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Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

For centuries, Ferdinand Magellan has been celebrated as a hero: a noble adventurer who circumnavigated the globe in an extraordinary feat of human bravery; a paragon of daring and chivalry. Now historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto draws on extensive and meticulous research to conduct a dazzling investigation into Magellan’s life, his character and his ill-fated voyage.

He reveals that Magellan did not attempt – much less accomplish – a journey around the globe, and that in his own lifetime, the explorer was abhorred as a traitor, reviled as a tyrant and dismissed as a failure. Fernández-Armesto probes the passions and tensions that drove Magellan to adventure and drew him to disaster: the pride that became arrogance, audacity that became recklessness, determination that became ruthlessness, romanticism that became irresponsibility, and superficial piety that became, in adversity, irrational exaltation. And as the real Magellan emerges, so too do his true ambitions, focused less on circumnavigating the world or cornering the global spice market than on exploiting Filipino gold. Offering up a stranger, darker and even more compelling narrative than the fictional version that has been glorified for half a millennium, Straits untangles the myths that made Magellan a hero. Shortlisted for the History Reclaimed Book of the Year Prize.

I’m called Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. I belong to the University of Notre Dame. The book in question is called Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan.

It’s a biography of the man who is popularly supposed to have initiated and planned the first circumnavigation of the world. But as usual with most things that are popularly supposed, it isn’t true and neither is anything, that if you’re a normally well-educated person, you’ve heard about Magellan. Everything that you’ve heard about Magellan is false. The purpose of the book is to show that and to try and capture what he was really like. He was nasty. As dead white male explorers go, he was probably one of the most brutal, ruthless, mendacious and evil you can think of. But of course, he had great quantities of perseverance and daring. To some extent these were the result of his childhood. He was an orphan. He was brought up in a Portuguese Court as a poor boy amongst rich kids, and partly as a result of his childhood reading and romances of adventure and that was really how he conceived his own life. It was going to be a romance adventure and he was going to be the hero.

Above all he wanted to recover the nobility that he thought was his birthright and that he was afraid he had lost. One of the main reasons why he launches his career into fast track by deserting the service of his native King, the King of Portugal, and entering Portuguese service was his desire to be made a knight. That was what was normally the reward for training at the Royal Court in Portugal. Magellan didn’t get it in his native country but when he goes to Spain he’s treated as a bit of a celebrity, he gets his knighthood and he’s given a commission to go off and find a short route to the spice islands, the producers of the most valuable crops in and products in the world in terms of value per unit of bulk.

He makes the voyage but it’s a complete disaster. Everything goes wrong, he loses all but one of his ships, 90% of his men die or are captured by enemies, the voyage makes no profit, that’s another myth that’s commonly associated with him, and above all Magellan himself dies en route having challenged the orders of the King, the desires of his fellow officers and the interests of his men. Indeed he persists with the voyage even when it’s obvious that it has failed and that it cannot produce any good results and I think that in his death in battle on a beach in the Philippines against native adversaries there’s a kind of deliberate self-immolation. He goes out on a high and a contrived death which is itself modelled on some of those romances of chivalry and perhaps above all, one of the greatest stories in the whole cannon of chivalry, the story of Roland.

Although to me, the real mystery of Magellan’s story is: How is it that a life of such abject failure, which includes a career of terrible crimes like treason and murder and arson and massacre, comes to be celebrated and actually come to be exempt? Because most of those old dead white explorers are reviled and traduced and besmirched and their statues are torn down and they’re cancelled in the history books. And yet Magellan has become a tremendous icon of scientific progress and enlightenment. There are commercial enterprises, universities, species, whole galaxies named after this guy and it shows to me the vagaries of reputation. I don’t have an answer to the question of why some guys, like Columbus who was much better guy really, get the brick bats and others get the fame. I don’t have an answer to that question but I think Magellan’s life and apotheosis ideally represent the difficulty of making a judgment like that. Perhaps above all in Magellan’s case, although he wasn’t very literary; he didn’t write his own story he got someone else to write it for him, he had a stooge if you’re like, his first great biographer Antonio Pigafetta who wrote a marvellous little laudatory account of the voyage in which he himself took part and was one of the few of a handful of survivors. And it was his very appreciative laudatory write-up of his former master and employer that I think has set the tone for the whole historiographical tradition until now, when I have set out to subvert it.

One of the difficulties of writing about Magellan is that unlike Columbus or Vespucci, he hasn’t left a lot of writings of his own. Now those guys wore their hearts on their sleeves, they poured out autobiographical material. Magellan didn’t do that, and apart from a few memoranda and depositions in court cases, there’s not a lot from his own pen. What there is, however, is like a huge amount of archival material all of which has been discovered, however much of which has been published. And it’s really by scrutinising in greater detail, and with greater care than ever before, all these available sources. Not only the documentaries but also the early biography by Magellan’s stooge and employee Antonio Pigafetta. By scrutinising all the documents in greater depth than ever before I’ve been able to, I think evoke a picture of Magellan which is more realistic, more human, more believable and by no means positive, because like everybody else he is a mixture of virtues and vices and in his case the vices rather outweighed the virtues. But you don’t see that until you bring to the sources the kind of traditional humanistic critical techniques that I’ve tried to deploy.

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Felipe Fernandez-Armesto