In 1519 Captain General Ferdinand Magellan and his fleet set sale on an epic journey that would irrevocably alter the path of history. Now, for the first time award-winning biographer and journalist Laurence Bergreen masterfully interweaves previously unavailable first-person accounts that bring to vivid life Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. In rich, absorbing prose Bergreen captivatingly details the mutinies, discoveries, deaths, and political betrayals throughout a voyage that proves as spellbinding and shocking today as it did in the sixteenth century.
At the time of Magellan's expedition
The story was filled with tales of mutiny, cannibalism, disease, orgies, superstitions, and religious zeal. I found it fascinating.
It's a great combination of an easy
This is leaving my bookshelf over my dead body.
If you liked this, be sure to pick up 12-years later with "Brutal Journey"
The book could have been a little more descriptive, more of a travelogue, regarding the various points of the voyage (the information about Patagonia was very interesting), but the author has a lot to cover, so I understand the glossing over in some areas.
Very much worth reading. I just can't imagine ever living through something like this, or others such as Shakleton's adventure, or the tragedy of the whaleship Essex.
Bergreen's history is one of those fun reads that includes everything from the origin of words ("Arabs...formulated elixirs and syrups derived from spices, including julab, from which the word "julep" derived its very name; and how Portugal's famous Guadalqivir River derived its name from the Arabic original Wadi al-Kabir, meaning "great river") to discovering that Magellan was once a page in the Lisbon royal court, together with his brother (Diogo) before seeking patronage for his planned expedition to the Indies. Three times he was turned down by the Portuguese king before he emigrated to Spain, home of Magellan's boyhood hero, Christopher Columbus, where he finally found his desired patron and hoped he would succeed where Columbus didn't. We learn that hammocks weren't yet used on board ships during Magellan's lifetime; sailors would just "appropriate a plank" or sprawl wherever there was space. That cats were only newly domesticated in Europe in the 16th century and unfortunately none had been brought onboard to keep the rat population at bay. If you're interested in obscure historical facts, you'll love Over the Edge of the World.
The story of that 1519 expedition is, of course, the main story, but it is enriched by many side stories, such as that of Faleiro, who was a brilliant cosmographer and Magellan's planned companion, but who also suffered from bipolar disorder "or some other form of extreme depression" and in the end, never went to sea. And one of the few survivors of the voyage, the Basque shipmaster Elcano, who was one of the initial mutineers.
Easy to read, fun, and a page-turner. If only secondary school history teachers would add such titles to their reading lists.
We learned from school that Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese sailor who sailed for the King of Spain, Charles. Bergreen tells the underlying political issues that led to this awkward situation. After much lobbying, Magellan was granted the most ambitious fleet ever–the Armada de Molucca, but his largely Spanish crew distrusted him and were forever plotting to unseat him.
Like an adventure tale, we sail with the Armada as it seeks the Spice Islands of Moluccas. In those days, spices like cloves and cinnamon were worth more than their weight in gold and whoever controlled the spice trade controlled the world economy (or at least that of Western Europe). We learn about what it was like to be a sailor in those days, that is, to risk death by scurvy or survive tumultuous waters on a diet of moldy biscuits in very unhygienic conditions. Bergreen sets the right tone for the reader to appreciate the grand scale of the voyage. It was only when I read this book that I began to understand what Magellan had done and get a glimpse into his persona. He is portrayed as fiercely loyal to King Charles, an able navigator, a discipline leader and single-minded in the pursuit of the Spice Islands.
Most interesting to me was the part where the fleet reach what is now known as the Philippine Islands. After a mutiny and unfavorable weather, the five-ship Armada is now down to three. Magellan befriends the local leader, Rajah Humabon, but earns the ire of the neighboring chieftain, Lapu-Lapu. The devout Catholic had made it his personal crusade to convert the locals to Christianity and when Lapu-Lapu’s tribe refused, Magellan burned his village. We know what happened after– Magellan was killed by a poisoned arrow that hit his leg. What is left of his crew learns from the follies of Magellan and gets back on track to finding spices and going back to Spain. They reach the Moluccas, load spices, and arrive in Seville three years after they set sail. But not without considerable adventure from their dealings with the islanders and trying to run away from the Portuguese who were hot on their trail. Only 18 out of the 260 men who left with Magellan arrive in Seville in just one ship out of the five that made up the Armada de Molucca.
Reading the book, I felt the grandeur of the expedition that was ground-breaking and broke commonly held myths 500 years ago. I wish they taught history like this. I couldn’t stop reading Bergreen’s narrative and it often felt like I was reading a thriller, not a historical account. Obviously backed by tons of research, he cites historical documents but the storytelling never gets boring; in the end the characters felt like real people and not just names in some history book. I was immersed in the world that existed then, a world eager to discover what lay beyond the vast oceans.
Rating: 5 out of 5: Highly recommended. A great story of an amazing journey during a magical time of wonder and exploration.
