Growing up in the UK in the 1950s, history lessons in primary school, that’s elementary school for Americans, still consisted to a large extent of a glorification of the rapidly fading British Empire. The classroom globes were still covered in swathes of pink and there, at least, the sun never set on the empire that was. Another popular theme, in this collection of fairy tales and myths, was the great period of European exploration and discovery in the Early Modern Period, in which Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan were presented as larger than life, heroic, visionary adventurers, who respectively discovered America, became the first European to sail to India, and, perhaps the greatest achievement of all, circumnavigated the globe.
At grammar school history became modern European history–Napoleon, Vienna Conference, Franco-Prussian War, unification of German, First World War, rise of Fascism and Hitler, and Second World War–my generation was after all born in and grew up in the aftermath of WWII. The “heroes” of the so-called age of discovery faded into the background, becoming nothing more than a handful of half-remembered facts–1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Somewhere down the line those early tales of daring do became tarnished by inconvenient facts, such as the information that the Vikings almost certainly got to America before Columbus or that Vasco da Gama only managed to sail from Africa to India because he employed a local navigator, who knew how to get there. On the whole it was not a topic that particularly interested me in the early part of my adult life. As far as history went, it didn’t seem to me at that time to be part of the history of mathematics, boy was I wrong on that, so I largely ignored it.
However, I was aware of the gradual dethroning of Columbus, who having been appointed governor by the Spanish Crown of the islands he had discovered was later stripped of his title because of incompetence and brutality towards the indigenous population. Also, that de Gama had had to use military force to persuade the Indians to trade with him. These men were not the saints they had been painted as in my youth. However, through it all Magellan remained a heroic role model, the first man to circumnavigate the globe.
I first became more interested in more detail about the so-called age of discovery about fifteen years ago when I became aware that the Renaissance mathematici, who now occupied a large part of my historical activities, were not mathematicians in anything like the modern sense of the word but were, as the English term has it, mathematical practitioners. That is, that they were actively engage in particle mathematics, not to be confused with the modern term applied mathematics, which included navigation and map making, as well as the design and production of mathematical instruments for navigation, surveying, and cartography. All of these activities have, of course, a direct and important connection to those voyages of discovery. This was brought home to me when I discovered that one of my favourite mathematici, the Nürnberger Johannes Schöner (1477–1547 most well known as a pioneer in the production of printed globes, had probably produced a terrestrial globe in 1523 displaying Magellan’s circumnavigation. As I wrote in a blog post from 2010:
So, what does all of this have to do with Magellan and the first circumnavigation? As Schöner was in Kirchehrenbach in his banishment he tried to curry favour with his Bishop in that he dedicated his newest terrestrial globe to him, produced in 1523 this globe featured the route of Magellan’s circumnavigation only one year after those 18 seamen struggled back to Spain. At least we think he did! The accompanying cosmographia for the globe exists but none of the globes has survived the ravages of time. How did Schöner manage to transfer the knowledge of this epic voyage so quickly into a printed globe? In this day and age where the news of Ms Watson’s achievement is blasted around the globe in all form of media within seconds of her landfall, we tend to forget that such news sometimes took years to permeate through Europe in the 16th century. At the instigation of Cardinal Matthäus Lang a great sponsor of science in this age Maximilianus Transylvanus interviewed the survivors in Spain and published his account of the voyage in 1523 and it was this account, which Schöner, who made sure to always acquire the latest travel reports through a network of contacts, used to make his globe. I said that none of his Magellan globes have survived but there is a set of globe gores in New York that appear to be those of Schöner’s 1523 globe. Globes were printed on gores, these are strips of paper shaped like segments of an orange that were then glued on to a papier mâché sphere and coloured by hand. The set of gores in New York have Schöner’s cartographical style and Magellan’s route printed on them and although there are some dissenting voices, in general the experts think that they are Schöner’s original.
Included in this quote in the information that only a very small number of the 237 seamen, who set out on this much acclaimed voyage actually made it back to Spain, and only one of the original five ships. Moreover, Magellan was not amongst the survivors having been killed in an imperial attack on indigenous natives on the island of Mactan, who refused to accept the authority of the king of Spain. I had personally garnered this information somewhere down the line.
I became increasingly interested in the mathematical aspects of the so-called age of discovery and became embroiled in an Internet debate on the naming of America with a famous, British pop historian, who was erroneously claiming that it was far more likely that America was named after the Welsh merchant, Richard Ap Meric, an investor in John Cabot’s voyages of discovery, than after Amerigo Vespucci. Being well aware of the reasons why Waldseemüller and Ringmann had named America after Vespucci on their 1507 map of the world, I wrote a long blog post challenging this twaddle.
As part of my study of this piece of history I acquired my first book by historian extraordinary of exploration, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, his excellent biography of Vespucci, Amerigo: The Man who Gave His Name to America. This was quickly followed by his equally good biography of Columbus, and somewhat later by his Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. So, when it was announced that Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s latest book, he’s incredibly prolific, was to be a biography of Magellan, I immediately ordered a copy and this blog post is a review of his STRAITS: Beyond the myth of Magellan.
