….They’ve been called the Magellanic Clouds by most astronomers since 1847, that is, for about 175 years. Before that they had other “indigenous” names, and that is one of the two reasons the author calls for renaming them:
Yet Magellan was no astronomer, and he was not the first to document these galaxies. Indigenous peoples across the Southern Hemisphere have names and legends for these systems that predate Magellan by thousands of years. For example, the Mapuche of modern-day Chile and Argentina call them Rvganko, or water ponds, which they think are in the process of drying out; the Kamilaroi of modern-day Australia regard the galaxies as places where people go after death; and the Arimi of modern-day Tanzania see the clouds as a man and a woman who help the Pleiades bring heavy rains during the rainy season. Magellan’s crew was also not the first Western team to write about the two galaxies; Arabic and Italian explorers are known to have described the galaxies at least a decade before Magellan embarked on his journey.
But this holds true for nearly all visible astronomical features, surely including the Sun, the Moon, and Halley’s comet. Each language of an indigenous people who observed these features would give them a different name. Names get changed, and there’s no reason why the earliest names should get precedence. As for the superstitions associated with these clouds, well, that’s even less reason to revert to “divine” or numinous names.
No, the real reason Mia de los Reyes wants these clouds renamed is because Magellan did bad things:
Furthermore, Magellan committed horrific acts. A first-hand account of Magellan’s expedition describes how, in what is now known as Argentina, Magellan enslaved the native Tehuelche people. He placed iron manacles on the “youngest and best proportioned” men, telling them that the manacles were gifts. In what became Guam and the Philippines, Magellan and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants.
Despite his actions, Magellan has been—and continues to be—widely honored by the field of astronomy. Magellan’s name currently appears in over 17,000 peer-reviewed academic articles. His name is attached to astronomical objects such as a lunar crater and a Martian crater, both of which are named Magalhaens; the NASA Magellan spacecraft; the twin 6.5-m Magellan telescopes; and most recently, an under construction, next-generation extremely large telescope called the Giant Magellan Telescope. The Magellan telescopes are all located in Chile, a country with a history of violent Spanish conquest. Indeed, Magellan’s “discovery” of the Strait of Magellan allowed Spanish conquistadors to explore Chile’s coast and led to genocidal campaigns against the native Mapuche people.
I and many other astronomers believe that astronomical objects and facilities should not be named after Magellan, or after anyone else with a violent colonialist legacy. We would like the International Astronomical Union—the body in charge of naming astronomical objects—to rename the Magellanic Clouds. We hope other astronomical institutions, particularly the consortia that manage the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, will also revisit the use of Magellan’s name.
As usual, I decide that names should be changed if both of these questions can be answered “no”:
- Is the name be[eing] used to honor the good things the person did rather than the bad?
- Was the person’s existence a net good for the world as opposed to a net bad?
The answer to (a) is clearly “yes”: Magellan is being honored for organizing and leading the first voyage circumnavigate the planet (he died halfway through), and the clouds were noted by, among other people, Antonio Pigafetta, a scholar who went on Magellan’s sail around the world in 1519–1522.
(b) is harder, but it’s not cut and dried. Some of Magellan’s warfare was due to misinterpreting the local behavior, and, indeed, he was more concerned with converting the locals to Christianity than with killing them. Indeed, that’s how he died on his voyage: he was attacked in the Philippines by a local ruler who resented Magellan’s efforts to convert the locals. Given that Magellan’s voyage “planned and led the 1519 Spanish expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific Ocean to open a maritime trade route, during which he discovered the interoceanic passage thereafter bearing his name and achieved the first European navigation to Asia via the Pacific” (Wikipedia), he had good accomplishments as well as bad.
Given this, I don’t vote for a name change. But there are Wokesters who apparently think that unless someone is nearly perfect, we shouldn’t honor them. There goes most of our Presidents, including Washington, Madison, and Jefferson: all slaveholders. JFK was a serial adulterer, as was Martin Luther King, who’s also been accused of looking on and laughing as “a fellow Baptist minister ‘forcibly raped; a woman just a few minutes walk from The White House in Washington DC.” (The evidence for this is not dispositive!)….