Book Review: Conqueror of the Seas – The Story of Magellan by Stefan Zweig

Conqueror of the Seas – The Story of Magellan (Amazon) by Stefan Zweig


Somewhere buried in a comment here someone mentioned that Stefan Zweig wrote a book about Magellan. I have always loved reading about the famous explorers and with my new found interest in Zweig I had to have it. I went to Amazon and found a used copy for five bucks plus a little freight. The copy I received is a very early edition, as it has a picture of a nice boat on front of the style that Magellan used and the pages had that old book smell and feel.

To cut to the chase, this book is absolutely fantastic. Zweig is just so easy to read, it is almost like the guy is sitting across from you reading the book for you.

There are some spoilers below but not too many. If you don’t care for the spoilers, put this one on the top of your reading list. It is a breeezy three hundred pages or so and won’t take long to get through.

The first part of the book, approximately one third of it or so, describes in detail how Magellan had to wind his way through the political labyrinths of the day to get his very secret mission underway, and how he was spurned by the Portuguese and turned to the Spanish to, as we say today, “get ‘er done”.

It took a LOT of money, time, materiel and manpower just to get the mission underway, and Magellan didn’t even tell his crews where they were going. The crew thought for the most part that they were going to the Spice Islands – they were, just not the way they thought.

Five ships set out from Spain.

They set sail across the Atlantic Ocean and eventually hit South America. Expedition after expedition was sent into inlet after inlet and they simply could not find the passage to the Pacific Ocean. They were forced to winter off of South America and a mutiny had to be taken care of.

Eventually, finally, Magellan found the passage and they sailed west, all the way across the Pacific Ocean and made it to their destination.

Zweig describes the voyage in painstaking detail and also talks about what absolute misery the men were in on those boats.

Magellan was killed in the Phillipines in an insane battle that I don’t want to ruin for you. You must read about it.

Of the five original ships, one made it back to Spain after the enormous trip all the way around the world (other boats made it back, but they had turned around). The crew were lauded as heroes.

Of course this book has so much more to it than my paltry writeup can provide. If this subject interests you at all, or even just the generic genre of adventure writing, this book is definitely for you. One of the best books I have read…since the last Zweig book I consumed.

21 thoughts on “Book Review: Conqueror of the Seas – The Story of Magellan by Stefan Zweig”

  1. I am not reading much of anything not book-project-related or work-related until then. Zweig’s Magellan is near the top.

  2. For a reminder of how profitable being a narco-state was before the Industrial Revolution:

    “For all its losses, [Magellan’s] voyage was a huge financial success. The Victoria’s 26 ton cargo of cloves sold for 41,000 ducats. This returned the 20,000 ducats the venture had cost plus a 105% profit.”

  3. I have not read, but the preécis reminded of Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison. Superb, and still the touchstone Columbus biography.

  4. “For all its losses, [Magellan’s] voyage was a huge financial success. The Victoria’s 26 ton cargo of cloves sold for 41,000 ducats. This returned the 20,000 ducats the venture had cost plus a 105% profit.”

    Well, this would be fine and dandy, but they did lose many men and several ships from the original five – I think the lands claimed for Spain were far more valuable. Also, I have no clue about alternative investments of the day, but waiting two years or so for that 105% profit may not have been the best deal.

  5. The passage Magellan found had to have been Cape Horn.

    Very rough seas I’m told.

    Those explorers had major cojones. They literally had no idea where they would end up. Like taking a space craft – launching – with a vague destination in mind but no idea exactly how you will get there!

    The Spanish by all of their exploration should have owned all of the “New World”.

    The battle of 1588 changed the whole equation. And that’s how the term “Black Irish” came into being. Fair skinned Irish women marrying darker complexioned Spanish sailors washed ashore.

    This site is surprisingly detailed for such an old battle:

    Didn’t realize Phillip II’s whole reason for this was to depose the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I – but the template for the settlement of the New World was determined.

  6. Lex – I had done a cursory Google lookup on “Tip of South America” and got Cape Horn. But in researching this further came to the Strait of Magellan – which is just to the north of the tip and
    an intricate passage.

    Think of the time that had to have taken in navigating…

    Then to the immediate tip is Drake’s Passage – it was about 20 years ago that evidence was found of Sir Francis Drake visiting Northern California – maybe a bit longer. And we have also found evidence of a Chinese junk visiting the area – much earlier no doubt.

    Years ago while visiting Tahiti – on the island of Moorea is a beautiful little bay where trans-pacific sailors like to moor – called Cook’s Bay. James Cook met a similar fate to Magellan. But 200 years after him.

    Think of the courage it too for those people to venture into the unknown by themselves.

