Sunday, November 18, 2012

Over the Edge of the World

Most versed in nautical charts, he knew better than any other the true art of navigation, of which it is certain proof that he by his genius, and his intrepidity, without anyone having given him the example, how to attempt the circuit of the globe which he had almost completed... The glory of Magellan will survive him. ~Antonio Pigafetta on Ferdinand Magellan
Laurence Bergreen's Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Circumnavigation of the Globe brings to life the greatest adventure of the Age of Discovery. Not in any myth or legend or chronicle told by Homer or Scheherazade or Irish monks of extraordinary voyages is there anything which compares with the true odyssey of Ferdinand Magellan and his companions. No storyteller or dramatist could invent such a tale of peril and woe, of grandeur and tragedy, in which men must confront not only the fierceness of the elements, but the darkness of their own souls and their helplessness before God. I do not understand why a movie has not yet been made about the first recorded European circumnavigation of the globe. At least there is this book which I found spellbinding to say the least.

Bergreen explores not only the mysterious lands that Magellan and his men came across but the character of Magellan himself. Devoutly Catholic and faithful to his wife (by all accounts), Magellan struggled with his pride and his temper, both of which ultimately led to his downfall. One can hardly blame him for occasionally losing his composure, given what he had to deal with from the captains and crew of the armada granted him by King Charles I of Spain, who later became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Although Magellan was Portuguese, he had a bitter falling out with the King of Portugal, which made him turn over his allegiance to Charles of Spain. When Magellan set out on his expedition for Charles to seek the "Spice Islands" of the East Indies by sailing west, the Portuguese heard of it and began to pursue him.

While being chased across the Atlantic by the Portuguese, Magellan endured constant complaints from his mostly Spanish companions who not only deeply resented having to serve under a Portuguese Captain General but were convinced that Magellan was secretly working for the King of Portugal. So along with storms and rotting supplies, Magellan had to face mutiny and desertion. It was through the sheer force of his personality and use of his intelligence that he was able to keep the voyage on course. His personal discipline and organizational skills were remarkable; he not only maintained the ships in top form but kept the crew in line. Whenever possible he insisted on morning and evening prayers and participation in the sacraments.

Through the determination and navigational brilliance of Magellan, the armada traversed the perilous strait at the base of South America which was to ever after bear his name. Then came the journey across the Pacific in which scurvy and starvation picked off so many of the seamen. It was a shame that they did not know about Vitamin C; if so, Magellan could have given the quince preserves reserved for the officers to everyone and it would have saved many lives. By the end of their adventures in South East Asia, where Magellan was hacked to pieces in the Philippines by an irate chieftain, there was only one ship left out of the original five. The caravel Victoria was sailed back to Spain by the Basque captain Juan Sebastian Elcano, amid many hardships. When Elcano and the seventeen other survivors made it home to Seville at last, the first thing they did was walk to the Cathedral in their ragged clothes with lighted candles in their hands. There they knelt before the statue of the Virgin and Child to give thanks that they, out of the original 237 men, had miraculously survived the voyage around the world.

Over the Edge of the World is enjoyable to read for the clear and descriptive narrative based upon the detailed research and travels of the author. One is introduced to quite a cast of characters not only among the  European seamen but among the various tribes, peoples and nations they encounter. The world was, and is, a much bigger place than any of them thought. I learned, and was inspired.

Ferdinand Magellan


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