Around the Globe, 500 years ago


Europe, the early 1600s. Their food needed spicing up, but the spice gardens with pepper, cinnamon, cloves, lay at the other end of the then-known world. Obtaining spices from ‘the spice islands’, also known as Moluccas (Indonesia), required a perilously long voyage across uncertain waters. One Portuguese nobleman sought to find a shorter route, via the hitherto untried westward passage. If it went well, all knew, he would have gone round the world!

2019 marks the quincentenary of the first circumnavigation of the world, undertaken in 1519 by the first European to see, and name, the largest body of water on earth’s surface, the Pacific Ocean, Fernão de Magalhães, popularly known as Ferdinand Magellan who, although Portuguese, sailed under the Spanish flag. Before this, Magellan had spent eight years in India, and participated in the battles at Diu, Cannanore and other places.

New World

In June 1494, two years after Geneva-born Christopher Columbus, he of severe navigational and geographic issues of East and West, had arrived at a land mass that he named the ‘New World’, Pope Alexander VI divided the world between Spain and Portugal for purposes of trade. As the two nations sought to increase their ‘legitimate’ areas of dominion, they ran into problems: they simply did not know what lay beyond the already-mapped waters. Magellan convinced the Spanish court, using a globe in which key areas were, perhaps intentionally, obscured, others  ambiguously marked, and some downright wrong, to show that he knew which route to take to reach the Spice Islands.  In 1518, the Spanish ruler decreed:

In as much as you, Bachelor Ruy Faleiro and Ferdinand Magellan, gentlemen born in the Kingdom of Portugal, wishing to render us a distinguished ser­vice, oblige yourselves to find in the domains that belong to us and are ours in the area in the Ocean Sea, within the limits of our demarcation, islands, mainlands, rich spices, we order that the following contract with you be recorded.

For well over a hundred years this document, sanctioning Magellan’s voyage of discovery and conquest, would be the most crucial one in European history. Its significance would move to second place in importance only on 31 December 1600, when Queen Elizabeth of England would draft the Charter approving the Eastern trade by a company of London merchants, known simply as the East India Company, which would go on from this Charter to build the largest empire the modern world had ever seen. But that is a different story.

Expedition Sets Sail

Magellan’s fleet set out from Seville, Spain, in 1519, with five vessels and 237 sailors. An account of Magellan’s expedition comes to us via Antonio Pigafetta (an Italian) and five others, available in a brilliant volume from England’s Hakluyt Society, The First Voyage Round the World by Magellan first published in 1874. Pigafetta begins thus:

Monday, the day of St Laurence, the 10th of August, in the year above mentioned, the fleet, provided with what was necessary for it, and carrying crews of different nations, to the number of two hundred and thirty-seven men in all the five ships, was ready to set sail from the mole of Seville.

They would enter the Atlantic a month and 10 days later. In November 1520, having moved through a passage of water that Magellan termed ‘All Saints Passage’, now the ‘Straits of Magellan’, his fleet moved from the Atlantic into a water body they never knew existed, the Pacific. A few months later, they arrived in the Philippines. Magellan got involved in a local battle between two rivals. In the course of this battle, Magellan (who already had a bad knee and limped from an old war wound) was killed. Pigafetta describing the scene declares ‘they deprived of life our mirror, light, comfort, and true guide’. Making Magellan into a selfless hero, Pigafetta continues:

Whilst the Indians were thus overpowering him, several times he turned round towards us to see if we were all in safety, as though his obstinate fight had no other object than to give an opportunity for the retreat of his men.

Denied even the remains of their captain, the surviving Europeans, including Pigafetta, left for Borneo and then reached their original destination, the Spice Islands, in November 1521. By 1522, they had set out for Europe via the Indian Ocean, arriving in Spain some months later. Of the original fleet, Victoria would return three years later, with just 18 remaining sailors, all emaciated, with many suffering from scurvy.  The circumnavigation, begun by Magellan, was finished by Juan Sebastián Elcano.

Earth is Round

Magellan’s voyage, like that of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, makes up Europe’s Age of Discovery, credited with the making of modern geography and navigational methods. His circumnavigation demonstrated that earth was indeed round, and this validated the globe as method of representing the world. The globe would soon become, as the geographer Denis Cosgrove has brilliantly argued in his Apollo’s Eye:  A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination, a metaphor for being able to perceive the world itself. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare’s plays were staged in a theatre called the Globe. Images of the globe and navigation abound in English literature in the 1500-1750 period, from Edmund Spenser and Francis Bacon to Thomas More and John Donne, illustrating the power of these voyages on the European cultural imagination.

