Canceling Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan was one of the world’s greatest explorers. He led the first expedition to sail around the world, although he didn’t finish the voyage, having been murdered by natives in what is now the Philippines. Magellan’s greatness as an explorer and navigator has been recognized in many ways. For example, he discovered the Strait of Magellan at the bottom of South America. And his expedition observed and recorded the galaxies that now bear his name.

But perhaps not for long: Astronomers request retitling of galaxies named after ‘violent colonialist’ explorer Magellan.

A group of astronomers has called for galaxies named after the 16th-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to be renamed because of his “violent colonialist legacy”.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way that can be visible to the naked eye from the Southern Hemisphere.

They are claimed to have been discovered by Magellan and his crew during their first circumnavigation of the world between 1519 and 1522.

However, a group of astronomers in the United States has asked the International Astronomical Union, the body in charge of naming astronomical objects, for the Magellanic Clouds to be renamed.

So, what exactly did Magellan do wrong?

Prof De los Reyes described Magellan as “a coloniser, a slaver and a murderer” and added: “Now I and a coalition of astronomers are calling for the scientific community to rename these galaxies, as well as other astronomical objects, institutions, and facilities that bear his name.”

To my knowledge, Magellan didn’t found any colonies, nor am I aware of any particular participation in slavery, although that would not be unusual for the 16th century. And as far as murder is concerned, Magellan had more to complain of indigenous peoples than indigenous peoples had to complain of him.

Basically, Magellan’s sin was to be a 16th century European who achieved great things and who interacted, to some degree, with non-European peoples. That is all it takes these days.

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