The Explorers: Ferdinand Magellan
Ferdinand Magellan is the eighth figure in the exploration of North America by non-indigenous people. This was a continuing effort to map and explore the continent and advance the economic interests of said non-indigenous peoples of North America. It spanned centuries, and consisted of efforts by numerous people and expeditions from various foreign countries to map the continent.
The European colonization of the Americas describes the history of the settlement and establishment of control of the continents of the Americas by most of the naval powers of Western Europe. This began with the Norse colonization of North America in the late 10th century CE when Norsemen explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the northeastern fringes of North America. The Norse settlements in the North American island of Greenland lasted for almost 500 years though there is no evidence of any lasting Norse settlements on mainland North America.
Systematic European colonization began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East but inadvertently landed in what came to be known to Europeans as the “New World”. He ran aground on December 5, 1492 on Cat Island (then called Guanahani) in The Bahamas, which the Lucayan people had inhabited since the 9th century. Western European conquest, large-scale exploration and colonization soon followed.
Columbus’s first two voyages (1492–93) reached Hispaniola and various other Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot, on behalf of the Kingdom of England, landed on the North American coast, and a year later, Columbus’s third voyage reached the South American coast. As the sponsor of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, Spain was the first European power to settle and colonize the largest areas, from North America and the Caribbean to the southern tip of South America.
The Spaniards began building their empire of the Americas in the Caribbean, using islands such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola as bases. The North and South American mainland fell to the conquistadors, precipitating an estimated 8,000,000 deaths of indigenous people, primarily through the spread of Afro-Eurasian diseases. Some authors have argued this demographic collapse to be the first large-scale act of genocide in the modern era. Florida fell to Juan Ponce de León after 1513. From 1519 to 1521, Hernán Cortés waged a campaign against the Aztec Empire, ruled by Moctezuma II. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, became Mexico City, the chief city of what the Spanish were now calling “New Spain”. More than 240,000 Aztecs died during the siege of Tenochtitlan, 100,000 in combat, while 500–1,000 of the Spaniards engaged in the conquest died. Other conquistadors, such as Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, pushed farther north. To the south, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire during the 1530s. The centuries of continuous conflicts between the North American Indians and the Anglo-Americans were less severe than the devastation wrought on the densely populated Meso-American, Andean, and Caribbean heartlands.
The British colonization of the Americas started with the unsuccessful settlement attempts in Roanoke and Newfoundland. The English eventually went on to control much of Eastern North America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. The British also gained Florida and Quebec in the French and Indian War.
Other powers such as France also founded colonies in the Americas: in eastern North America, a number of Caribbean islands and small coastal parts of South America. Portugal colonized Brazil, tried colonizing the eastern coasts of present-day Canada and settled for extended periods northwest (on the east bank) of the River Plate. The Age of Exploration was the beginning of territorial expansion for several European countries. Europe had been preoccupied with internal wars and was slowly recovering from the loss of population caused by the Black Death; thus the rapid rate at which it grew in wealth and power was unforeseeable in the early 15th century.
Eventually, most of the Western Hemisphere came under the control of Western European governments, leading to changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the 19th century over 50 million people left Western Europe for the Americas. The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange, a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), ideas, and communicable disease between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.
Henry F. Dobyns estimates that immediately before European colonization of the Americas there were between 90 and 112 million people in the Americas; a larger population than Europe at the same time. Others estimate that there were about 60.5 million people living in the Americas immediately before depopulation, of which 90 per cent, mostly in Central and South America, perished from wave after wave of disease, along with war and slavery playing their part.
Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480 – 27 April 1521) was a Portuguese explorer who organized the Spanish expedition to the East Indies from 1519 to 1522, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth, which was completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano. Born around 1480 into a family of minor Portuguese nobility, Magellan became a skilled sailor and naval officer and was in service of the Portuguese crown in Asia. After King Manuel I of Portugal refused to support his plan to reach India by a new route, by sailing around the southern end of the South American continent, he was eventually selected by King Charles I of Spain to search for a westward route to the Maluku Islands (the “Spice Islands”).
Commanding a fleet of five vessels, he headed south through the Atlantic Ocean to Patagonia. Despite a series of storms and mutinies, they made it through the Strait of Magellan into a body of water he named the “peaceful sea” (the modern Pacific Ocean). The expedition reached the Philippine islands, where Magellan was killed during the Battle of Mactan. The expedition later reached the Spice Islands in 1521 and one of the surviving ships eventually returned home via the Indian Ocean, completing the first circuit of the globe.
Magellan had already reached the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia on previous voyages traveling east (from 1505 to 1511–1512). By visiting this area again but now travelling west, Magellan achieved a nearly complete personal circumnavigation of the globe for the first time in history.
Next Explorer: Giovanni Da Verrazzano
Previous Explorer: Hernan Cortes
- Battle of Mactan archives. (n.d.). The Magellan Project. https://magellanproject.org/tag/battle-of-mactan/
- Charles I of Spain elected emperor. (2016, July 12). Reformation 500. https://reformation500.csl.edu/timeline/charles-i-of-spain-elected-emperor/
- Collections online. (n.d.). British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG111855
- Copyright Fundación Real Instituto Elcano, 2002-2016. (n.d.). Juan Sebastian de Elcano. https://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/about-elcano/juan-sebastian-elcano-eng
- Ferdinand Magellan. (2002, January 16). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Magellan
- How did the Pacific Ocean get its name? (n.d.). NOAA’s National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/pacific.html