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


Felipe Fernández-Armesto doesn’t think much of Ferdinand Magellan. Particularly galling is that the famous explorer’s “renown seems impregnable” despite the fact that “his failure was total”.


On the voyage for which he is celebrated, most of the ships were lost and all but a handful of his men died or deserted… Magellan did not even reach his nominal destination. In his mission to find a short route from Spain to the Spice Islands, he did more than just fail: he drove on to disaster when failure was already obvious. He never considered—let alone accomplished—the circumnavigation of the world …


This is history with the gloves off: Fernández-Armesto doesn’t pull any punches. Not that he isn’t convincing; Magellan may well deserve the brickbats.

Fernández-Armesto delivers with verve bordering on panache.

 Straits Beyond the Myth of Magellan, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (University of California Press, Bloomsbury, March 2022)
Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (University of California Press, Bloomsbury, March 2022)

The outlines of Magellan’s story are pretty well-known: he set off to Asia by sailing west, found the eponymous straits into the Pacific and continued on to the Philippines where he was killed in a skirmish with the appealing-named chieftain Lapulapu, “rajah of Mactan”. One ship limped back to Spain, thus circumnavigating the world.

Fernández-Armesto augments this with masses of historical detail of Magellan’s fights with everyone from kings to sailors, intellectual and commercial disputes, life and death on board and onshore, to the historical background and context, all delivered with verve bordering on panache. At Mactan, for example


Magellan rushed into battle against Mactan as unwarily as a knight at the tilt… Magellan’s preparations climaxed in a chivalric gesture of almost unbelievable obstinacy. Ever since Roland supposedly refused to blow his horn at Roncesvalles, the notion that it is noble to refuse help in combat had become a topos of knightly literature… According to Ginés de Mafra, Magellan continued, exceeding Roland’s valor, to refuse to allow his allies from Cebu to enter the fray, even when he was defeated and dying.


But what leads Fernández-Armesto to tell this tale, in addition to the evident attraction of a good yarn, is the question as to “what made such an egregious adventure attractive, not just to the men who risked it, but also the backers who put money into it?”


What made such a shocking inversion of common sense seem reasonable? Why were seamen’s lives so dispensable—so much cheaper than everyone else’s? What made Magellan and some of his men persist as their prospects worsened? What induced the king of Spain and hard-headed merchants in Seville and Burgos to believe in Magellan? Why would they put up money for a proposal from a man who came to them with a reputation for treachery, a dearth of relevant experience, and a scientific sidekick, Rui Faleiro, who, to the psychiatry of the day, was literally, certifiably insane?


At the end of the book, Fernández-Armesto remains bemused.

The voyage was “an unmitigated failure. It was amazing that anyone got home alive.”

While central to the history of Europe in Asia, Magellan in fact had relatively little interaction with Asia, at least on this voyage, either than dying there soon after arriving. (He had been to Asia before, sailing out to India with Francisco de Almeida in 1505, and was in Malacca the next decade, hence his knowledge about the Spice Islands and the Philippines. But in this book, these episodes are prologue to the main event.)

One matter of interest was the continual underestimation of the size of the earth, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, a function, Fernández-Armesto writes, of the ante-meridian resulting from the Treaty of Tordesillas which defined spheres (or, more accurately perhaps, hemispheres) of influence.


The persistence of the image of a relatively small globe, inexplicable as a reflection of reality, becomes intelligible against the background of negotiations between Spain and Portugal to divide the spoils of the world. As Hernando Colón remarked, to divide the world effectively, “We must first consider and establish how big it is.” Cosmographical disputations dominated and bedeviled the diplomacy.


The smaller the world, the more it could be argued that the Philippines or even the Spice Islands lay in the Spanish half. And the smaller the world, the smaller the Pacific, and more viable the project.

Fernández-Armesto also discusses Magellan’s political machinations in the Philippines and how these led to his death. These are too complicated to relate briefly, but suffice it to say Magellan’s meddling in local politics, his “overall strategy of unifying at least some islands into a single state under a compliant ruler”, led to his being rather pointlessly killed.

The voyage was “an unmitigated failure. It was amazing that anyone got home alive.”


Magellan was one of at least 150 men who died on the voyage he led. If you leave out those who survived by deserting or in captivity, the death rate was about 90 percent. Even by the standards of the day, when failure was routine on alarmingly overoptimistic journeys, Magellan’s project beggared belief.


Fernández-Armesto is seriously annoyed at what he sees as modern adulation for Magellan, the statues, companies, projects and prizes named after him. One has to wonder, however, how many of those who make commercial use of or just come across Magellan’s name actually link it back to him and his purported accomplishments. One doubts that students at Columbia, residents of Washington, DC or citizens of Colombia give much regular thought to Columbus. Sometimes, names are just names, and both Magellan and Columbus make good names.

And I have yet to meet Filipinos that think much of him: whatever adulation  Fernández-Armesto may discern in the West, it seems to have remained on the far side of the Pacific. If Fernández-Armesto has his way, this disdain will also circumnavigate the globe, as Magellan himself failed to.

Magellan’s failure notwithstanding, the information gleaned on the voyage was invaluable. The Spanish kept at it: it took another 40 years before the Pacific route to Asia, with a terminus in Mexico rather than Spain, came to fruition in 1565 when Andrés de Urdaneta found the route back, sailing east from the Philippines, a discovery that lead almost immediately to the Manila Galleon and the birth of globalization. Perhaps all those statues and other tributes should be for Urdaneta instead, but history doesn’t work that way.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He is co-author, with Juan José Morales, of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565-1815.