Embarked upon one of the most historically significant excursions in human history, Ferdinand Magellan encountered many serious challenges during the course of his voyages. It is important to remember that early-16th century voyages such as those undertaken by Magellan were conducted on relatively small wooden ships with limited provisions and no real comforts for the crew. Medical care was on par with what one could expect of the time and place and normal human psychological factors frequently came into play. Harsh weather conditions and exposure to disease served to drastically reduce the assets—in terms of ships and men—available to Magellan. Confinement under such harsh conditions and with starvation a frequent threat, it is unsurprising that Magellan confronted mutinies and disasters during the voyage. Mutineers had to be severely punished, which usually meant by death, as a deterrent to future such revolts on the part of desperate crews. This served to maintain order and discipline, but obviously at the expense of a sparse but essential commodity, experienced sailors.
In addition to challenges from weather, starvation, mutiny and disease, Magellan and his men also had to contend with hostile receptions from indigenous tribes. Indeed, Magellan’s death occurred as the result of an ill-considered decision to support one tribe against another in battle in the Philippines, thereby suggesting that armed hostilities involving indigenous peoples constituted the single gravest challenge to the famed explorer.
While combat with hostile tribes was obviously a major challenge to the Magellan and his crew, one could conclude that the most serious challenge he faced during his voyages was the instability inherent in a crew of hundreds of men living under harsh conditions at sea for long periods of time. That he faced mutinies, therefore, was not surprising. Captains of ships wield tremendous authority relative to all those aboard his or her ship. That authority, however, is challenged when the right set of circumstances—such as disease, starvation and the psychological toll months at sea under primitive conditions can exact on a crew—coalesce. Magellan’s ruthlessness in dealing with mutineers was both inevitable and ugly and could be said to have constituted the main challenge he confronted.