Felipe Fernández-Armesto holds the William P. Reynolds Mission Chair in Arts and Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a professor in the History and Classics Departments and the History and Philosophy Program Sciences. His latest book, Detroit: Beyond the Magellan Mythis published this month (University of California Press).
The truth is unpopular. Myth, superstition, conspiracy theory, scuttlebut, fantasy and drivel all seem more consoling in the service of prejudice. History has the best stories, but fiction sells them better. Even by today’s standards of disinformation, Magellan – if my book’s conclusions about him are correct – is a particularly mythopoetic figure. Almost everything most people (or most who have heard of him) think they know is wrong. He did not attempt (and even less successfully) circumnavigate the globe; the Spice Islands were not, for him, the primary objective of his great voyage, which did not bring in the profit attributed to it by most historians. He conceived his enterprise against reason and pursued it in defiance of experience. His journey had no significant or ameliorative effect on prevailing notions of the size and shape of the world. He completely failed, losing his life and that of almost all of his men. His true contributions to exploring the world – such as they are – have been forgotten in favor of lies. Yet he retains the status, fame, adulation and hero worship that most other dead white explorers and imperialists – many of whom deserve more for their virtues or morality – have lost.
You can measure the durability of Magellan’s reputation in misusing his name to make money, sanctify propaganda, or gild other forms of intellectual absinthe. It has become a go-to resource for scientific naming projects and awards. The dwarf galaxies were named in his honor in 1678. In 1786, Jean-Hyacinthe Magellan persuaded Benjamin Franklin that the American Philosophical Society should administer the “Magellonic Premium” for major contributions to knowledge. Craters on the Moon and Mars have been named Magellan since 1935 and 1976 respectively. An asteroid was dubbed 4055 Magellan in 1985. Magellan telescopes adorn the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. NASA launched the Magellan mission to Venus in 1989. Species of penguins and woodpeckers in South America and butterflies in the Philippines share the explorer’s name.
The popularity of Magellan’s soubriquet with organizers of college competitions is remarkable, as universities are vulnerable to the “woke” sensitivities of students. The Magellan Prize, for example, “offered through the generosity of the descendant family of the pioneering navigator, Ferdinand Magellan” is awarded annually “to the best student entering higher education at the University of Oxford” in Portuguese-speaking subjects. Washington & Jefferson College presents its Magellan project as “a unique project of possibilities” in language that ticks as many supposedly Magellan-related boxes as possible: setting sail, exploring, passion, opportunities abroad, science, and belt of the world. world. The University of South Carolina announces a “Magellan Ten Scavenger Hunt…To enter, take a picture…and tweet it to us as fast as you can.” In Chile, the government awards the “Strait of Magellan Prize for Innovation and Exploration with Global Impact”. A New York club is honoring “an elite group…in recognition of their contributions to understanding the world”, with an award named for a failed conqueror who burned villages and coerced and killed people.
Commercial organizations also exploit Magellan’s reputation. The “global” resonance that attaches to its name, despite its inadequacy, is a tradable commodity. Therefore, a company that manufactures GPS devices is called Magellan Navigation, Inc. The company that manages my pension has a global investment fund called Magellan, not to mention an old Internet search engine of the same name. A Canadian manufacturer is called Magellan Aerospace. Magellan is the name of a company that seeks to “provide…fantastic motorcycle vacations”. Magellan Vacations Inc. manages Magellan luxury hotels. You can find Magellan’s guides in line. The same name honors or dishonours a cruise ship that offers, incongruously, trips to see the Northern Lights. If you go to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami-Dade County, Florida, you can see the Ferdinand Magellan Railcar, which ferried American presidents around their country in the 1940s and 1950s. You can buy a yacht from 135 feet named after him if you have the proper sums of money and sense.
