Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Having flown between Australia and the United States a couple of times has made me very aware of the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean. Sixteen hours flying nonstop is a long time to be in the air, but it has to be done. The ocean that laps both our shores and those of the Americas is huge as compared to its near ocean neighbours such as the Indian and Southern.

My school social studies and history classes covered great explorers especially those whose endeavours came close to what is now the Australian shoreline. One such explorer was Ferdinand Magellan whose life and activities were described as the stuff of legends. In the history books of my younger days, he was described as a hero, an explorer and an adventurer. He managed, according to them, to circumnavigate the globe becoming one of the very first Europeans to sail across the Pacific from South America to islands in what is now Indonesia but back in his time were referred to as the Moluccas or Spice Islands.

Since then, I have held on to that story because of the daring nature of Magellan’s one and only big expedition into the unknown. However, historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers us a more nuanced and better researched understanding of Magellan while in the process exposing the myths that have grown about him through the centuries.

Fernández-Armesto clearly shows using extensive primary sources the complexity of Magellan’s personality. While our understanding of empire has been shaped by the activities and thinking of the United Kingdom, we push into the background the earlier empire builders of the ages in the form of Portugal and Spain. Magellan’s need for recognition and honours that he felt was his due is set within the rivalry between these fifteenth century superpowers as they tried to stake their territorial and economic claims on what they called the New World.

For both kingdoms, it was all about money and trade. Controlling commodities such as gold and spices would both enrich and give prestige to these two small and relatively impoverished realms. Though born and raised in Portugal, Magellan always felt that he was an outsider who was always passed over for honours and privileges by his king Manuel I. This forced his decision to offer his services as an explorer and adventurer to the then king of Castile Carlos I; better known to us as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

What he wanted was the finance to mount an expedition to the Moluccas or Spice Islands which he believed were within the Spanish side of the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the New World between the two powers to enable them to pursue their imperial interests without disturbing each other. Magellan proposed finding a new route to the Moluccas that didn’t break the treaty.

This expedition along with other exploits that Magellan was involved in are meticulously examined by Fernández-Armesto. His attention to detail along with the ability to interpret complex documents and unravel competing views and stories makes it a very valuable resource to understand both Magellan himself and the age in which he lived and operated. His work clearly demonstrates that, while Magellan did find a route by going via the tip of South America through what is known as the Straits of Magellan, the expedition was in many ways a failure. Some of those who were part of the long and hard voyage did make it back to Castile and could claim to have circumnavigated the earth. Magellan’s death in what is now the Philippines prevented him from sharing in that glory.

Yet his failures, and there were many, were turned into a fame that lasts to the present day. His death, as Fernández-Armesto says, enabled Magellan to evade the costs of failure and laid the foundation of a legend. As well he did the world a service by his determination to respond to the call of adventure and encourage others to take a chance despite the risks including losing one’s life for the cause.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto occupies the William P Reynolds Chair at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a professor of history, and concurrently, of classics, and of the history and philosophy of science. His previous publications include Out of Our Minds, A Foot in the River, 1492, Millennium, Pathfinders and Food: A History.

Straits – Beyond the Myth of Magellan

by Felipe Fernández-Armesto


Bloomsbury Publishing

ISBN 978 152663 207 4

$39.99; 363pp


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