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Oct 26

A True Hero of Exploration: The Adventures of Magellan

The story of Magellan’s voyage around the world is one of almost uninterrupted adventure and peril. His men faced harrowing hardships, storms, mutiny, disease, starvation, sunstroke, shipwreck, cowardice and desertion, treachery, savage warfare, and vicious national jealousies. Yet at great cost they prevailed over all obstacles and after three year’s one of Magellan’s ships returned to Spain with only 18 of the 250 who set forth. This book follows one of the greatest adventure stories of all time and accurately portrays the lives of the fascinating indigenous peoples the Spanish encountered in their voyages.

The Adventures of Magellan by George M. Towle
Ferdinand Magellan by Frederick A. Ober

Magellan and his men plant the cross in the Philippines.

Almost every school child manages to learn the basic facts about world exploration. They know that Columbus discovered America, Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, and Magellan was the first sailor to lead a crew of Europeans around the entire globe. But what they often don’t know is that biographies of early explorers are some of the most exciting adventure stories in all of world history, and that first hand accounts of the earliest explorers provide fascinating insights into the lives of the indigenous peoples the encountered in their travels.

Many of the most exhilarating adventures of exploration were undertaken by Spanish sea-farers but in spite of their enormous significance, histories written for English Speaking audiences often pass over their achievements too quickly. Fortunately, Heritage History has an outstanding collection of the biographies of world explorers written for a general audience and based on original sources. Two of our authors in particular, Frederick Ober, and George M. Towle, both wrote fascinating series about the lives of world explorers and both series can be found on the Spanish Empire collection.

Instead of featuring these outstanding series, however, today we’re focusing just one hero—the story of Ferdinand Magellan. The lives of all explorers are filled with peril and adventure, but the personality of the hero and the particulars of the calamities, trials, and difficulties that befall them are very different. The character of the noble Magellan, for example, could not be more unlike that of the nefarious Pizarro. The one had a true missionary spirit and dealt as fairly with the natives as possible; while the other sought only personal gain through unrestrained violence.

To fully appreciate the audacity of Magellan’s voyage, it is important to remember the date at which it was undertaken. His voyage began in 1519, only six years after Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean. At that time, neither Cortez nor Pizarro had yet made their fame as conquistadors and Spanish settlements in the New World were still few. The full mineral wealth of the Spanish possessions in America was not yet realized and discovering a western trade route to the Far East was foremost in men’s minds. Absolutely nothing was known of the Pacific Ocean at the time; there were no provisioning stations outside the Caribbean and the men who embarked on the trip were as stalwart as those who first sailed the unknown seas with Columbus.

Magellan set sail from Spain with five ships and 280 men. Only one ship, and eighteen men returned from the voyage.

Magellan’s voyage was accompanied by perils of all kinds, from mutiny, to starvation, to tribal warfare. Like Columbus he had to deal with the jealousy of Royal courts at home as well as tribal wars and rivalries among the natives. Also like Columbus, Magellan sincerely believed that part of his mission was to spread Christianity among the natives, but on this front, his initial success was undone by treachery and superstition. Even when his struggling fleet, after enormous sufferings, made its way to a trading port in the Spice Islands, the remaining crew had to deal with perfidious Moslem and Portuguese traders who sought to prevent their return to Spain. Although the afflictions of nature; including storms, temperature extremes, disease, and starvation took a heavy toll on the crew, the losses due to human deceit and aggression were even more devastating. Magellan himself was killed in a tribal war he became involved in on behalf of a treacherous chieftain, and the final leg of his voyage was completed without him.

Magellan’s story is both inspiring and a warning. Magellan was a great leader and an admirable gentlemen who undertook his courageous voyage with noble intentions and dignity of spirit. His combination of intelligence, patience, courage, and unshakeable resolve, allowed him to put down a mutiny and inspire his crew in almost impossible circumstances, and his life story is a refreshing contrast to those of other, more roguish heroes of exploration. But his faith and courage only serve to contrast his character with those of the majority of men he encountered. Duplicitous Moslem kings, treacherous tribal chiefs, cowardly crewmen, and jealous courtiers alike conspired to foil his efforts. The ultimate success of his voyage, in spite of all obstacles, is one of the greatest, and most fascinating, achievements in human history.

We recommend our collection of world exploration biographies primarily for middle school and high school students simply because most are told in a level of detail that is best appreciated by older students. They are, however, a feast of adventure stories for students of any age who are mature enough to appreciate them.

About the Authors:

Of our two favorite exploration biographers, George M. Towle is slightly easier for young students. He was a New England born and educated author, lawyer, and Politician. He is best known for his “Heroes of History” series featuring the biographies of six explorers, including Vasco da Gama, Pizarro, Marco Polo, Raleigh, and Drake, as well as Magellan. He is also well known for his translations of the works of Jules Verne, including Around the World in Eighty Days.

Frederick Ober was an American ornithologist who lived for over twenty years in the West Indies and Caribbean and his intimate knowledge of the region, which factored so importantly in the early history of the Americas, is apparent on every page. His histories are based largely on original sources and are reliable accounts of the some of the most fascinating and important turning points in human history. In addition to Magellan, the subjects of Ober’s biographies include: Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Columbus the Discoveror, Hernando Cortes, Ponce de Leon, Ferdinand de Soto , Francisco Pizarro, Amerigo Vespucci, John and Sebastian Cabot, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

About the author

T. A. Roth

Content Editor at Heritage History, Homeschooling Mom of Five, Armchair historian

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