‘When does a 500th anniversary require an asterisk?
If you’re a fan of trivia and myth-busting, you’ve doubtless heard umpteen repetitions of “George Washington didn’t really have wooden teeth,” “Napoleon wasn’t short,” “Lemmings don’t commit mass suicide” and “Ferdinand Magellan didn’t sail all the way around the world.”
Sure enough, Magellan was killed two years into the three-year voyage to circumnavigate the globe. (That probably saved him from an ugly scene at home. Before he set sail, he told Mrs. Magellan he was just going to the corner market to buy a pack of Marlboros. She should have been tipped off by the Doc Brown-ish “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” comment, but love is blind.)
On the other hand, a milestone is still a milestone. Sept. 8 marks the 500th anniversary of Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano’s return to Spain in the only vessel to survive Magellan’s 1519 expedition to the Spice Islands. (Posh Spice, meet Scurvy Spice.)
I guess Magellan (rather than Elcano) sticks in the public consciousness because of expert PR work. You know, “Magellan would have sailed all the way himself if not for that ‘getting killed in the Philippines’ thingie.” I need a publicist myself. (“Danny Tyree cured the common cold, except for that ‘not getting his butt off the sofa and doing research’ thingie.”)
So perilous was Magellan’s journey that another 55 years passed before Sir Francis Drake accomplished the second circumnavigation of the globe. Well, the perils and the bad Yelp reviews Magellan wrote combined to slow down copycats.
Magellan had an incalculable impact on the entire world. He helped give empirical support for the idea of the earth being spherical. (Many of his contemporaries took an attitude of “Follow the science – but not off the edge of the world! Aaaiiieee!”)
He discovered (to his chagrin) the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, discovered South American animals unknown to Europeans and inspired indigenous peoples to learn phrases such as “Indigenous peoples? No indigenous peoples around here. Just good ol’ white European males with no gold or anything.”
I understand that Magellan met with heaps of skepticism before embarking on his voyage. Pondering the circumnavigation aspect, one shade-tree philosopher drawled, “You can’t get here from here.”
Even after Elcano’s return, the doubts persisted. (“They filmed the whole journey out in the desert somewhere. I’ll bet Magellan had Neil Armstrong on speed-dial.”)
Merchandise and commemorations tied to the anniversary are getting people worldwide revved up, but some folks remain blasé. This includes those who loathed World History in school and others who are all too familiar with people (like my late father-in-law) who go All the Way Around the World to tell a story. (“The 3/16-inch wrench didn’t work, so I got my trusty 7/32-inch wrench off the front seat...or was it the floorboard...?”)
Magellan’s pioneering efforts seem quaint nowadays, since we have jet planes, satellites and TV spoilers traveling around the world with breathtaking speed.
But Magellan was one of the giants of the Age of Exploration. For all the talk of a Mars mission, we’re now stuck in the Middle Age of Exploration.
(“Glad I didn’t become an astronaut. I just want to send my hot younger girlfriend to get my cholesterol medicine while I let my imagination run free as I listen to my favorite podcast: ‘Only Laxatives in the Building.’”)
Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at email@example.com and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”