Was Ferdinand Magellan one of the greatest frauds in history? Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a world-renowned historian, who holds the William P. Reynolds Chair at the University of Notre Dame, certainly thinks so.
In Straits: Beyond the myth of Magellan, Fernandez-Armesto definitively debunks the reputation of the Portuguese explorer, Ferno de Magalhes, better known as Ferdinand Magellan, as the first circumnavigator of the globe.
Magellan, sponsored by the King of Spain, Charles I, sailed on September 20 1519 from Seville in search of the Spice Islands in what is now Indonesia. His was the first European navigation from the Atlantic to Asia, through what became known as the Straits of Magellan. But the first circumnavigator was, in reality, one of his captains, Juan Sebastin Elcano.
Nonetheless, for centuries, Magellan has been celebrated as a hero with space explorers especially keen to link to the man who allegedly first circled the globe. Thus, Nasa's 1989 mission to Venus was named in his honour, and an asteroid bears his name, as well as craters on Mars and the Moon.
A company making GPS devices is named after him, while Magellan Financial is a global investment firm. This reviewer was, for two decades, Secretary of the Magellan Society in Canberra, established by the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American embassies in 1980, with a name that linked them all.
Fernndez-Armesto doesn't lack confidence - "I think I know as much about Magellan as you can know" - with his detailed forensic analysis of the extant archival documents and sources. He writes that Magellan's failure was total.
"As a commander, he failed in his duty. His preparation for the voyage was inadequate, his execution negligent...He managed his men poorly, provoking...mutinies...He seriously underestimated the size of the world."
Three of Magellan's five ships were lost on the voyage with the fourth deserting from the tip of South America. Magellan died on April 27, 1521 in an unnecessary conflict seeking gold in what is now the Philippines, rather than the original objective of spices. It was indicative that the surviving crew left Magellan's body behind.
It was left to the Basque captain, Juan Sebastin Elcano, to reach the Spice Islands and bring his ship, Victoria, back to Spain on September 6, 1522. Only 18 men survived the three-year voyage on Elcano's Victoria, which was in such a dilapidated state it was said it wouldn't have lasted another week of sailing.
Magellan was initially dismissed as a failure in Spain, while the Portuguese regarded him as a traitor for sailing for the King of Spain. Elcano, who was knighted by said king, made the grave mistake of not writing his account of the voyage and left for the Spice Islands in 1525, a voyage on which he dies. He then largely vanished into historical oblivion with reference to Magellan's voyage.
Magellan became the circumnavigation hero through the lively, but decidedly hagiographic, journal of the Italian, Antonio Pigafetta, one of the 18 survivors, who travelled with Magellan as part of the group of "captain's servants and notables". Pigafetta hoped that his journal "might grant me some renown with posterity", which it certainly did.
Fernndez-Armesto writes that "his account has eclipsed the influence of all other eyewitnesses and early recorders". Pigafetta travelled around European royal and papal courts with his 1524 manuscript on what was almost like a contemporary author tour. Once the printed version, Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo, appeared, Magellan was popularly confirmed as a "genius" who "circumnavigated the world, none having proceeded him". Elcano is airbrushed out of history in Pigafetta's account.
Fernndez-Armesto begins his book with the words "failure is fatal to happiness but can be fruitful for fame". Magellan's death, caused by his own arrogance, is thus a "great career move" as it allowed Magellan to evade the costs of failure and become "the central character in his own romantic legend". With Pigafetta's focus on the details of the voyage and not the various atrocities carried out on indigenous populations, Magellan, unlike Columbus or Cortés, has so far, according to Fernndez- Armesto, also escaped "the scattershot of postcolonial vengeance".
Magellan's failure notwithstanding, the information gleaned from the trip was politically and cartographically very significant. It opened up the vastness of the Pacific, "The Spanish Lake" as Oskar Spate termed it, although not for some time in actual voyages through the Straits of Magellan.
With the 500th anniversary of the circumnavigation to be celebrated on September 6, 2022, one hopes that Elcano takes his rightful place in the celebrations.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.