For centuries Ferdinand Magellan has been accorded a rare privilege. The explorer’s name has been written in the stars. Two satellite galaxies of our own Milky Way, which sparkle conspicuously over the southern hemisphere, are labelled the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.
Now astronomers want to erase this celestial distinction. They say that Magellan, the 16th century Portuguese sailor, was a murderer who enslaved and burned down the homes of Indigenous peoples during his leadership of the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. They insist his name should no longer be honoured by being associated with the clouds.
“Magellan committed horrific acts. In what became Guam and the Philippines, he and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants,” says the astronomer Mia de los Reyes, of Amherst College in Massachusetts. Magellan led the 1519 Spanish expedition that achieved the first European navigation to Asia via the Pacific, but died in a battle, in 1521, with Indigenous people in the present-day Philippines.