Thoughts on the Magellan Voyage

Five hundred years ago this month, on August 20, 1519, a Portuguese ne’er-do-well under the flag of a teenage king of Spain set forth with five ships determined to sail westward around a recently discovered South America to the famed Spice Islands (Indonesia) in the East and claim it for the Spanish crown.

Ferdinand Magellan, then 40, was a seasoned sailor, having made several trips around South Africa to Portuguese-controlled India and Malacca, who showed himself ever ready to start a battle if some riches would result for himself.  His career to date had not been particularly distinguished, but he was one of the few European sailors with knowledge of the East, and Charles I, determined to rival Portugal’s King Manuel I for control of the newly discovered lands of Asia and the New World, had no better candidate as admiral of a Spanish fleet.

The voyage is remembered today chiefly because it was Europe’s first circumnavigation of the world. Magellan’s fleet (at the time down to three ships) did indeed land in the Spice Islands before sailing back to Spain, but in fact Magellan himself did not make the full journey. In April of 1521, his bellicosity led him into a battle with some islanders in what would become the Philippines who did not seem to be keen on becoming Christians and succumbing to a Spanish king.  He did not survive.  Eventually one of the ships did return to Spain and so technically it was a round-the-world voyage, but only 18 of the original crew survived and only they the true circumnavigators.

Human Scale Revisited:... Kirkpatrick Sale Best Price: $9.09 Buy New $12.06 (as of 05:40 EST - Details) One of the survivors was an Italian with the somewhat unfortunate name of Antonio Pigafetta, who had kept a diary of the journey (published in the 1550s) that is the primary source of what we know about Magellan and his fate.  In a less cruel world we would know his name and count him the first circumnavigator rather than Magellan, but his was an infelicitous, and in English downright ugly, name, without the decorousness of those we make heroes.

I could tell you all the details of the Magellan voyage, but you can read them in any book (or Wikipedia cite) and they mainly have to do with mutinies and battles and bad weather.  (Ironic, in a way—Magellan decided to name the water that he saw after rounding the southern cape of South America the “Pacific,” as in peaceful, and a more turbulent, current-ridden, and storm-tossing body of water is not to be found on earth.)  And anyway, they are not as relevant today as the larger implications of the journey.

The first, as I see it, has to do with the idea fixed in the 16th-century European mind that it was rightfully given to the people of this small promontory of the Asian continent to sail to other parts of the world, claim them as legitimate conquests of whatever nation has put forth the fleet, and exploit them mercilessly for whatever treasures they are discovered to have.

Europe at the time was not such a grand pinnacle of civilization that it had some sanctified duty to spread itself out into the world to possess and manipulate.  It was plagued by famine and diseases, riven by warfare, habituated to violence, its institutions (including the church) corrupt and impoverished, and culturally exhausted to the point that a historian of the late 15th century wrote that “inequity and evil have increased to the highest pitch.”  In such a miasma, it would of course occur to some that getting out was the only sane alternative, new lands could only be better than what was here.

As Longfellow says somewhere, It is only the unhappy man who seeks to travel, the happy man is content with home.

That is sobering enough, but a further implication of Magellan’s voyage is even darker.  For in this desperate European world it was inevitable that materialism would come to seem to be the only value of importance, riches the only goal.  And so the overriding purpose of European exploration, as it had been with Columbus, as it was deeply with Magellan, as it would continue to be with all of Europe’s conquerors, was not to enlighten savages, not to bring the arts and skills of an advanced culture, not even to endow them with religion, so much as to gain treasure.

The West had exhausted its riches.  The East was full of them. Thus it was to the East that Europe went, with nothing more noble on its scutcheon than greed. Or as conqueror Hernando Cortes would say, “We Spanish suffer from a strange disease of the heart, for which the only known remedy is gold.”

Five hundred years later we might reflect with some humiliation and remorse, even repentance, upon the world we have created with that legacy.  For that attitude to the world, that it was made for humans to conquer and exploit, is what has led us to the environmental catastrophe we live with today.  That culmination of the European dream of conquest has come at a high price.