From The Wall Street Journal:
If you ask most people to name the first person to circumnavigate the globe, they will likely answer Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese mariner who sailed on behalf of Spain in 1519. But Magellan never even attempted the feat, and he didn’t live to see it accomplished by members of his crew. As we approach the 500th anniversary of their achievement next month, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of contrarian works such as “1492,” “Amerigo” and “The Spanish Armada,” takes exception to the “tradition of hero worship” that persists around Magellan. In “Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan,” he launches his broadside.
Magellan was born to an aristocratic family around 1480 on Portugal’s rocky coast. As a boy, he served as a page in the court of Manuel I in Lisbon, where he absorbed the chivalric ethos of the times and prepared for a military career. Starting in 1505, he joined campaigns to India and Africa, as Portugal claimed a share of the fantastically lucrative spice trade.
After falling out with King Manuel, Magellan defected to Portugal’s archrival, Spain, and in 1519 launched his celebrated voyage, destined for the fabled Spice Islands in present-day Indonesia. Because the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the world into two zones of influence, with Portugal claiming everything east of a line drawn in the Atlantic Ocean and Spain everything to the west, Magellan would approach Asia via the Americas.
On Sept. 20, 1519, the fleet left Spain with five ships, some 240 men and boys, provisions for two years and a stock of trade goods. From the start, as Mr. Fernández-Armesto relates, the company was rent by tension between its Spanish and Portuguese members, and a power struggle between their captain and his second in command, the Spaniard Juan de Cartagena. After a stormy two-month crossing, the flotilla sighted Brazil and veered southward, probing for a rumored strait through the continent.
In April 1520, Magellan ordered winter quarters in the harbor of San Julián, in eastern Patagonia. Faced with months of freezing weather and dwindling rations, a faction of Spanish officers mutinied, demanding to return home. Magellan quashed the uprising with characteristic decisiveness and brutality, killing a pair of the offenders, torturing others and marooning two, including Cartagena, on a deserted island. Also that dismal winter, one ship, the Santiago, was lost when it ran aground in a storm.
In August, with the approach of spring, the expedition continued to reconnoiter the forbidding coast. Nearing the tip of the continent, they finally discovered the channel that today bears Magellan’s name. But to negotiate its 350 miles of treacherous shoals and devilish currents required more than a month, not to mention fortitude, superb seamanship and outright luck. For commercial utility it would never rival the routes already established by the Portuguese.
While still in the strait, another band of mutineers seized the armada’s largest ship, the San Antonio, and bolted for Spain, carrying essential provisions as well as reports of their captain’s cruelty and recklessness. The three remaining vessels entered the Pacific, which Magellan named for its initially gentle seas, then caught the trade winds and rocketed westward. “But,” Mr. Fernández-Armesto writes, “the benignity of the weather was like a villain’s smile,” luring the fleet into an ocean immense beyond their comprehension. Over nearly four months, as their numbers declined from starvation and scurvy, the men sailed for more than 7,000 excruciating miles without landfall until, on March 6, 1521, they spied the islands of Rota and Guam, in the Marianas. When some islanders made off with a skiff and other goods, Magellan retaliated mercilessly, killing several villagers and burning scores of houses and boats.
Later that month, the fleet reached the Philippines, which Mr. Fernández-Armesto, in one of the many contrarian arguments he makes throughout the book, suggests was Magellan’s secret destination all along. The strangers were well received on the island of Cebu, but imposing himself in a conflict between rival chiefs, Magellan made an ill-advised attack on neighboring Mactan, where he and several of his men were slain in battle on April 27, 1521.
Although it seems to run counter to the fierce determination that Magellan had shown throughout the expedition, Mr. Fernández-Armesto believes that the captain, preferring to die a hero rather than return a failure, “crafted his death to suit a narrative he composed in his own mind before the event, imagining a knightly consummation in a battle sanctified by crusading ideals.”
Taking stock of their situation, the survivors scuttled the Concepción for lack of crew and, under the command of the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano, steered their remaining two vessels to the Moluccas, where they loaded the hulls with precious spices. The Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese, whose zone of influence the expedition had violated, but the battered Victoria navigated the treacherous waters around the tip of Africa and arrived in Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, with 18 of the 240 souls who had sailed three years before.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal