Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

Posted by nliakos on October 26, 2015

by Laurence Bergreen (William Morrow 2003; ISBN 0-06-621173-5)

I am embarrassed to admit how little I knew (or remembered) about Magellan’s famous voyage around the world. I knew Magellan was Portuguese (but did not know, or failed to remember, that he sailed for Spain), and I knew that he never made it back to where he started but was murdered somewhere in Asia (Mactan, in the present-day Philippines). That was pretty much it. Bergreen’s book fills in the details very well. In over 400 pages divided into three books, he describes the background and preparations (“In Search of Empire”), the voyage to the Spice Islands (“The Edge of the World”), and the harrowing return (“Back from the Dead”). Only eighteen men on one of the original five ships of the “Armada de Molucca” made it back to Seville in 1522. One of them, Antonio Pigafetta, was an Italian who traveled with Magellan as a passenger, keeping a detailed journal of all he saw and did during those three years. It is thanks to Pigafetta and to several other log-keepers and diarists who were aboard that historians can reconstruct the voyage in such detail (what one left out, another usually described).

The whole book was fascinating to me, but one of the most interesting parts was the description of the crew, the men’s various occupations, how they fit into the hierarchy, and why they risked their lives to accompany Magellan on his now-famous voyage (Chapter 4, “The Church of the Lawless”). Another favorite part, in the same chapter, was the description of life at sea. There were no beds and no toilets (not even buckets! Over the side, and mind you don’t fall overboard). There was a supply of “slowly rotting food” (usual staple when far from land: powdered hardtack flavored with rat waste) and contaminated water and wine. There were rats, rice, roaches, bedbugs, lice, and weevils. Reading this, one does not wish oneself on board one of the five ships of Magellan’s Armada! It’s incredible to think how difficult and dangerous it was to make that voyage. There were, of course, no accurate maps; mariners of that time could not even figure out their longitude; and they were frequently battered by huge storms.  They did not know how to prevent the dreaded scurvy, and it killed many of them. Only one ship, the Victoria, actually made the entire trip around the world (the San Antonio returned to Spain via the Atlantic under the command of a group of mutineers who proceeded to badmouth Magellan to the king of Spain and anyone else who would listen; the other three ships, for various reasons, did not make it, similar to most of the men).

Magellan is still seen as a hero by some, a villain by others. In his own time, Magellan was considered a traitor both by his fellow Portuguese (and spent much of the voyage trying to avoid Portuguese mariners who were chasing him) and by the Spanish who sponsored the Armada and who made up the majority of the multinational crew. It took years for people to appreciate the immensity of the task before Magellan and (according to Bergreen) how effectively he carried it out. Bergreen, like Pigafetta, is squarely in Magellan’s camp. He records the managerial challenges, poor decisions, and sometimes arrogant behavior, but notes that without Magellan’s genius and drive, the Armada would probably never have made it as far as it did.

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