“The Incredible Journey of Magellan”, story of a “traitor” greedy for cloves, on Arte

Welcoming Magellan to Brunei, drawing from the documentary “The Incredible Journey of Magellan”.


“In the beginning were the spices. » Thus opens the biography that the writer Stefan Zweig dedicated to Fernand de Magellan in 1938. “In the beginning was the clove” would have been more precise. Because it was by dangling the possession of the Moluccas archipelago in Indonesia, the only known place at the time where clove trees grew, that the Portuguese navigator, born in Porto around 1480, convinced the King of Spain Charles V to finance his mad project in 1517: reach India from the west. There was no question then of the first round-the-world trip that would write Magellan down in history.

Fernao de Magalhaes is not the only great discoverer of chance. Didn’t his contemporary Christopher Columbus “discover” America on October 12, 1492, thinking of landing in India? The experienced and military navigator in the service of the King of Portugal is, on the other hand, the only traitor, since, in lack of recognition, he sold himself to Spain.

Errors and approximations

By thus giving pride of place to errors and approximations, director François de Riberolles breathes spice into his documentary series. That’s good: broadcast in full, it must captivate over time (4 × 52 minutes). And, apart from a drop in intensity in the third part, she succeeds. Thanks in particular to the screenplay, which is based on the story full of anecdotes by Antonio de Pigafetta, official chronicler of this Incredible Journey completed 6 September 1522, and one of 18 survivors of 237 men left on five ships.

The vagueness of the Treaty of Tordesillas, a sort of Hispano-Portuguese Yalta, was to have dramatic consequences. Signed on June 7, 1494, it divides the planet vertically into two halves, from the meridian passing 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands: Portugal to the east, Spain to the west. But cartographers are unable to say precisely where the coveted Moluccas are and therefore who owns them. In 1518, Magellan arbitrarily placed them in the Spanish zone…

Leaving Seville on a Monday, “Day of Saint Lawrence, August 10, 1519”, writes Antonio de Pigafetta, “ the Moluccan Armada » will join Brazil before reaching “the end of the known world”, in search of an ever more southerly passage. The viewer is taken in, perhaps shocked by the cruelty of the punishments inflicted on traitors; surely amused by the description of the penguins; wondering, like all historians, about the death of Magellan, April 27, 1521, on the island of Mactan, in the Philippine archipelago.

The voice-over story by Christian Gonon (from the Comédie-Française) is illustrated by unpublished aerial views of the current coasts, capes, the Strait of Magellan, and by drawings from the Remembers studio, founded by Ugo Bienvenu – a success. Added to this are the testimonies of historians and specialists, such as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. First navigator around the world solo and non-stop, he imagines, not without humor, the preparations for the departing crews: “If I have to travel for two years, how many toothbrushes should I take? »

Historian José Manuel Nunez de la Fuente prefers to quote the 19th century economiste century Adam Smith: “The two historical events that the economy considers the most important in all of history are: the discovery of the Strait of Magellan and the crossing of the Pacific. » Half a millennium ago, globalization hoisted the mainsail.

Magellan’s Incredible Journeyby François de Riberolles (Fr., 4 x 52 min, 2022).

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