Magellan’s saga is a historical page-turner |
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In “Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe,” Laurence Bergreen draws upon documentary and archival material almost 500 years old, some made available only recently.

The result is a well-documented and brilliantly written account that portrays the 16th century with the clarity and detail of a modern-day newspaper account. This immediacy and the multifaceted story of the first circumnavigation of the Earth make for an exciting historical page-turner.

Bergreen provides a view of Europe in the 1500s — the “Age of Discovery” — when thinkers were moving away from an exclusively religion-inspired view of the world.

He tells the complicated story of nations and monarchs jockeying for power as they emerged from the Middle Ages, and focuses on the rivalry between Portugal and Spain, fired by early explorations, attempts at reliable cartography and the development of navigability over ever-longer distances.

Under papal arbitration, Spain and Portugal signed a treaty in 1506 establishing an imaginary north-south line in the Atlantic. Spain would be entitled to all new lands west of the line, and Portugal to those east of it.

Aside from seeking new lands, Portugal and Spain were intent on finding a route to the fabled Spice Islands of the Far East. Spices were valuable and highly coveted, and were available to Europe only through overland trade from the Middle East, which had a stranglehold on the spice trade.

Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan made four fruitless attempts to get his nation’s permission to command an expedition to the Spice Islands before turning to King Charles of Spain, who accepted his offer.

Magellan lacked support in some Spanish circles because of his nationality, resulting in several intrigues that Bergreen explains along the way. Even the captains of four of the five ships in Magellan’s fleet — called the Armada of the Moluccas — didn’t approve of him.

The armada departed from Spain in September 1519, and grumbling among the sailors started almost immediately. While waiting out their first winter off the coast of Argentina, there was a mutiny. Magellan put it down, executing some of the ringleaders and abandoning others on the inhospitable shore of Patagonia.

One of the ships foundered there and another deserted the expedition and returned to Spain, so Magellan pressed on with only three ships. They crossed the Pacific, mostly in fair weather, but the sailors suffered from hunger, thirst and scurvy. They made their first landfall in March 1521 on Guam, having traveled more than 7,000 miles without interruption, the longest ocean voyage recorded up to that time. Sailing west, Magellan discovered the Philippine Islands.

Bergreen provides fascinating details of the contact between the islanders and the sailors, including the odd circumstances that led to Magellan being killed in battle in April 1521. Command fell to a Basque navigator, Juan Sebastian Elcano. Without enough sailors to handle three ships, one was set on fire.

Bergreen describes the arrival of the two surviving ships at the Spice Islands, where they loaded up on cloves. When they were about to depart for Spain, one of the ships proved unseaworthy and was left behind. Only the Victoria remained.

Following a stormy crossing of the Indian Ocean, a difficult turning at the Cape of Good Hope and the peril of being seized by Portuguese ships off the Cape Verde islands, the Victoria arrived in September 1522 at Sanlucar de Barrameda, the port from which it had departed, with only 18 of its original crew of 260.

Bergreen rounds out this magnificent story of the Magellan expedition with a narrative of the subsequent fates of the principal participants, including Antonio Pigafetta, the on-board chronicler of the voyage.

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