Magellan is the name of a “protein-based sweetener that solves the global problem of sugar reduction”, as well as a racehorse, a container ship, a Venezuelan baseball team, Magellan Petroleum Corporation, a former progressive rock band, a family of video games, a North Yorkshire auction house and a fixture “composed of many shades surrounding a single orb”. Magellan House is the name of a retirement home in East Grinstead and 2,947 square feet of “self-contained creative workspace” in a dock in Leeds. “Magellan Outdoors Waterproof Leather Landman Snake Hunting Boots” is presumably named after the explorer; presumably, however, “Magellan’s EveryWear Tanks and Women’s Full Cut Briefs” are not.
Still, that’s an impressive tally of arrogated mentions. These days, with sponsors and advertisers routinely canceling the contracts of celebrities who commit improprieties, the ubiquity of Magellan’s name is solid proof of how favorably people view him. Statues or monuments are dedicated to him in Lisbon and Sabrosa without, as far as I know, attracting objections or offending the local population. do-gooders, or more traditional Portuguese reminiscent of Magellan’s betrayal to Spain. His statues in Mactan and Guam (where he launched invasions and burned down native homes), or Cebu and other parts of the Philippines (where he tried to found an empire), or Punta Arenas in Patagonia (where his native victims had reasons to regret his coming) are stained only by the memory of his own excesses.
Most uses or abuses of the Magellan name defy the facts. My attempt to tell the truth about him will therefore not be welcomed by many vested interests. Some of the truths I divulge, or confirm from the work of scholarly predecessors, are interesting but offensive only to historians who have lined up with error: these truths include that Porto was his birthplace; that chivalric readings shaped his self-image; that class conflicts help to explain the bloody dissensions that disfigured his great journey. Other facts topple the pedestal that presents him as a scientific icon: that he had only a routine knowledge of navigation and geography, and an image of the world very close to that of Christopher Columbus; that, like Columbus, when asking for patronage he was prepared to change his speech to suit the potential sponsor; but that his main ambition was to create a stronghold in the Philippines.
He suffers maniacal mood swings, culminating in religious exaltation in these islands, where he settles as a thaumaturge with a direct line to God, and a sort of street preacher, haranguing the natives in a theology he barely understood himself, sidelining expeditions. ´ chaplains in his self-proclaimed role of evangelist. Religion was never his common thread: his understanding of Christianity was superficial and did not prevent him from deploying terror and arson against his enemies, or from provoking unjustifiable war on the terms established by Saint Augustine. . He finally returned to his long-held values. He leapt into battle and resigned himself to death imitating long-time chivalrous heroes.
Failure is often an ingredient of heroic status. The tragic hero of the Greek tradition is the victim of a misfortune. The Dunkerque Spirit is only available to the defeated. Japanese hero worship reveres “the nobility of failure”. The values of romanticism are those of Blaue Blüme, unplumed because inaccessible, or of the lover on the urn of Keats, who “will never have your happiness”, or of the impossible dream. Yet it is for false success, not noble failure, that Magellan is revered.
Of course, he had some good qualities or achievements, but they cannot explain his resistance to dethronement. Although it hasn’t been around the world, it has rightly been halfway around it. He led his men further from home than anyone we know had ever gone before. He was, as the cabin boy, Martín de Ayamonte said, the sailors’ favorite leader, representing the common man against a coterie of court-appointed officers. Magellan’s loyalty was negotiable, but he could inspire deep loyalty in others. His courage veered into recklessness and he led his expedition to disaster, but “the high that proved too high, the heroic for Earth too hard are”, in respectable code, “music sent to God through the lover and the bard”. “
Once upon a time, Magellan was a perfect fit for the spaces that myths make for heroes. It suited the romantic era, when supermen were saviors. He displayed what I think I can call a “spirit of adventure”, without which humanity would be weakened and impoverished. Nowadays, however, for people who want to demolish monuments, desecrate shrines and smear fame, nothing can purge the taint of association with imperialism, slavery, incontinent bloodlust, discrimination unjust or one of the commonplaces of the past that we requalify as crimes. Can Magellan’s near exemption from offense survive the truth?