Edouard Roditi’s Magellan of the Pacific is more than a mere retelling of the epic voyage by this Portuguese seaman in the service of Spain. The first half of the book seeks clues to Magellan’s elusive biography prior to his circumnavigation. The author traces briefly the early career of the young Magellan, first as a page in the household of Queen Leonora, then as a clerk in King Manuel’s Marine Department, and finally his journey to India in 1505 in the fleet of Dom Francisco de Almeida. There he served in various posts until 1513, sailing as far East as Malaca where he was involved in the famous massacre of 1509. The author contends that Magellan’s decision to attempt a westward voyage to the fabled Spice Islands was made while serving in the Indian Ocean area. Magellan may have been in correspondence at that time with a lifelong friend, Francisco Serrão. By 1511 Serrão had already reached these sought-after islands. Whatever the factors involved in the decision, when Magellan returned to Lisbon in 1513, he was already set upon the course of a westward voyage. If it could not be made under Portuguese auspices, then perhaps Spain would be interested in the project.
The scholar searching for new clues to the faint documentary trace of Magellan’s early career will be disappointed. What the author has created in the first portion of this book is a plausible biography and a recounting of the major events in which Magellan might have participated. The author concedes, however, and this reviewer concurs, that documentation is simply too sketchy to permit a more complete biographical outline.
The second portion, the voyage around the world, relies heavily upon the logbook of Pigafetta and the testimony of the survivors of the expedition. Somewhere on the voyage across the Pacific, the author begins to detect a crusading spirit in Magellan’s actions. Just before the voyager’s death on Mactan, Roditi describes Magellan as the archetype of the missionary spirit which later prompted Jesuits to sail in search of souls. He then goes on to suggest Magellan’s beatification! Without footnotes or other scholarly addenda which might support these broad claims, this reviewer cannot share that opinion. The book’s main value lies in the vivid recreation of the tumultuous age in which Magellan moved and which prompted his westward search.