Over The Edge Of The World


Laurence Bergreen


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

May 5, 2006

he subtitle of this book is: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. It is the account of Magellan's voyage, the first man to sail around the world. He started out with 5 ships and a crew of 260. In the end, only one ship, with 18 men aboard, return to Spain, and Magellan was not one of them. He had perished in the South Seas in an engagement with hostile natives.

There is a lot of interesting material in this book. When Magellan set sail, he headed south, along the coast of Africa, instead of West across the Atlantic Ocean, because there were rumors (which later proved to be true) that the Portuguese had sent out ships to intercept Magellan, they did not want him to reach the Spice Islands where they currently had a monopoly. But Magellan did not explain his actions to the captains of the other 4 ships, and since he was not a native of Spain, they distrusted him (In fact, Magellan was Portuguese, but the King of Portugal refused to fund the expedition, so Magellan took his services to the King of Spain, much like the Italian Christopher Columbus had done a few years earlier.) Magellan's little Armada battled storms for 60 days crossing the Atlantic! When they finally reached the coast of South America, they were weary and the ships in poor repair.

Magellan sailed further and further south, into colder and nastier conditions, trying to find a passage through South America to the Pacific. Finally, the ships stopped at a bay. There, a mutiny took place, with three of the ship captains turning against Magellan's authority. With clever and bold manuevers, Magellan managed to regain control of the ships, and he exacted terrible revenge on the mutineers - horrible torture and executions. (The author reminds us that this was the era of the Spanish Inquistion, so this behavior was not unusual in that era.)

One of the ships was lost scouting ahead for a passage. Finally, they spotted the waterway which is today known as The Straits of Magellan. This route between the Atlantic and Pacific is full of islands, shoals, violent storms, and cold winds. It took 30 days for them to sail through the strait. But only 3 ships arrived at the Pacific, the largest ship had deserted, and unfortunately it was carrying most of the supplies. This ship sailed back to Spain and reported the loss of the rest of the ships in the treacherous waters. Undaunted, Magellan sailed straight across the Pacific with his 3 remaining ships. It took 90 harrowing days, despite favorable trade winds and currents. They had no idea up to that point how huge the world was, the Pacific was much vaster than they ever imagined. Luck was against them, and they missed any of the tropical islands where they may have landed to reprovision their water and food supplies. They suffered from scurvy, heat, thirst, and fear. But eventually they reached the Philipines. It turned out that Magellan had a slave on board that he had captured years earlier in the Spice Islands - this slave, Enrique, found that he could speak to the natives on the islands that they had reached. It was then that the fleet realized that they had made it, that they had reached the Spice Islands by sailing west around the world.

Magellan's success led him to believe he was invincible. He involved himself in the affairs of different native tribes. To prove his friendship to one tribe, he promised to subdue their enemies. Magellan went looking for trouble, and he found it. In attempting to conquer the hostile tribe, he and a band of men wade ashore to where 1200 hostile natives armed with arrows and spears awaited. It was true Magellan had armor and muskets, but the long shallow water prevented the ships from sailing close and giving supporting cannon fire, so it was Magellan's small band of men against a horde of natives. Magellan was killed in the shallow water. Interestingly, the Philipines still celebrate this victory over the conquering invader - they view (and with justification) Magellan as a villan.

With Magellan dead, the remaining crew sailed about through the South Sea islands until they finally found the correct islands where cloves and cinnamon could be traded for - these spices were more valuable than their weight in gold. One ship was abandoned due to poor condition, and after all the goods had been bartered, another ship sprang a leak that required major repair. Thus, only one ship set sail for Africa and Cape Horn, trying to elude pirates and Portuguese all along the way. Again, they suffered terribly in the open ocean, and spent weeks trying to sail around the tip of a southern continent. Eventually they made it, and the men that survived the journey north finally returned to Spain, successfully sailing around the world in 3 years. There is a lot of detail in this book, and I found it was interesting reading.