A Singular Captain

Written by John Regan
Review by A. K. Bell

In 1518, the young king of Castile, Carlos V, decided to finance a five-ship expedition led by famous Portuguese navigator and sea-captain, Ferdinand Magellan. The purpose of the expedition was to find an alternative route to the Spice Islands – and prove these lucrative islands lay on the Spanish side of the demarcation line drawn up by the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Antonio Pigafetta, Venetian by birth, accompanied Magellan, and it is through his POV that the story is told – logical, seeing as it is the real Pigafetta’s account which is the source for most of what we know about Magellan’s exciting and, eventually, fatal excursion.

I was irritated by a number of anachronisms in the first few chapters, such as houses built with smoking rooms, port being served as the after dinner drink, and young ladies of high birth being left unchaperoned with the charming Pigafetta.

Once the journey gets underway, things improve. Mr Regan offers detailed descriptions of the harrowing journey – and the complicated political game played out between Magellan and his captains. Not the easiest of men to work for – or like – Magellan takes on shape as the narrative progresses, as do various of his companions, principally among them Pigafetta. At times, the narrative loses pace due to excessive descriptions, and the author resorts to a great deal of “telling” which creates a lack of engagement.

Three years after the expedition set out, one ship limps back to port. Aboard are eighteen crew members, the rest have died – or defected – along the way. The first circumnavigation of the globe was now a fact – but Magellan was not among those who made it back. For those who enjoy naval history, A Singular Captain offers an interesting read, and Ferdinand Magellan deserves a book or two!

E-edition reviewed