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

David Abulafia

The World Was Not Enough

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan


Bloomsbury 361pp £25

Ferdinand Magellan, as Felipe Fernández-Armesto points out at the end of this radical reassessment of his career, is still celebrated as a heroic explorer who led the first circumnavigation of the world, which began in 1519 and eventually concluded in 1522 (spoiler: he died in 1521). He is commemorated in the names of an investment fund, a railway carriage that used to transport American presidents around the United States, an asteroid and – best of all, going right back to 1678 – two satellite galaxies that lie near the Milky Way containing some thirty billion stars. His reputation remains sound while statues of Columbus, who was not guilty of many of the crimes attributed to him these days, are splashed with paint. Fernández-Armesto now adds to his earlier demolition of the character of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom two continents were named, a demolition of the character of Magellan. This excellent book is a model of elegant argument and authoritative research. Unlike most biographers of Magellan, he has bothered to read all the sources, moving beyond the attractive but biased account of Magellan’s companion Antonio Pigafetta, a nobleman from Vicenza, to reveal Magellan in all of his (there is only one word for it) nastiness.

The fundamental point is one which scholars have made before but which has been missed by the wider public. Not merely did Magellan not circumnavigate the world, dying in a pointless confrontation with the inhabitants of the island of Mactan in the Philippines, but he had no intention

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