Going to the ends of the earth

A thrilling story of machismo, mutiny and madness in the Pacific


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is that rare phenomenon: a genuine polymath who never comes across as a know-all. Readers of The Critic will know him as the magazine’s food columnist, in which capacity he attains the heights of culinary connoisseurship. Indeed, he has written a history of food, among many other subjects. He can be unnecessarily hard on vegans. But he also tells us how to make Napoleon’s Corsican comfort food — potatoes and onions fried in olive oil — more palatable. The dish is, of course, vegan.

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan, Felipe Fernández-Armesto (Bloomsbury, £25)

Felipe’s literary style is similar: he segues from baroque ornamentation to sublime simplicity in a single paragraph. He embraces the minutiae of cartography or seamanship with as much enthusiasm and as light a touch as the vasty deeps of Braudel’s longue durée or Ranke’s Weltgeschichte.

Like me, Felipe was an undergraduate at Magdalen College and learned much from the medievalists who then still held their own at Oxford. Notable among them was our tutor, the inimitable but much-imitated Karl Leyser. As I read an essay of mine about Pope Alexander III, solemnly remarking on the elusiveness of the papal personality, Karl interjected: “He didn’t have a personality. He was a lawyer.”

À propos Magellan’s first patron, King Manuel the Fortunate of Portugal, who called himself “Lord of Commerce”, Felipe cites a delightful anecdote of Richard Southern, whose schoolboy essay claimed that Henry VII was “the first businessman to rule England”. “Of course, I was wrong,” he added, “but at that moment I became an historian.”

To reconstruct the personality of Ferdinand Magellan requires a plenitude of skills and talents, yet Fernández-Armesto has them in abundance. Sources for the explorer’s biography are few, obliging the author to offer “the closest reading ever of the texts that are available”. He seasons what might have been a spartan repast with rich background detail, evocative characterisation and incisive detective work. 

Like Leyser and Southern, Fernández-Armesto has the coup d’oeil that distinguishes the true historian from the mere academic careerist. He notices, for example, that on Magellan’s voyage of discovery to the straits that would be named after him, the death rate was about 90 per cent. “The voyage Magellan captained failed in every declared objective.” Yet not only did this driven, ruthless visionary hazard everything, he persuaded Carlos I of Spain (better known to us as the Emperor Charles V) to risk his prestige, merchants to risk their money, and his fellow adventurers to risk their lives on a mission to the ends of the earth. 

Only a man with the most extraordinary courage of his convictions could have overcome so many obstacles, crossed two oceans and captured the imagination of the world. And only an historian with extraordinary gifts of erudition, navigation and narration could have done justice to Magellan.

He was born not at Sabrosa in 1480, as tradition claims, but in Oporto at an unknown date several years later. An orphan, his decade or so as a page at the court of Manuel I equipped him with the daredevil ethos of oceangoing chivalry that animated explorers and conquistadors alike. “To set sail,” wrote the poet Luís de Camões, “is essential. To survive? That’s supererogatory.”

The little ships were swept by powerful winds across the unimaginably vast ocean

Magellan’s first voyage to the spice islands on the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate his mettle as a warrior, but also left him with debts, detractors and a determination to discover his own route to fame and fortune. He saw further service and at some point was wounded and acquired a limp. Accused of peculation and belittled by Manuel when he asked for a rise, in high dudgeon the peppery supplicant tore up his commission and offered his services to the Spanish. 

This left Magellan without a patron and open to the charge of treachery. The Portuguese envoy in Seville tried to tempt him back but to no avail. This diminutive Don Quixote avant la lettre had supreme confidence in his abilities and his geographical intuition. 

As Fernández-Armesto explains, Magellan’s practical experience and study of the available maps had persuaded him that a western passage to the East Indies was possible, though no such route had yet been found through the uncharted landmass that would later become known as America. As to what lay beyond the New World, nobody knew. But Magellan had heard tell of the Philippines and seems to have set his heart on converting and colonising the archipelago.

