pivotal moment in world history, and he himself remains a titan of maritime history. Join Active Minds as we discuss the historical context, life, and legacy of one of the most influential navigators ever.

Key Lecture Points

  • Ferdinand Magellan was  killed on April 27, 1521 in the archipelago now known as the Philippines in his attempt to circumnavigate of the globe. Although he did not live to see it to its completion, the voyage which Magellan captained until his death was an unparalleled feat of navigational prowess and courage.  As a result of his efforts, humans were able to more accurately gauge the span of the planet.
  • The Magellan expedition had an immediate impact on how Europeans viewed the globe and thus set the stage for the expansion of an already competitive effort by the nations of Europe to expand their trade routes (and empires) across the globe. Magellan’s expedition influenced parts of the world in ways that can be still be seen in the present. Put another way, the Magellan expedition was the first step in the globalization of the world.
  • Magellan’s legacy, however, is a complicated.  He is rightfully remembered as a daring explorer who accomplished what some of his contemporaries thought impossible.  But he is also seen as an avatar of European imperialism and the subjugation of indigenous peoples around the globe.

Exploration Questions

  • How do you judge Magellan’s legacy? Was he an intrepid navigator, a marauding imperialist, or somewhere in between?
  • What was the legacy of the Age of Exploration? Can you see arguments of this period’s legacy (such as the dispute over renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day) in the present?

Reflective Questions

  • What do you think was Magellan’s greatest contribution? Where would you rank his impact among the great explorers of the Age of European Exploration?
  • Where does Magellan’s circumnavigation rank on the list of human exploration? Is it comparable to other great moments in exploration, such as reaching the South Pole or the Apollo Mission?

More to Explore

  • Princeton University archive of information about Magellan Click here
  • Brief outline of Magellan's life and voyag Click here
  • Account of Magellan's life Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Zweig, Stefan.  Magellan.  Pushkin Press, 2012.  352 pages. Translated from German, a colorful biographical retelling of Magellan’s famous journey.
    Click here to order
  • Pigafetta, Antonio. A Narrative Account of the First Navigation. Dover, 2012. 208 pages. The published first-hand narrative from the voyage’s official chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta. Provides firsthand information of the circumnavigation.
    Click here to order
  • Bergreen, Laurance. Over the Edge of the World. HarperCollins, 2009. 512 pages. The authoritative modern recounting of Magellan’s biography, with additional information about the historical context of the era.
    Click here to order