“Violent colonialist”: Magellan’s name to be erased from the skies

The famous Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan is known in world history for his first round-the-world expedition of the sixteenth century. The strait between the continent of South America and the Tierra del Fuego archipelago is named after him. His name is also inscribed in the starry sky: the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellites of our Milky Way galaxy, are named in his honor, visible only in the southern hemisphere of the Earth. But astronomers want to deprive the famous navigator of this privilege and rename our satellite galaxies.

Велика та Мала Магелланові Хмари у небі над обсерваторією ESO Paranal у Чилі

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds in the sky above the ESO Paranal Observatory in Chile. Photo: ESO

The downside of Magellan’s journey

The International Astronomical Union, the body responsible for naming astronomical objects, insists that the Magellanic Clouds should be renamed because of the explorer’s violent and colonial activities. They offer to call the objects after the Spanish crown. The Union argues that Magellan was not only a traveler and discoverer, but also a murderer and enslaver who burned the homes of indigenous peoples in the Pacific region. The scientists insist that his name should no longer be associated with astronomy. This is reported in an article in the journal APS Physics.

Портрет Фернана Магеллана
A portrait of Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), who led the first circumnavigation of the globe. Image: PHAS/Universal Images Group

“Magellan committed terrible acts. In the territories that became Guam and the Philippines, he and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants. We, and many other astronomers, believe that astronomical objects should not be named after a navigator, or anyone else who pursued a violent colonial policy,” explains astronomer Mia Reyes of Amherst College in Massachusetts. According to the astronomer, Magellan led a Spanish expedition in 1519 that made the first European voyage to Asia across the Pacific Ocean, but in 1521 he died in a battle with the indigenous population in what is now the Philippines.

Велика та Мала Магелланові Хмари
The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Photo: Wikipedia

Professor David Hogg of New York University argues that Magellan’s name should be erased from the sky for his expansionist activities. And also for the fact that he was not the discoverer of these space objects — these objects were named after the navigator only at the end of the 19th century, and before that, these objects had their own names given by local peoples of the Pacific region.

A revolution in names

The call for change is a derivative of a growing nomenclature revolution in which researchers are demanding changes to scientific names that are currently considered inappropriate due to a re-examination of historical events through the lens of the affected parties. For example, there are species named after dictators: Hitler’s touroon (Anophthalmus hitleri) and Mussolini’s butterfly (Hypopta mussolinii). As a result, scientists are demanding that various organizations be allowed to change names that are considered offensive.

An alternative to the Magellanic Clouds

It is currently unclear what alternative names could be given to the Magellanic Clouds. The name “Milk Clouds” was put forward as one of the proposals. But in the case of renaming, the problem will not end, because two telescopes in Chile were named after the explorer. Reyes insists that they also should be renamed. It is also unclear whether the famous Magellanic Strait will be renamed.

According to scientists, in the future, it will be necessary to take a more careful approach to naming stars and species, as many argue that they should no longer be associated with specific people. An example is the neutral names of the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers.

Earlier, we reported on how the Magellanic Clouds look next to the Very Large Telescope.

According to the Guardian