Magellan by Stefan Zweig – a belated billet

January 15, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Magellan by Stefan Zweig (1938) French title: Magellan. Translated by Alzir Hella.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig was our November Book Club read. I’m very late again with my billet, I know. As the title of the book implies, it is a biography of Magellan, written by a literary author.

I’m not going to write a detailed summary of the book or Magellan’s life, there’s Wikipedia for that and, as much as I respect Zweig as a writer, he’s not a historian.

In his introduction, Zweig says that he was travelling comfortably to America on a passenger ship when he got to thinking about Vasco de Gama, Magellan and all their fellow explorers and their grueling traveling conditions. He decided to write a book about Magellan and started to research that time in the ship’s library. Imagine that these ships had libraries so well stocked that he could read several books about the Age of Discovery. Now I understand why one would want to quit flying and travel on a passenger ship instead! It’s an opportunity for binge reading. (For the anecdote, I have a four-week break in February and when I said to my husband that I was going to have a book orgy, he deadpanned “Isn’t that what you’re doing already?” Ahem…)

The book opens with a quick summary about the spice trade and its importance at the time. It explains how the Portuguese became a great nation of explorers and what was at stake. It gives an overview of the importance of Prince Henry the Navigator and King João II (1481-1495) and King Manuel I (1495-1521), the one who ordered the building of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, if you’ve ever been to Lisbon.

Magellan (1480-1521) was born in Portugal, as a nobleman. His real Portuguese name is Ferñao de Magalhães. He was always a sailor, went to the West Indies in 1505-1512. He and his cosmologue friend Faleiro were convinced that there was a way to the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe. Carlos I, future Charles the Fifth, financed the trip after King Manuel refused to do it. Magellan and his men left Spain on September 10, 1519 with five ships and 285 men. They came back on September 6th, 1521 with one ship, 18 men and without Magellan who died in the Philippine Islands. One of them was Antonio Pigafetta, the scholar who wrote a journal about the trip, a great source of information. We owe him a lot.

Zweig relates Magellan’s life and travels, explaining the political intricacies, the financing of the project, the fiddly preparation, the conflicts between the captains of the fleet and all the dangers these sailors had to face.

As you know, Magellan and his crew discovered the Strait of Magellan, in southern Chile. It’s a dangerous route, not really a practical one but one of the few natural passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The 18 men who came back did the first circumnavigation of the world and proved that the Earth is not flat.

I found some facts astonishing. Imagine that the Pope approved of the split of the world between Spain and Portugal after drawing an imaginary line: new territories west of the line belong to Spain and east of the line to Portugal. Hence Spain’s motivation to sponsor Magellan’s trip from West to East. I’m always floored by the arrogance of the Catholic Church and the kings of the time. I know I shouldn’t judge the past with today’s eyes but I can’t help my reaction.

Imagine that the stations along the African coasts from the Good Hope Cape to Europe all belonged to the Portuguese. Magellan’s last ship didn’t take the risk to moor there or stop for food and water. The crew was afraid to be imprisoned as they were sailing under Spanish pavilion and as this expedition fueled the competition between Spain and Portugal. (If I understood properly) So they’d rather risk dying of thirst and hunger than have a pit stop at one of those stations. Borders weren’t a joke at the time!

Zweig pictures Magellan as a hard-working and stubborn man who overcame all kind of difficulties to prove his theory. I can’t fathom the courage these sailors had to leave everything behind and risk their life to go and face the great unknown. It’s hard for us to imagine as there aren’t many unexplored places these days. Except other planets. The value of one’s life wasn’t as important as today, I suppose. See Magellan’s family. He died during his trip, facing all kind of dangers. Meanwhile, his wife and son died at home, doing nothing special. Untimely deaths were common, maybe they didn’t rate the risk taken by these sailors as high as we do now, with our modern eyes.

Magellan is an easy read as Zweig is a smooth writer. It has the right level of details for a reader who is not a history buff: you learn things but don’t feel too lost in details you don’t understand because you lack of historical background. I don’t know how accurate it is but I think that the major facts are right and these are the only ones I’ll remember anyway.  

  1. January 15, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    I think that regardless of risk, there have always been people willing to risk life and limb in the spirit of adventure.


