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Posted on 24 May 2022 in Non-Fiction |

FELIPE FERNÁNDEZ-ARMESTO Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Was the explorer Ferdinand Magellan the hero European history has claimed him to be?

Failure is fatal to happiness but can be fruitful for fame. Metaphorically, resurrection often follows crucifixion. Sometimes partial but spectacular success adds glamour to a downfall, like Alexander’s or Napoleon’s. Magellan is exceptional because his failure was total. Yet his renown seems impregnable.

Why is this? Filipe Fernández-Armesto does not answer this question but he does trace Magellan’s life and times with scholarly thoroughness, advising anyone prompted to celebrate Magellan’s achievements in 2022 (seven centuries after 35 sailors – without Magellan – completed the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe) to ‘discard the myths, penetrate the truth’ and learn what Magellan’s achievements, and failures, really were.

As Fernández-Armesto admits, there is little that can be said for certain, but he marshals whatever evidence is available, makes no apology for ‘wielding imagination disciplined by the evidence’ and by his own ‘long study of the subject’, and is thorough in checking and citing his sources, including those originally written in Spanish.

One of the delights of this book, for me, was Fernández-Armesto’s absolute confidence in his own ability ‘to show more of what Magellan was like than any of [my] predecessors’; and his willingness to voice controversial opinions about, for example, those ‘Enragés’ who express ‘modern wrath’ by toppling statues, like those of Columbus, in order ‘to protect them from onlookers and onlookers from offence’. However, this book is so packed with information about the history and politics of Magellan’s times, and with other information peripheral to Magellan’s actual voyages, that it is not always easy reading.

Magellan, it seems, in spite of the kudos he has garnered over the centuries and the many things named after him (craters on the moon, for example) was not a hero, nor did he circumnavigate the globe, as is popularly believed. His loyalties were ‘negotiable’, he took needless risks, launched an invasion, and briefly captured one of the ‘giants’ in the South American land he jokingly named ‘Patagonia’ (meaning ‘big paws’) and ‘took possession of in the name of the king of Spain’. The voyage for which he is best known was a failure, he lost ships, his sailors died or deserted, two of his ships’ captains incited their crews to mutiny against him, and he failed to reach the destination he was supposed to reach.

Against all this, Fernández-Armesto makes a good case for Magellan’s chivalric intentions, showing how the pattern of his life was influenced by his education as a page at the Portuguese court of Dom Manuel, where ‘chivalry was the aristocratic ethos of the day’ and young men absorbed its code and were trained for holy warfare. Magellan’s own writings, too, show that he had read the popular legends of knights errant; and his actions in the Philippines, where he began to convert the islanders to Christianity, were clearly undertaken with Christian zeal. Magellan, it was said, ‘rarely displayed prudence but never lacked courage’.

Fernández-Armesto spends a good deal of time describing the political and business complexities of the world into which Magellan was born. He fills out details of his early life, his marriage, his mercantile ventures, and, in particular, his experiences of war during Portuguese colonising expeditions along the east coast of Africa. Eventually, Magellan, like many other adventurous young Portuguese men at the time, abandoned Dom Manuel when he did not receive the recognition he thought he deserved, and gave his allegiance instead to the Spanish king, Charles V.

Spain and Portugal, then, abided by a division of the world’s oceans first laid down in a papal bull in the fifteenth century. The terms of this division relied on questionable geographical knowledge. Latitudes had been drawn but longitude was unknown, so there was room for territorial disputes. The Moluccas, in particular, which were the source of the three most valuable spices in the world – nutmeg, mace and cloves – were claimed and occupied by the Portuguese, but Magellan convinced Charles V that they were in fact in Spanish territory. Charles therefore agreed to finance an expedition that would seek out a way to reach the Moluccas without using the Portuguese route around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa.

