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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for books like this—stories of survival and exploration—and this one must be among the best. It has everything: wild orgies, bloody battles, mutinies, shipwrecks, torture, disease, treasure—and all of this excitement is woven into a historically significant tale. Indeed, aside from being just a darn good story, Magellan’s voyage provides an insightful window into its time: the state of navigation, of European politics, and of global trade, as well as a snapshot of early European encounters with other cultures (it did not go well).

Magellan was arguably a victim of the same misconception that misled Columbus: namely, that the earth was significantly smaller than it really is. Just as Columbus believed that he could make it to Asia simply by heading straight across the Atlantic, so did Magellan believe that the spice islands would be within a few days or, at most, weeks sail beyond South America. Both were mistaken, though for Magellan’s crew the consequences were significantly more dire.

In the 99 days at sea between the strait which now bears the explorer’s name, and their first landfall at Guam, nineteen sailors died of scurvy, and many others fell gravely ill. (Of the 270 sailors who set out on the voyage, 173 would die, 55 would desert, 12 would be taken prisoner, and only 30 would successfully complete the circumnavigation.)

In retrospect, it is difficult to believe that Europeans could remain so ignorant for so long about the causes of the disease (vitamin C deficiency). Somehow, it did not even cross the sailors’ minds that their diet of biscuits and dried meat could be the cause of their ill health. Even seemingly obviously sources of evidence—such as their quick recovery upon eating fresh fruit, or the seeming immunity from the disease of all those (like Magellan) who were eating preserved quince—did not provoke any sort of epiphany. Instead, the sailors vaguely chalked up the disease to “bad air.” This is an illustrative moment in the history of science, for it shows how background assumptions and beliefs shape the sorts of things we are inclined to view as pertinent evidence.

Indeed, many aspects of this voyage strike the modern reader as absurd. For one, the expedition’s main objective was the acquisition of spices—namely, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Considering that virtually anyone can now obtain each of these spices in a supermarket for a pittance, it beggars belief that so many sailors would risk their lives for such a purpose. At the time, these “exotic” spices were only grown in a few islands in the Pacific Ocean, and were thus rarer and more valuable than gold. Nowadays, in the age of factory farming, this is obviously not the case—a vivid lesson in supply and demand. What used to be the quintessential marker of extreme wealth are now the standard components of a pumpkin spice latte.

Another absurdity is that Magellan never intended to circumnavigate the globe. Thinking that the spice islands (the Moluccas) were not very far from South America, his plan was to return the way he came. Instead, he proved that his new route to Asia was entirely impractical, with virtually no commercial prospects whatsoever. The Pacific Ocean (which he named) proved to be both far too big and not at all “pacific.” Ironically, the main accomplishment of the voyage was intellectual—proving, for example, that the earth was far larger than previously thought—which had nothing to do with its original purpose. Certainly, Magellan himself was the furthest thing from a scientist.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Bergreen is far too laudatory of Magellan, using words like “heroic” to describe him and his men. The man was undoubtedly impressive: brave to the point of foolhardiness, determined to the point of stubbornness, and a highly skilled navigator. However, he was hardly an exemplary leader. Brutal, cruel, highhanded, he did not inspire any loyalty among his armada. He was almost the victim of a popular mutiny (and, in any case, one ship did sneak back to Spain), and he was possibly abandoned by the bulk of his men during the battle that claimed his life. One can clearly see the shape of European colonization to come in his attempts at mass conversion and his willingness to kill and enslave those he comes across.

It is yet another irony that the man most famous for circumnavigating the globe only got about halfway before dying in an ill-advised and unnecessary battle. Interestingly, though in Spain Juan Sebastián Elcano—the captain who led the survivors back to Spain after Magellan’s death—is almost as famous as Magellan himself, the Basque mariner does not feature prominently in this book. Elcano, for his part, is certainly a less colorful character than the Portuguese commander, though he must have been a skilled leader to have successfully completed the voyage. (He later died of scurvy on another expedition.) In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the voyage (completed on September 6, 1522), there was even a cantata written in Elcano’s honor and performed at the National Spanish Auditorium. Unfortunately, there were no more tickets available, and I missed it.

Yet if this strange and terrible voyage had a true hero, I would argue it was neither Magellan nor Elcano, but the Venetian nobleman, Antonio Pigafetta. A gentleman scholar, he kept a diary of the voyage that has proven to be a trove of information. He was endlessly curious, and made genuine attempts to understand the language and culture of some of the places they visited. It is largely thanks to him that we have such a vivid account of the voyage. And I think a good story is worth all the tea in China—or all the cloves in the Moluccas.

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