Here is a new book on Magellan’s voyage which brings both excitement and pleasure in its fresh presentation of three original accounts of the voyage, its fascinating biographical sketches, its excellent analysis of the geographical ideas of the time which inspired this voyage which, in turn, played such havoc with them, and its lucid summary of the whole project.
Most useful to scholars in the field will be the excellent bibliographical notes found throughout all the sections of the book, bringing the reader up to date on the best studies which have been made on this subject. Professor Nowell is completely at home in his field and provides sure guidance to the best in the maze of Magellan literature that has appeared during the past four centuries. The bibliographical references are so rich that one wishes that a formal listing of the materials used might also have been included to add to the ease of reference.
Welcome though this book may be to Magellan experts, it is not primarily designed for them. Its purpose, as clearly stated in the introduction, is to offer to modern readers three of the most interesting contemporary accounts of Magellan’s voyage. All three of these accounts have appeared before in excellent English translations and, in fact, Professor Nowell has used the best of these (J. A. Robertson’s translation of Pigafetta’s account and the translations appearing in the Hakluyt Society’s publication of Lord Stanley of Alderley’s First Voyage around the World by Magellan for the other two) rather than new translations, his purpose again being to make these newly and more readily accessible to the reading public.
Curiously enough, no one of the three accounts selected was written by a Spaniard. The first, and by far the longest, is that of the Venetian humanist, Antonio Pigafetta, who accompanied Magellan simply “to experience and to go to see those things for myself” and to write about them later. His narrative is a treasure trove of details about plants, animals, people, and events. The second account is written by Maximilian of Transylvania, a native of Brussels, who, as secretary of Charles V, assisted in the court’s reception of El Cano and the other survivors of Magellan’s expedition upon their return to Spain and questioned them further because of his own deep interest. Immediately afterwards he sent an account of the expedition to his father, Matthaus Lang, cardinal of Salzburg and bishop of Cartagena. This narrative has special interest because its publication soon afterwards gave the European reading public its first report of this amazing voyage. The third account has the ring of the market place. Gaspar Corrêa, sixteenth-century Portuguese historian, was, like Magellan, a Portuguese man of affairs who had been actively engaged in Far Eastern trade. His facts regarding Magellan’s expedition are not always reliable but these are easily corrected and he brings to his account a natural note of familiarity with the practical problems involved that makes the project come alive.
Important as these three narratives are, they by no means tell the whole story of the Magellan expedition. This is not the intent of this book. However, Dr. Nowell makes an original contribution in the continuity which he has provided by his introduction and conclusion, along with the copious but unobtrusive notes which round out the whole story. The book is attractively presented, with a frontispiece picture of the “Vitoria” and seven maps, combining useful chartings of Magellan’s routes with historic old maps. An interesting pattern has been adopted for notes, using footnotes for the narratives where they are essential to an understanding of the material and a special section for the notes, largely citations, accompanying the introduction and conclusion.
Although the stated purpose of this book is limited and modest, the result is something more significant. We have here a beautiful example of historical literature, satisfying both in its erudition and perception as well as in its graceful clarity of style. Magellan’s voyage was unique in world history and timeless in its interest. Professor Nowell has performed a real service in his effective retelling of the story.