I will start by saying that Fernández-Armesto does not disappoint, and this biography of the man and his infamous voyage is up to his usual very high standards. If you have a serious interest in the topic, then this is definitely a book you should read. Although this is a trade book rather than an academic tome, Fernández-Armesto has scrupulously researched his topic and all of the book’s statements and claims are backed up by detailed endnotes. While we are by the apparatus the book also has an extensive and very comprehensive index but no general bibliography. This is one of several new books that I have without a general bibliography, meaning that if you become interested in a referenced volume and it’s not the first reference, then you have to plough your way back through the endnotes, desperately searching for that all important first reference, which contains the details that you require to actually find the book. Staying briefly with the general description, each chapter has a frontispiece consisting of a contemporary print with a detailed descriptions that related to the following chapter. There are also five grey tone maps scattered throughout the book showing places referred to in the narrative.
One thing that Fernández-Armesto makes very clear throughout his book is that the sources for actual hard information about Magellan are very thin and those that do exist are often contradictory. Because he very carefully qualifies his statements concerning Magellan, weighing up the sources and explaining why he believes the one version rather than the other, this makes the book, whilst not a hard read, shall we say a very intense read. Put another way, Fernández-Armesto doesn’t present his readers with a smooth novel like narrative, lulling them into thinking that we know more than we do, but shows the reader how the historian is forced to construct their narrative despite inadequate sources. This is a lesson that other trade book authors could learn.
The central myth of the Magellan story that Fernández-Armesto tackles in his book is that of the inspirational figure, who set out to circumnavigate the world. Not only did Magellan personally fail to do so, a fact that is so often swept under the carpet in the simple claim that he was the first man to do so, but that he in fact never had the intention of doing so.
In the somewhat less than first half of his book Fernández-Armesto takes the reader through the details of what we know about Magellan’s life before that infamous voyage. His origins, his life and education on the Portuguese court, his service for the Portuguese Crown both as a seaman and a soldier. His reasons for leaving Portugal and moving to Spain, where he offered his services to the Spanish Crown instead. All of this leads up to his plans for that voyage and the motivation behind it. His intended aim was not to sail around the world but to find a passage through the Americas from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or Southern Sea, as it was generally known then, and then to sail across the Pacific to the Moluccas (Spice Islands), today known as the Maluka Islands, and hopefully demonstrate that they lay in the Spanish half of the globe, as designated by the Pope’s Tordesillas Treaty. Having done so to then return to Spain by the same route. Nobody actually knew in which half of the globe the Moluccas lay, as the treaty only specified the demarcation line or meridian in the Atlantic and it was not known where the anti-meridian lay in the Pacific, which in general everybody, including Magellan, thought was much smaller than it actually is.
Due to the uncertainties that this plan, was there even a passage through the Americas joining the two oceans, was it possible to cross the Pacific by ship, did the Moluccas actually lay within the Spanish hemisphere, the negotiations to set up the voyage and the persuade the Spanish Crown to finance it were tough and complex and Fernández-Armesto takes the reader through them step by step. Having succeeded, we then set sail with Magellan on a voyage that was an unmitigated disaster every single sea mile of the way.
The somewhat more than second half of Fernández-Armesto’s narrative is a detailed account, as far as it is possible to reconstruct it, of what might be described, with only slight exaggeration, as the voyage to hell and back with long periods in purgatory. Possibly the only thing that is admirable about Magellan and the voyage is his tenacity in the constant face of doom and disaster, although that tenacity takes on more and more maniacal traits as the voyage proceeds.
Fernández-Armesto’s biography of the man and his voyage is a total demolition of the myths that have been created and propagated over the last five centuries, leaving no trace of valour, heroism, or gallant endeavour. The voyage was an unmitigated disaster perpetrated by a ruthless, driven monomaniac. At the end of his excellent tome Fernández-Armesto illustrates how the myth of Magellan and his circumnavigation was put into the world, starting almost as soon as the Victoria, the only one of the five ships to complete the circumnavigations, docked in Spain more than a thousand days after it set sail with only a handful of the crews that started that voyage. Fernández-Armesto also list some of the myriad of organisations, objects, institutes, prizes etc. that proudly bear Magellan’s name, his attitude to all this being summed up perhaps by his comment on the Order of Magellan awarded by the Circumnavigators Club of New York:
Though it seems astonishing that an award for “world understanding should be named for a failed conqueror who burned villages ad coerced and killed people. (p. 277)
As a final comment on this possibly definitive biography, I learnt in reading this book that the early explorers, Columbus, da Gamma, Magellan et al identified both themselves and their endeavours with the heroic knights in the medieval tales of chivalry and romance, riding their ships out on quests of discovery that would bring the fame, fortune, and honour. Magellan’s quest was about as far removed from this image as it was possible to get.
 Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Amerigo: The Man who Gave His Name to America, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2006.
 Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus, OUP, Oxford & London, 1991, ppb Duckworth, London, 1996
 Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, W W Norton, New York, 2006, ppb 2007
 Felipe Fernández-Armesto, STRAITS: Beyond the myth of Magellan, Bloomsbury, London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney, 2022