Featured case: Magellan versus Quesada:
To Mutiny or Not to Mutiny

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The case

whoWho – the protagonists

Fernão de Magalhães, later called Magellan (pictured), admiral of a Spanish fleet of five sailing ships in the 16th century, and Gaspar de Quesada, Captain of one of the five ships.


Magellan was born in the north of Portugal around 1480. When studying in the Portuguese Archive of Navigation, he more than likely saw a map drawn by the draper and geographer Martin Behaim showing a passage or ‘paso’ through the Americas to the ‘Southern Sea’, which would be of enormous value to King Charles I of Spain, given the fact that Spain was increasingly desperate to find a westward passage to the Spice Islands, as the eastward route around Africa had been assigned to Portugal by the pope.

Magellan, feeling unwanted in Portugal, offered King Charles I to lead a fleet to the passage and open a direct route to the spice islands and India. King Charles I eventually agreed to the proposal.

But during the expedition, the Spanish captains, led by Quesada, were concerned about the ability of their leader to accomplish the mission.


Running the five-ship fleet across the Atlantic autocratically, Magellan refused to debate the course of the voyage with the captain of the biggest ship of the fleet, Juan de Cartagena. Cartagena then refused a required evening salute and was subsequently taken into custody on one of the ships.

Things got worse, Magellan also deposed Cartagena’s successor, Antonio de Coca, and entrusted his Portuguese cousin Alvaro de Mesquita to command the mightiest ship of the fleet.

Rio de la Plata,A month later and the fleet reached the area that was marked as the passage on Behaim’s map. Unfortunately, the area was just a wide river - the Rio de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay. Following a fruitless two-month search, Magellan, without consulting the Spanish captains, decided to spend the next few months in a natural harbour, ready to restart the search after the Southern Hemisphere winter.

A mutiny was brewing amongst the Spanish captains who realised that their leader didn’t know where to go - despite his promises to their King…


Magellan was searching for a passage further and further south of the Rio de la Plata in South America. Prior to this, Magellan stated that he knew the exact geographical passage to the West, much to the frustration of the fleet.


It was 20 September 1519 when the voyage set sail from Spain. Taking roughly a month to reach South America, it was another 15 days before they realised the Rio de la Plata wasn’t a passage. Two months followed with no further luck - until the expedition arrived in the natural harbour and the events of the case unfold.

Key quote

“Magellan’s refusal to answer questions as to their route and his sources seemed to be an obvious sign that he had lost his bearings. Or perhaps, they might have thought, the Portuguese followed secret plans he had made against the Spanish? Maybe his personal goals differed from those of the others? Could he be double-minded and in reality, pursue the interest of the Portuguese?” - the case explaining how Magellan lost his way.

MagellanWhat next?

Once Magellan refused to head back to Spain, the captains decided to act as they became increasingly concerned about the ability of Magellan to achieve the stated objectives of the expedition.

In the middle of the night, Quesada led the Spanish captains and a boat of 30 armed sailors to the San Antonio. Once on board, they put Mesquita and all other Portuguese in chains, entrusting the San Antonio to another Spanish captain, Juan Sebastián Elcano (pictured). With three of the five ships - among them the biggest of the fleet - the Spanish captains considered themselves as the dominant military power, and demanded to be heard as to future decisions.

Both Magellan and the Spanish captains had a lot of reflecting to do. Could Magellan have managed things better? Did the captains and their followers do the right thing?

Interested in finding out more?

Download the case and teaching note

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Magellan versus Quesada: To Mutiny or Not to Mutiny
Ref ESMT-719-0184-1

Teaching note
Ref ESMT-719-0184-8

Also available:

Magellan versus Quesada: To Mutiny or Not to Mutiny 
German language version
Ref ESMT-719-0184-1D

Magellan versus Quesada: To Mutiny or Not to Mutiny? The Events After the Case 
Teaching note supplement
Ref ESMT-719-0184-9

Instructor presentation material
Ref ESMT-719-0184-7

The author

authorUrs Mueller

Urs talks about the appeal of using historical stories for cases, avoiding the term ‘dilemma’ and the challenges of the case writing process.

Relevant as ever

Urs said: “Why do we still read classical literature - because old stories sometimes allow us to get to the core of a topic without the distractions of describing the current state of affairs.

“There is a lot to be learned from the case for current students and managers: Magellan and Quesada face difficult decisions about loyalty, obedience, authority, followership and leadership. What should leaders do if they don’t really know what comes next? When might subordinates be allowed or even obligated to mutiny against their bosses. These are deep questions - and today just as relevant as 500 years ago.

Relevant as ever

“I originally decided to turn the story into a case, when I was approached by a HR development executive. He was concerned that the middle-managers in his organisation were not critical enough with the top management, which had led to some bad decisions in the past. He was faced with a challenge: What can be done to stimulate a corporate culture in which challenging decisions from superiors is accepted? The Magellan case - which I knew from a wonderful novel by the author Stefan Zweig - came to my mind and I immediately started writing.”

Excitement of history

Urs continued: “The excitement of the historical setting helps for the discussions. Many students and participants know about Magellan at least in general terms - and most find the age of explorers and discoveries exciting. I usually observe a high level of energy in the room - and many good and controversial discussions.

“One of the benefits of the historical setting is that it allows us to challenge conventional wisdom, especially about the world getting more and more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

“The last few decades leading up to the expedition included the invention of the printing press, the first trip around Africa, the fall of Granada, the ‘discovery’ of America, the introduction of double-entry accounting, Copernicus’ observation that the earth circles around the sun, Martin Luther and the reformation, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dürer, Machiavelli - just to name a few. In just about 40 to 50 years the world had changed drastically.”

authorKeeping all options open

He explained: “When teaching business ethics, I tend to avoid the term ‘dilemma’. Not because there are none, but because I want to avoid the seemingly binary logic: as soon as I label something as a dilemma, I will tend to think about not much more than two options/choices, both of which are undesirable. I do, however, believe that many ethical challenges allow for many more options than just two - especially in ethical decision making by managers.

“With the Magellan case, I point - usually using D. Rousseau’s concept of psychological contract violations - directly to the limited set of options. Due to the prior behaviour of Magellan (Magellan had already replaced a Spanish captain who wanted to discuss the course of the expedition), and the setting of the case (for Europeans: at the end of the world in a sparse and cold environment), there seems no other options than to stay loyal or to mutiny. And according to my experience this is a relevant insight - especially for middle managers who can usually easily identify with both protagonists of the case.”

Shorter case advantages

Urs added: “There are many good reasons to write long cases - and I have written several long cases myself. But, ceteris paribus, shorter cases are usually preferable for a number of reasons:

  • participants are more likely to read the case - especially in executive education
  • if the underlying concepts and theories for the case are deep and complex (as in the Magellan case), the discussion will usually become livelier if the presentation of the case is short and easy, and
  • participants can keep just more details of the case in mind when the case is shorter. Like this, we can avoid turning a management class into a reading seminar.”

Staying focused

He concluded: “As for many case authors my biggest challenge was my excitement about the story and the (historical) context. I immersed myself into the situation and read excellent books and articles (some of which are listed in the teaching note). I then had to fight the temptation to build too much of this into the case. But through several rounds of editing, I tried to make it more concise and easier to understand.”

About the author

Urs Mueller is an Associate Professor of Practice at SDA Bocconi School of Management and Affiliate Program Director at ESMT Berlin.
e urs@urs-mueller.com


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