- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003


By Laurence Bergreen

William Morrow, $27.95, 416 pages


What kind of a guy was Magellan anyhow?This not-so-burning question is the subject of Laurence Bergreen’s new biography of the great navigator and explorer. A Harvard-educated journalist who has written biographies of Louis Armstrong, Al Capone and Irving Berlin, Mr. Bergreen has clearly learned the lesson of popular culture — stick to the mayhem whenever possible.

He’s turned Ferdinand Magellan into a kind of action hero, but not a very nice one. Magellan, in this telling, was a ruthless businessman of the sea, hard on his men, not at all averse to torture, and severe to native peoples he met on his world-girdling voyage in 1522. To give him full credit, Mr. Bergreen delivers torture, suffering, starvation and bloody frays with almost loving zeal, and places Magellan’s achievements as an explorer in the background.

Credit Mr. Bergreen also with unearthing and making heavy use of the diary of Antonio Pigafetta, a young Venetian scholar who traveled with Magellan. That document, which the author calls “one of the most significant documents of the Age of Discovery,” rests in the Beineke Rare Book Library at Yale. Unfortunately for this book’s evenhandedness, Pigafetta was an ardent admirer and apologist for the Spanish navigator. Pigafetta was also an aspiring writer who wanted to sell his story to the general public, so Mr. Bergreen discounts much of his account as exaggeration and over-dramatization — even though Mr. Bergreen himself is guilty of the same sins.

But to plunge into the life of this undoubtedly great man is to become immersed also in the jealousies and rivalries of the two great ocean empires — Spanish and Portugese — which divided the unexplored world in half. Magellan successfully navigated this division as a Portugese sailing for the Kingdom of Spain, but he won the enmity of both countries as a result. His objective always was to gain fame and wealth, and his character seems to have been prickly, proud and quick to take offense. He was short and dark and stubborn in the extreme, and as middle age loomed before him, he had not gained either of his objectives.

Such a character is ideally suited to taking on desperate ventures. Magellan had a bill of goods to sell, and the two kingdoms were his logical customers. Give me the money, he told them, and I will open the sea route to the famed “Spice Islands” and find a trade that will fill national coffers. Rejected by his native Portugal, he found a backer in the young king of Spain, Charles I, and one of the greatest feats of seamanship was underway.

Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. Bergreen reveals that he knows little about 16th-century seamanship. A fuller account of the difficulties under which Magellan and others like him labored would have benefited this story greatly. As it is, we read here simply that ships are damaged by storms, overcome by waves, threatened by reefs, etc., etc. Yet we learn little of the crude but highly effective methods of navigation during that period, the creativity of ships’ carpenters and sailors, and the intuitive genius of an explorer who worked without accurate maps and without outside help in the Pacific Ocean, whose extent human knowledge had not yet imagined.

Magellan died without achieving his goal. He went down in the surf during a fight on an island in the Philippines, wounded in the arm and then savagely set upon by natives. Mr. Bergreen believes that Magellan’s end was partially his own fault, “the direct outcome of his increasingly belligerent conduct in the Philippines, where he burned the dwellings of people who could have easily been converted to Christianity by diplomacy rather than by force.”

He also hints that Magellan’s own men may have secretly contributed to the loss of the skirmish which cost their chief his life by failing to send in reinforcements or to fire ships’ guns when the landing party met overwhelming resistance. But there will always be controversy about that day.

Today, on the island where the final battle of his life took place, Magellan is not revered, but in tune with revisionist history, reviled as “an invader and a murderer.” Every year, as Mr. Bergreen points out, Filipinos re-enact the death, with a film star playing the part of the native chieftain, Lapu Lapu. To onlookers’ satisfaction, the drama ends with the European face down in the water.

But the Spanish expedition did not end when its leader died. It weathered storm and thousands of miles of salt sea to return to its beginnings at the Guadalquivir River at Seville after a voyage of three years. The ship was stuffed with cloves, then worth their weight in gold. Her crew was a pathetic remnant of the 260 men who had set out in five ships for the so-called Spice Islands, yet they had done what had never been done before.

Earth, these 18 Europeans attested, was indeed a globe, and navigable. It was possible, they proved, to get to the fabulous East by sailing ceaselessly west. It would not be until 58 years later that another man, Sir Francis Drake, would echo Magellan’s feat in another small ship.

The world would never be the same again. It was, for once and all, a finite thing.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide