Fight Modern Slavery, but Leave Astronomy Alone

15 May 2024

-- Richard Stallman

Some astronomers are mounting a pressure campaign to change the names of two small irregular galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, and some other things named after Magellan. The grounds cited are that he behaved like the Spanish conquistador that he had become.

If we judge his actions of 500 years ago by modern standards, we condemn them. But is that a reason to chenge the names of celestial objects? Should we blank out the memory of everyone in the past who violated the principles we hold today?

Magellan got involved in a war between the king of Cebu Island (Rajah Humabon) and the king of Mactan Island (Lapu Lapu). (By happenstance, I have been in both — Cebu City's airport is on Mactan Island, across a bridge.) As this shows, for one kingdom to try to conquer another was usual there, as in the rest of the world at the time. Magellan's previous experience in the Portuguese fleet in Asia was similar. In taking sides in a local war of conquest, looking for advantage for Spain, Magellan was not altering the local practice, just joining in.

The idea that a war of conquest is a crime (the crime of aggressive war) is a modern idea, and whether it stands or falls today depends on whether we stop and punish today's blatant attempts at conquest, such as Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Magellan brought with him a slave, Enrique, who spoke Malay, to act as interpreter. But he did not introduce slavery to Southeast Asia. Slavery had existed in India and China since long before, and in Sumatra where Rajah Humabon's family came from. I expect that both he and his enemy, Lapu Lapu, had slaves. The Philippines had its own traditional system of slavery, though perhaps closer to European serfdom than to slavery as we understand that term.

If slave owners of the past were to reappear today, we would tall them that slavery is cruel, unjust and inexcusable, and illegal too. We would declare their slaves to be free, and if they tried to enslave anyone we would (I hope) charge them with crimes.

But we can't usefully teach or prosecute the dead over what was done 500 years ago. We can't retroactively eliminate past slavery, and as for the campaign to eliminate slavery today, cancelling people of the past won't help much. Most people in civilization today already condemn slavery; dwelling at lemgth on specific long-ago examples is unnecessary and distracting.

Those engaged in slave trafficking today are criminals and they know it. They callously disregard the moral principles of society as well as the laws. They won't be influenced by renaming some galaxies that most of them have never heard of. Better to arrest them and stop them.

I see no convincing argument that "Magellan" is the "right" name for those galaxies, and no convincing argument that it is "wrong" either. If we were naming those galaxies now for the first time, I am sure we could find a name that is somewhat better. But there is no benefit from changing it now. Names can matter, but these names hardly matter to eliminating slavery.

On the contrary, changing the names now would make for useless churn that would be a hassle for tens of millions of people and waste tens of millions of dollars. Let's campaign against modern slavery by means that are effective, such as by showing people how widespread and harmful it is and by methods that successfully work against it, not by name changes that merely symbolize good intentions.

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