Troy's Reviews > Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen
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Jan 05, 09

Read in January, 2009

My one-phrase rundown: a gripping tale that you may think you already know.

When I started Over the Edge of the World, I thought it would be intellectually hip of me to get some more detailed insights in the historic round-the-world voyage of Magellan. Obviously, the tale of Magellan is exactly the kind of Eurocentric story which has been in recent years the object of often angry re-interpretation (Columbus, Lewis and Clark). While those interpretations are sometimes purposefully inflammatory, they do serve a purpose in bringing to light facts which were just as purposefully washed from our textbooks and cultural myths.

Over the Edge of the World is not a re-telling but a thoroughly complete and balanced historical examination of the voyage. Bergreen called upon many original sources, including some translated for this book and others which had historically been suppressed, and undertook world travels in order to weave the tale of the Armada de Moluccas. It featured the good and the bad, but as with so many stories of the Age of Discovery, there seemed to be a preponderance of bad.

I admit that I’d not given much consideration to this topic since high-school history classes, so I was prepared for some surprises. However, the sheer amount of privations and suffering that Magellan’s armada experienced, and the schizophrenic brutality and cruelty which that armada visited on the cultures they found, was staggering.

The lack of understanding about the true scale of the earth and its oceans led Magellan to take 460 men on five termite-infested, leaky wooden sailing vessels (egad, the west was a century behind the Arabs and Chinese) on a mission to find the fabled Spice Islands and thereby allow Spain to dominate the global economics of the sixteenth century. The sailors were exposed to scurvy, maggot-riddled and rotting meat, inedible bread and spoiled wine, as well as up to three months at sea without landfall. Following Magellan, they sailed headlong into the treacherous waters of South America during the worst times of the year, violated maritime treaties with Portugal, and kidnapped or killed or converted other cultures. Sound like good conditions to spark a mutiny? Far from a heroic band of intrepid explorers, Magellan faced mutiny during almost the entire eastward voyage, and resorted to torture (the Captain General was not kidding around) to punish those who attempted it.

Under his brilliant, tactically cunning and often fanatical leadership, three of the five ships did reach the Spice Islands (one wrecked in the strait and another mutinied and bolted back to Spain). Suffice it to say that hubris led to Magellan’s story ending in Indonesia, but the tale goes on for years. Of the three vessels that reached the Spice Islands, Victoria was the only one to successfully return to Spain, carrying 18 sailors. The political chaos that followed those men, and the returned mutineers, is another complex faucet to this voyage.

The voyage dispelled commonly held beliefs about the shape and size of the planet and the monsters and mermaids found at sea. What these men accomplished was akin to flying to the moon in a beat-up Chevy, finding out that it was not actually made of green cheese, enslaving a few moon people, and finally falling back to Earth in a heap. It would be a mess, but an incredibly meaningful mess that starts a revolution.
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