Wednesday, July 24, 2024
HomeCulture WarDon’t look up – there’s a slaver in the sky 

Don’t look up – there’s a slaver in the sky 


EVEN if you boldly go almost 200,000 light years away from Earth, there seems to be no escaping our world of wokery.  

At such unimaginable distances are two neighbouring dwarf galaxies, called the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud, which have been companions in their corner of the cosmos for billions of years. Visible in the night sky only from the southern hemisphere, they are an awesome spectacle. 

But now both heavenly bodies face being sucked into an etymological black hole – because they are named after 16th century explorer Ferdinand Magellan, whom some astronomers are denouncing as a ‘coloniser, slaver and murderer’.  

A campaign to strip the two galaxies of their long-time appellations is being led by Mia de los Reyes, assistant professor of astronomy at a college in Amherst, Massachusetts. She says Ferdinand Magellan is a symbol of ‘imperialist and anti-indigenous violence’. One alternative name being suggested for the Magellanic Clouds is ‘the Milky Clouds’, because they are neighbours of own Milky Way galaxy. 

At a cursory glance, Magellan may not sound the most sympathetic of characters. The Portuguese mariner, in the service of Spain, set out from Seville in September 1519 with five ships to try to find a westward passage to the Spice Islands (today’s Indonesia). En route, he beheaded and quartered a mutinous captain, had another strangled for sodomy, and took natives captive. 

By November 1520, his flotilla had made its way down the east coast of South America and crossed through what is now the Strait of Magellan in Chile into a vast ocean, which Magellan named the Pacific. One ship had been lost and a second turned back to Spain. Magellan sailed on to Guam, where he burned a village and killed several islanders for stealing a boat.  

When he reached the Philippines, he burned villages that would not convert to Christianity, and on April 28, 1521, he was killed in a battle with natives. In September 1522, one ship made it back to Spain, achieving the first circumnavigation of the globe – and Magellan’s place in history was assured.  

As for the Magellanic Clouds, they were noted by a scribe who was on the voyage, although they were already known under different names by native peoples and some Western explorers.  

The two galaxies were first referred to by their current name in the early 1750s. So they’ve been around for more than 250 years in that form without apparently offending anyone until now. Yes, we’re in depressingly familiar territory here – people judging the past by today’s standards and finding historical wrongs that they can be outraged about.  

To some in our relatively civilised 21st century, Magellan may sound like a thug. But 500 years ago, life was generally nasty, brutish and short and leading an expedition into the unknown wasn’t a job for a shrinking violet.  

For better or worse, history has happened. It can’t be changed, not unless you inhabit George Orwell’s nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the omniscient Party alters all records of the past whenever circumstances demand. ‘All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.’  

It’s Illogical and dangerous to try to blank out those now perceived as baddies, because you’re effectively pretending something never happened. You’re burying your head in the sands of time. 

Such dubious revisionism generates the absurd. Ms Reyes, who describes herself as Filipino-American, brands Magellan a ‘coloniser’. She presumably knows that the Philippines – named after Prince Philip of Spain – were invaded and colonised by the Spanish in 1571. So should the Philippines be renamed?  

She denounces Magellan as a ‘slaver’. But what about the Italian explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), after whom America is named? He was apparently a slave trader and a slaveholder. Should America be renamed? 

Ms Reyes is entitled to make her point about Magellan, but instead of demanding he be excised from the celestial pantheon, perhaps she should direct her energies to doing what must be a wonderful job – exploring the boundless beauty and mystery of the universe – and stop looking at history through the wrong end of her telescope.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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