  2. January 15, 2022 at 10:40 pm

    I love Zweig but have pretty much read only his fictions, apart from his book on Montaigne. This sounds great though, Emma. I know little or nothing about Magellan so would probably be the ideal reader as I wouldn’t be in a position to quibble about details!!


    • January 16, 2022 at 11:15 am

      I should read his book about Montaigne, I’m sure it’s great. I have his Marie-Antoinette on the shelf too. This one is for you as well, no?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 16, 2022 at 2:46 am

    Zweig’s curiosity about so many different subjects was a wondrous thing and it’s a pleasure to read the results. The stories of those early explorers are fascinating, it must have been a little like taking off in a space ship without a destination or ground control. Have a thoroughly enjoyable book orgy!


    • January 16, 2022 at 11:17 am

      Zweig makes a parallel between these explorers and the pioneer in the aviation area. For him, they have something n common.
      Have you read any of his nonfiction? I have his Marie-Antoinette but I haven’t read it yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 17, 2022 at 1:19 am

        Ah, that makes sense. Yes, I’ve not read any of the biographies but a couple of memoir type books, ‘The World of Yesterday’ and ‘Journeys’, both very much enjoyed and recommended.


        • January 17, 2022 at 9:35 pm

          I also enjoyed his fiction books, mostly novellas.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. January 16, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    I have a couple of Zweig bios here. He tends to really take off when tackling these bios.


    • January 16, 2022 at 9:10 pm

      I imagined so but I suppose that the main facts are accurate and they’re the only ones I’ll remember anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. January 16, 2022 at 7:59 pm

    I do quite like the idea of the ship’s library though I suppose (being a bit cynical) the purpose was to give people something with which to spend the time and occupy their minds, thereby limiting mischief on board during a long journey. Same with films on planes! Weren’t there mutinies on Magellan’s ships, presumably directly derived from the absence of books to read?!
    I was lucky enough to see an exhibition on that first journey round the world, in Seville in 2019, to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the exhibition. It was a very well-presented and fascinating exhibition and included a copy (I think it wasn’t the original) of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Copy or not copy, it was quite something to see this old paper cutting half a continent in two, with such massive consequences right down to this day. As you say, the arrogance of it.


    • January 16, 2022 at 9:17 pm

      Sure, that was probably one of the reasons why they had big libraries.
      Yes, there were mutinies on Magellan’s ships, and according to Zweig because he wasn’t great at communication and he didn’t have the full trust of the Spanish captains, being Portuguese.

      That exhibition must have been wonderful. I didn’t remember the name of the treaty, so, thanks. The idea of this treaty is quite unbelievable.


  6. January 17, 2022 at 2:17 am

    Probably too late to get a cruise liner with a library now, all the libraries have long since given away to bars. I’m not sure Zweig though would have had much time for research, fast steam ships took days rather than weeks to cross the Atlantic.


    • January 17, 2022 at 9:35 pm

      People get less rowdy in libraries than in bars, so who knows, the line cruisers might have kept them!
      He was going to Brazil and apparently, it was a rather long trip.


  7. January 18, 2022 at 6:31 pm

    Hahaha your husband’s comment made me laugh!
    And it’s hard to believe how many places used to have libraries but no longer do. I especially am fond of the “ship’s library” idea though! On that note, have you read Alberto Manguel’s book about libraries?


    • January 22, 2022 at 8:40 am

      I haven’t read Alberto Manguel’s book about libraries. In French, it’s translated as Une histoire de la lecture. I should read it, thanks for the recommendation.
      Have you read The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac? Less erudite but a lot of love for books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 24, 2022 at 11:18 pm

        I thought I had, but I checked my log, and no. I was getting it confused with a skinny little book called How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read! LOL I’m not sure that’s the same Manguel book, actually, I think that one you located is a newer one. The one I meant is The Library at Night. But I’ve never met an Manguel book I didn’t love.

        Liked by 1 person

        • January 29, 2022 at 8:49 am

          I found it in French : La bibliothèque, la nuit. Sounds great for bookworms. (rats de bibliothèques, in French. Between being called a rat or a worm, I don’t know what’s worse.)

          Liked by 1 person

  8. January 24, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    A library inside the cruise ship, now that’s one of those weird details that defies belief.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. January 29, 2022 at 8:38 am
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