Magellan set out with five ships and 234 men. Fernández-Armesto vividly describes the horrors of that journey. The ships first crossed the Atlantic to the southernmost tip of South America in order to seek a passage through to the Pacific, and then sail on to the Spice Islands and the Indian Ocean. Delayed by adverse winds and storms, the ships became battered, food ran short and men died from scurvy. The fleet chose to overwinter at San Julián in Argentina, where mutiny, executions and murders, kidnapping of natives and burning of villages took place. In April, one ship was sent on an exploratory venture and found ‘an inviting estuary’, but it was shipwrecked in a storm and the crew became castaways. Two of them walked for two terrible days, through snow, to reach Magellan, who sent a rescue party. When the strait was eventually found, passage through it was long, tortuous and taxing: ‘The completion of the course to the ocean left no doubt that the strait was better understood as an obstacle than a gateway,’ and Magellan’s voyage was already a failure:

The strait was too far from Spain. The way was too long and arduous, the weather too cold, the available food too scarce and unnourishing, the winds too adverse, the coasts too hazardous. Magellan’s route, even if it eventually led to the Spicery, would never be able to compete with the faster passage the Portuguese already followed.

Nearing the end of the strait, and against the advice of officers and pilots, Magellan, who ‘always responded to setbacks with obduracy, like a compulsive gambler on a losing streak’, decided not to abandon the mission and return to Spain. So, they went on, and emerged into the Pacific. Around this time one ship, the San Antonio, deserted.

Magellan had no idea of the vastness of the Pacific. It was four months of ‘unprecedented physical and mental suffering’, which Fernández-Armesto describes and comments on, before the fleet sighted the islands of Guam and Rota. There the ships were boarded by seemingly friendly natives who began to steal whatever they could. ‘A few discharged firearms’ drove them away and Magellan mounted a retaliatory raid before the ships ‘skedaddled’, not towards the Moluccas, but towards the Philippines.

It seems that Magellan deliberately defied Charles’s order and decided that Philippine gold was a more valuable acquisition than spices. There he set about converting the various islands to Christianity, baptising the natives, celebrating mass, and so becoming, as Fernández-Armesto puts it, ‘an aspirant holy man’ who, nevertheless, was also intent on establishing his own lordship. The reports of the battle with the natives of Mactan, in which he was killed, are fragmentary and contradictory. ‘Magellan rushed into battle against Mactan as unwarily as a knight at a tilt’, we are told, with a ‘handful of companions’ against what some witnesses describe as thousands of natives, others as between 38 and 60. After more deaths and delays the fleet finally left the Philippines. There were not enough men left to man three ships so only the Victoria and the Trinidad sailed on. No-one knew how to get to the Moluccas, so after careening the ships off the coast of Borneo and replenishing supplies, they wandered.

The final chapter of The Straits, ‘Aftermath and Apotheosis’, recounts the rest of the story. The ships were in poor condition: Trinidad was too wormed and leaky to make the voyage home, so it underwent repairs while the Victoria set off for Spain. There were more hardships, disasters and deaths, some due to straying into Portuguese waters, others due to the poor state of the ships, the weather, scurvy, and the lack of food supplies. After three years, of the five ships and 234 men who set out from Spain on this great voyage of discovery,

… only four survivors from the Trinidad got home to Spain, whereas eighteen men were still aboard the Victoria when she reached Seville, and thirteen shipmates whom the Portuguese had captured were returned soon afterwards. ….

The voyage had been an unmitigated failure. It was amazing that anyone got home alive; and to return with any sort of cargo was enough to make commodity marketeers salivate. The common opinion, however, that the expedition made a cash profit is false.

Fernández-Armesto concludes by discussing, again, some of the ways in which Magellan, ‘a failed conqueror who burned villages and coerced and killed people’, continues to be the subject of adulation. He admits that Magellan did have admirable qualities but he wonders how he manages to escape ‘dethronement’ now that any of the commonplaces of the past such as ‘imperialism, slavery, incontinent bloodlust and unjust discrimination’ are recast as crimes. He is clearly puzzled by this and discusses it at some length. Maybe he hopes this book will change things, because his final questions suggest that he still has not found the answer:

The spirit of adventure can and often does mislead its followers into rapacity and rapine. But they deserve some credit for answering its call. Where would we be without it? Where would we be without them?

Felipe Fernández-Armesto Straits: Beyond the myth of Magellan Bloomsbury 2022 PB 384pp $39.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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