Lessons from Magellan

“The achievement of one courageous man will awaken the courage of an entire generation”

I recently discovered the story of Ferdinand Magellan - the famous explorer who captained the first expedition that successfully circumnavigated the globe. The story as told by the excellent Stefan Zweig had me completely captivated from start to finish, and I’ve had it on my mind ever since.

For a while I struggled to explain why I found Magellan so inspiring. Certainly he did not always behave admirably - he kept a slave named Enrique from Malaysia when he was a young man in the Portuguese navy and he brought death and destruction to many indigenous people along his voyage. He had no hesitation about claiming inhabited islands as property of the Spanish Crown, and he ended up losing his life in an attempt to wage war against others.

In the minds of many people, Magellan is known only as the first person to circumnavigate the earth - but even this is incorrect! It was Magellan’s slave Enrique who was the first man to go all the way around the world because he was taken from his Malaysian home to Portugal, and then accompanied Magellan around South America and back home. Zweig gives a suitably inspiring description:

"The islanders surrounded Enrique chattering and shouting, and the Malay slave was dumbfounded, for he understood much of what they were saying. He understood their questions. It was a good many years since he had been snatched from his home, a good many years since he had last heard a word of his native speech. What an amazing moment, one of the most remarkable in the history of mankind! For the first time since our planet had begun to spin upon its axis and to circle in its orbit, a living man, himself circling that planet, had got back to his homeland. No matter that he was an underling, a slave, for his significance lies in his fate and not in his personality. He is known to us only by his slave name Enrique, but we know, likewise, that he was torn from his home upon the island of Sumatra, was bought by Magellan in Malacca, was taken by his master to India, to Africa and to Lisbon; travelled thence to Brazil and to Patagonia; and, first of all the population of the world, traversing the oceans, circling the globe, he returned to the region where men spoke a familiar tongue. Having made acquaintance on the way with hundreds of peoples and tribes and races, each of which had a different way of communicating thought, he had got back to his own folk, whom he could understand and who could understand him.”

Unfortunately for Magellan, he didn’t even make it all the way around himself. He died shortly after this incredible moment in an ill fated attempt to wage war on the local population.

So perhaps it’s the case that even though Magellan did not make it all the way home, his expedition was a success because he achieved what he set out to do - discover a Western route to the spice islands in the Indies. Alas, this too is not the case.

Magellan did succeed in discovering a Western route to the Indies, against all the odds and contrary to all received wisdom at the time. However, his discovery did not result in great wealth for him, his family or for Spain (the country who backed him, not his native Portugal.) His backers probably made their money back, plus a small profit, but the route he discovered was so treacherous to travel that it never became very popular. Many years later, the Panama Canal was constructed in Central America and his route around the horn of South America was made entirely redundant for all future voyages.

So, why is Magellan still remembered as one of the greatest explorers ever to have lived? In many respects he was a failure - he set out to discover a shortcut to unlimited wealth for his adopted Spanish King, but instead died in the process. It is not the outcomes for which Magellan is remembered, it is his boldness, tenacity and personal character that drove the expedition into existence in the first place and saw it through the darkest times along the way.

Zweig again summarises it brilliantly when he says: "One who wishes to act heroically, must act unreasonably.”

Magellan was a master of acting unreasonably in pursuit of the grandest of goals. Even a basic summary of what Magellan had to do to create this expedition in the first place defies belief:

A Portuguese sailor abandons his previously sworn allegiance to his native home and approaches the King of Portugal’s greatest rival - Spain. He asks the King to give him the equivalent of several million pounds in order to build five enormous ships and a crew capable of travelling around the world. They are going in search of an alternative route to the spice islands in the Indies, something that no one has any reason to believe is possible. Despite this, Magellan convinces the Spanish that he knows the way and is given what he asked for.

And this is just the very beginning!

Before they start out, Magellan is undermined by jealous Spaniards and spies from Portugal who attempt to have him destroyed before he can even begin. Once the voyage is underway, he overcomes an attempted mutiny and bitter disappointment when it turns out that his initial theory about the location of the passage was wrong. Later, he loses one ship in a wreck along the coast of Brazil and another ship abandons the expedition and returns home. Once they make it to the Pacific Ocean they reach the absolute limit of starvation before discovering an island at the very last moment.

This is why Magellan has become a name that will be remembered for all time. As Zweig puts it, “His genius was shown not only in his imagination, but also in his infinite capacity for taking pains.”

It wasn’t just that he had the imagination to think that there might be something as world changing as a Western route to the Indies. It’s also the fact that he was one of the few men capable of suffering through what he needed to do in order to make it happen. It takes a very special strength of character to have the drive to keep on going through all of that. The vast majority would have failed even to get the ships built. “It is the obstacles that have to be overcome which give the measure of a deed and of the man who performs it."

Finally, the story of Magellan is so inspiring (as told by Zweig), because it is such a great reminder that sometimes the highest highs can only be reached by suffering the lowest lows. Magellan’s lowest moment came when he was just two days away from discovering the strait which would come to have his name (although he did not know that he was so close). After all the setbacks and challenges he had overcome, it was almost too much to bear and he had begun to lose his belief that he would achieve his goal. Just days later, they discovered the Strait of Magellan and he had established himself in the history books for all time. “This was Magellan’s supreme minute, the minute of the utmost rapture that any man can ever have enjoyed."

This, then, explains why Magellan’s name will be remembered for all time, even though he did not achieve the material outcomes that he expected. For all his work and sacrifices, Spain never became any richer and nor did Magellan (or his family).

"But never in history does temporal utility decide the moral value of an achievement. He only can permanently increase the wealth of mankind who increases man’s knowledge of himself and intensifies his creative impulses.
In this sense, what Magellan did excelled the deeds of his contemporaries. Perhaps the most valid of his titles to renown is this, that he did not (like most leaders) sacrifice the lives of myriads on behalf of an idea, but mainly his own.
Ever memorable, therefore, will be the heroic self-sacrifice of the Pioneer of the Pacific, and the splendid venture of these five poor little lonely ships that set forth on their voyage to play their part in the hallowed war of mankind against the unknown, and of which only one got back victorious after having circumnavigated the world. Nor will he ever be forgotten, the man who conceived this boldest of thoughts, and who, thanks to the mysterious transformation of energy which goes on in the human brain, was able to realise his dream in the world of fact.
For by learning, after many years’ fruitless search, the true dimensions of our globe, man for the first time discovered his own true dimensions, became aware of his own greatness with renewed pleasure and fortified courage. This deed of Magellan has shown for all time that an idea, winged by genius and sturdily energised by passion, proves stronger than the elements of nature, and that a thing which a hundred generations have regarded as no more than a wish-dream can by one man in his short lifetime be translated into the realm of reality and become an imperishable truth."