At the courts of Castile in Seville and Valladolid, he set about organising, equipping and manning his crazily ambitious expedition. Finance came from the merchants of Burgos (one of whose daughters he married) and from its influential bishop, Juan de Fonseca — “an arachnid bureaucrat”. He also found a partner, Rui Faleiro, a Portuguese navigator reputed to have mastered the all-important art of calculating longitude at sea, but so mentally unstable as to be a liability.

Magellan’s memory has never suffered from the taint of colonialism

The laborious preparations took five years, bequeathing a wealth of documents to scholars, but Magellan’s ultimate purpose remains mysterious. Circumnavigation of the world would have infringed the legal rights of the Portuguese, laid down by the papacy. King Carlos saw his destination as the lucrative spice islands of the Moluccas, to which he laid claim, but then “it may be possible to seek whatever else may be suitable in conformity with the orders you carry” — orders now lost. 

By now a father, Magellan made his will before embarking with a fleet of five ships in 1519. For what transpired over the next two years, we rely mainly on Antonio Pigafetta, one of Magellan’s lieutenants, whose account is partial to the captain-general but is full of vivid detail and mostly accurate. 

The Atlantic voyage was gruelling. There were quarrels with his Spanish co-commander, Juan de Cartagena, ostensibly over Magellan’s secretiveness about the eccentric course he insisted on steering. Cartagena and his fellow officers objected to Magellan’s disobedience, as they saw it, to royal orders. They were loyal to their patrons, King Carlos and Bishop Fonseca, while the ordinary seamen sided with Magellan. The disputes culminated in Cartagena’s arrest, which was followed by mutiny. It was crushed and two ringleaders were hanged or beheaded, then drawn and quartered; Cartagena was marooned at St Julian. 

Yet discontent bubbled on, erupting again as the battered, starving crews tried to navigate what we now know as the Strait of Magellan. One ship, the San Antonio, was dispatched on a reconnaissance mission, but instead returned to Spain — its officers seeking to cover their tracks, claim credit for the discovery and discredit Magellan. The other ships struggled on through the stormy strait for weeks until they emerged into the calm waters beyond. Magellan called it “the Peaceful Sea”; the name “Pacific” has endured.

Thereafter the little ships were swept by powerful winds across the unimaginably vast ocean towards an unknown fate. It was, as the author says, the longest voyage on record and it was physically and spiritually “transmutative”. At Easter 1521 they made landfall at the Philippines. Initially welcomed by the Filipino chief, Magellan miraculously cured his grandson of a two-year fever, causing the entire tribe to receive baptism in gratitude. 

One of the explorer’s legacies is the fact that the Philippines became the only Catholic nation in Asia, until recently joined by East Timor. Fernández-Armesto accepts the veracity of the healing story because its source was hostile to Magellan. 

Yet the revelation of his own thaumaturgical powers seems to have induced such a state of exaltation in the captain-general that he overplayed his hand. He sprinkled the Filipino notables and their wives with holy water, preached sermons and acted as if evangelisation had become his main goal. However that religious aim was combined with a political one: to unify the islands under one ruler, who in turn would pay homage to the King of Spain. 

Events reached a climax when Magellan demanded that the people of Mactan submit to his friend, the king of Cebu. When their ruler refused, he attacked a large army with a handful of men and refused help from his native allies. The captain-general died a tragic, heroic and unnecessary death.

Untangling precisely what happened is hard, for the received story reads like a knightly romance, indeed it is “a tissue of literary topoi”, but Fernández-Armesto is in no doubt that the man responsible for the fatal debacle was Magellan himself. 

In a sense, he also fashioned his own enduring legend and apotheosis. Having failed to achieve the rapacious goals of his mission and died in the attempt, Magellan’s memory has never suffered from the taint of colonialism, as have Columbus, say, or Cortés. Fernández-Armesto evokes a man who still seems to transcend his squalid contemporaries: “Magellan’s motives were better than that.” So, too, are those of his chronicler. This is a remarkable, I dare say a great one, worthy of an indubitably great man.

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