Accounts of the voyage were not simply triumph narratives extolling the heroism and martyrdom of European sailors like Magellan. The account, like the voyage on which it is based, became a component of Europe’s self-definition as discoverers, voyagers and conquerors. Then, they fuelled Europe’s imagination into visualising other regions of the world, and generated the fantasy of discovery, adventure and conquest. These accounts fed into texts like Robinson Crusoe that were, in the case of England, central to the making of its imperial fantasy. Colonialism, like many other things, begins as an act of imagination. 

The act of naming and discovery in the Pigafetta volume was itself an instantiation of colonialism. In the first account in the volume, a sailor writes: ‘hence they set sail, and navigated further on amongst many islands, to which they gave the name of the Valley Without Peril, and also St Lazarus’. Another writes: ‘we gave the islands the name of the Ladrones, because the people had robbed our ships: but it cost them very dear’. Naming meant not only to take possession of, but also to be able to now place the spot on a map and the map would be important for future travellers. It embodied a textual conquest, preceding military conquests.

Civilisational Hierarchy

Accounts from Magellan, among others, produced long-lasting stereotypes of the non-European world. Pigafetta claims he met people who ‘live a hundred, or a hundred and twenty, or a hundred and forty years, and more’. He claims he met tribes who practised cannibalism (‘not as good meat, but because they have adopted this custom’). These stereotypes of ‘savages’, ‘primitives’ and barbarians were instrumental in how Europe conceptualised other races, and enabled it to justify slavery, conquest and rule. Often masquerading as natural history and ethnography, these accounts simplified and reduced complex indigenous cultural practices and beliefs into the broad category of the ‘primitive’. With this, the Europeans could produce a civilisational hierarchy wherein the black, brown or yellow races, as they were called, were positioned at the lower end and the Europeans at the very top.

The voyages transported unwittingly, pollen, plants and bacteria, in what Alfred Crosby famously termed ‘ecological imperialism’, between Europe and other parts of the world. Indigenous population with specific immune systems had no responses to the bacterial and viral populations that came with(in) the European bodies landing on their shores. The reverse was also true, and Europeans picked up many local diseases.

The very idea of ‘discovery’ came to define Europe, because it was implicit that although the indigenous peoples had been living in the Americas or Africa for centuries, they had only been ‘discovered’ recently by Europeans. As contemporary scholars argue, for Africa, Asia and South America, this effectively meant their histories only begin, for Europeans, with the moment of discovery by Europeans! These cultures and races then become Europe’s Others: lesser, lower and available.

To circumnavigate was to place on a map, draw routes, describe local languages (Pigafetta records various words of the languages he encounters) and peoples. The act of voyage was never distinct from the act of inscribing it in a narrative that suited the merchant, the soldier and the statesmen. The experiential account, no matter how flawed (or fully fabricated, such as John Mandeville’s from the 14th century, a work that influenced Columbus), was deemed authentic, and proffered ‘truths’ about another place/culture. It inventoried the world, marked it, located it as a means of obtaining, textual knowledge of it. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from such accounts and their maps, the European set out to conquer the world.

In other words, one cannot delink the impact on Europe of Magellan’s voyage from the textual account of it. To see Pigafetta’s or other’s accounts as just autobiographical is to miss their role in the shaping of the European imagination of the globe. In the quincentenary of Magellan’s voyage, we have learnt, perhaps, to read such texts for what they encode. They tell other stories. For, as Michel de Certeau tells us, what the map cuts up, the story cuts across.

Text in Context


  • Magellan’s voyage was the first circumnavigation of the globe, validated the idea of the globe and proved that the earth is round
  • The voyage, like that of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, makes up Europe’s Age of Discovery, credited with the making of modern geography and navigational methods 
  • The histories of indigenous people only began, for Europeans, with the moment of discovery by Europeans! These cultures and races then become Europe’s Others: lesser, lower and available
  • Writings on the voyage fuelled European imagination about the distant parts of the world, and the stereotypes about other races as inferior and primitive enabled the Europeans to develop a civilisational hierarchy, preliminary to conquest and domination

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)