    But, I believe in view of the time and what he explored, Magellan has to have been the greatest of them all.

  7. David – I am fascinated by history and by what we don’t know. We don’t even know how the Pyramids were built. The Black Irish are, to me, a wonderful example of how seemingly unrelated events (a storm in the North Sea) had consequences to this day, both in Ireland’s population and the direction of the “New World”.

    If you take a Caribbean cruise, try to see Cartegena, in Northern Columbia. Cartegena was the exit port for the Spanish, where all the South American gold left for Spain. You can see Spanish forts guarding the harbor – evidence of her glorious past.

  8. Interesting that you bring up Elizabeth the First, Bill. I have read Mary Stuart, another Zwieg book which, of course, concerns Elizabeth I. It turns out that Mary probably had a better claim to the throne of England than did Elizabeth, who was not legitimate.

    Mary had her own faults though, she probably had her first husband killed. Of course, the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary was also partly religious.

  9. Tim – according to the Internet article Phillip II lost his fleet – and the direction of New World Settlement – all because he felt Elizabeth I was a heretic and should have been deposed.

    Lex – I was wondering why the strait – obviously protected from the elements – was not the preferred route choice of the clipper ships – but they must have been very hard to navigate by sail – and treacherous in their own way.

  10. The routing of the first Spanish Armada had little tangible impact beyond crippling English naval power almost a century and leaving some lingering sense of pride among the English themselves. Elizabeth’s concern with frugality, inherited from her stingy grandfather Henry VII, led her to procrastinate discharging the sailors of the victorious fleet so long that 7,000 sailors died (compared to the 100 killed in the actual naval action) and in the end many sailors never got paid. The next year, the failure of the English Armada decimated English naval resources further and gave Spain breathing ground to rebuild its navy using the latest English style naval technology. English naval power was unable to recover or do little to stop the next two Spanish armadas, which were only stopped by bad weather, or the final Spanish armada which landed Spanish troops in Ireland so England would be further bled by the costs of fighting on two fronts. Further attempts to raid the Spanish main, intercept the treasure ships, or attack Spain itself became more and more futile. James VI and I, upon succeeding Elizabeth, quickly made peace with Spain on terms overwhelmingly favorable to the Spaniards: England was ultimately too poor to make war on Spain.

    Spain was bled dry by fighting the Thirty Years’ War, the Turks, and the Dutch at the same time. It was the rise in Dutch power that ultimately did Spain in. The Dutch seized control of the spice trade and its revenues from Portugal (under Spanish rule until 1640), poured money into keeping the Thirty Years’ War going by funding first the Swedes and then the French interventions, and ultimately inflicted the decisive naval defeat that permanently lost Spain command of the sea. This engagement, the Battle of the Downs fought on October 31, 1639, also took place in the English Channel. It even took place in English waters and was visible from the English coast. However, the Royal Navy was powerless to intervene and the Spanish fleet was permanently crippled. The English experienced a brief resurgence in naval power during the Commonwealth but, following Charles Stuart’s return in 1660, it was allowed to lapse. Dutch power surged: they were able to destroy 13 and capture 2 Royal Navy ships by sailing up the Thames and attacking them at dock. Eventually Dutch power was so great that they were able to conquer the British Isles themselves in 1689-1690 and make them a Dutch protectorate with the help of a few well placed English traitors. Extensive Dutch nation-building in the British Isles during the 1690s coupled with the reign of the greatest strategist of the last 300 years for twenty years was what allowed England to finally become the world’s dominant naval power.

  11. Dearieme – I had always heard this story about their descended from the crews of the Spanish Armada but a cursory look around the Internet says that is only 1 theory.

    Who knows? Genetics is an interesting subject and little understood.

    Joseph – you seem to know your history – if it took years for the power balance to ship to Britain and not one major battle – so be it.

    I had heard that that battle bankrupted Phillip II

    I visited his castle just outside of Madrid years ago – it is right next to the Valley of the Fallen – the graves of 10s of thousand killed in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

  12. Empires default. They don’t go bankrupt.

    Phillip II defaulting on loans in 1557, 1560, 1575, and 1596 but he had the strongest army in Europe and enough silver coming in to keep them happy. As John Maynard Keynes observed, “The old saying holds. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.”

  13. Joseph – another saying a friend told me in business with Accounts Receivable (and how failure to keep that under control will kill more businesses)

    You have to keep it under control before their problem becomes your problem”

  14. Joseph – I am impressed with your historical knowledge. In fact this whole web site – I can learn things – from the pretense of hippies i Madison to the effects of the Spanish Armada being destroyed…

    On nations only defaulting wouldn’t you say there is a difference with Greece – and not being able to devalue their own currency – and using a currency out of their control to manipulate?

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