cover image Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Univ. of California, $29.95 (376p) ISBN 978-0-520-38

Sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan “never considered—let alone accomplished—the circumnavigation of the world” and is only “exceptional because his failure was total,” according to this revelatory if somewhat ponderous biography. Historian Fernández-Armesto (Out of Our Minds) details the 1519 expedition that brought Magellan enduring fame, while simultaneously discussing the historical context and publications that created the myth of Magellan. Though Magellan was under orders from the king of Spain to find an easier passage to the Spice Islands (present-day Moluccas), Fernández-Armesto alleges that the explorer was obsessed with staking claim to the archipelago now known as the Philippines, where he knew gold was to be found. Deviating from his assignment almost immediately, Magellan executed several sailors and co-captains who questioned his route, massacred Indigenous people, and died in a suicidal battle with natives on Mactan Island in April 1521. Despite these failures, Magellan’s legend formed almost immediately, thanks largely to an Italian scholar who joined the expedition and was the first to publish an account of it. Fernández-Armesto makes a persuasive case, though his tangential musings and knotty syntax sometimes make for choppy waters. Still, this is a meticulous indictment of one of the Age of Exploration’s biggest names. (Mar.)