Magellan's mission was complicated by politics, unscrupulous suppliers, officers at odds with him and with the other officers, incompetence and inexperience among the officers, and ignorance about the size of the South American continent, the location of a possible strait and the fact that the Pacific was huge instead of the the narrow body of water they were expecting. This is a detailed account of rivalries, mutinies, and extreme hardships, the deaths of their Captain-General and many of their officers and fellow crewmen, largely drawn from the diaries and recollections of men who participated in the voyage.
Finally, in September of 1522, the last remaining ship of the fleet made it back to Seville with less than one-tenth of the men aboard who had set out on the Armada's five ships. Eighteen of the original expedition had come home having circumnavigated the globe and acquiring a cargo consisting of precious spices. It was nearly sixty years before another expedition would repeat their feat.
This was a very informative book and included detailed Notes and sources. If you like books about exploration or about the rivalry between Spain and Portugal during the Age of Discovery give this book a try.
It's almost unbelievable that they acheived this with primitive 16th century knowledge and equipment.
Bergreen's story gives us the political backdrop--a bit too much political backdrop, sometimes--a tawdry mess of Spanish-Portuguese territorial squabbles and the power ambitions of Charles V, the adolescent, Teutonic king of Spain who would be Holy Roman Emperor (he did succeed eventually). Both Spain and Portugal had been having an impetuous tantrum at each other, both wanting to lay claim to lucrative new finds. Both especially coveted the Spice Islands, the location of which had only moved from vague and legendary and unknown to vague but definitely extant. Cloves, grown only on those tiny spots in the sea (so hard to find!), were worth fortunes inconceivable in the modern context. It was primarily this aim--establishing an economic stranglehold on these agricultural cash cows--that was the driving thrust behind Magellan's trip, not a scientific or philosophic desire to discover.
Magellan himself is Portuguese--his last name has been Anglicized from the original Magalhães--but ultimately absconded to Spain when he got tired of trying to talk his own country's bureaucratic leaders into a voyage. With the air of someone who is perhaps not very large in size and who has been much stymied, Magellan embarks on a ferocious-obsessed campaign to get an armada outfitted and ultimately set off into the yonder toward South America, in pursuit of his eponymous strait, a water route to Asia and thus the Spice Islands. Well, after chugging along down the West African coast for fear of pursuit by the Portuguese, who are, you see, peeved that he went expat.
Thus commences Magellan's voyage and its concomitant, horrible attrition: ships and souls lost to disease, shipwreck, mutiny, starvation, execution, natives, accidents, drownings, stabbings. Magellan's iron-fisted authority results in grisly, punitive disembowelments and beheadings. The magical and otherworldly landscape of Tierra del Fuego is overshadowed by the stench of the holds and the scurvy tormenting the crew. The armada's chronicler (one of only 18 or so survivors of the original crew of 237) notes cultural gaffes and barbarisms that make 21st century readers cringe: we've got pillaging and raping and mass conversions and manipulations.
In short, these are not the good old days. Though the landscapes are in some cases starkly charismatic, the quotidian lives of the crew were downright dreadful, and their encounters with natives often brutal or deadly.
There are times when the vacuum left by lack of primary sources can be felt. Only Pigafetta, the chronicler, and a few other among the crew take any written notes during the voyage itself. Much of what historians have to work with are tangential, filtered viewpoints of second-, third-, seventh-hand accounts. Magellan himself is especially made enigmatic by the widely varying accounts of his personality. To some, a genius; to many, a tyrant, a liar, a crook. There are questions here that can never be answered. We will never know what drove the inner workings of Magellan during his bouts of Christian pique or authoritarianism. We'll never really know how much he really towed the line for Spain (though it does seem that he was loyal to his adopted country). And we'll never have an uncomplicated explanation of his death, in the shallows off of Cebu, in present-day Philippines.
Despite the paucity of available references, Bergreen does an admirable job of stitching together a narrative. But the path he takes is at times disappointingly linear and rigidly chronological. There are digressions--about the sexual practices of Pacific Islanders, the cartographic blunders of early mapmakers--but what a richer experience this would have been with more depth, more wildness.
In 1519 Spain and Portugal dominated the seas, and spice, which the author states was the oil of the time, enveloped both countries in an intense rivalry for control of the spice trade. Why couldn't both countries share the wealth? Well, after Columbus had reported his New World
Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan wanted to lead an expedition for his king to the spice Islands and a new way of getting there. However, politically, Magellan was on the wrong side of the fence; so every time he asked the king turned him down. Finally out of exasperation, he begged the king to let him seek his fortune elsewhere, the king relented and Magellan went to Spain to offer his services. Not knowing what to make of this, those in charge in Spain listened, ruminated, and allowed Magellan his expedition, yet with some controls. For example, one of the "nephews" (a euphemism for illegitimate sons of high-ranking bishops, popes, etc) of a bishop with ties to ther oyal house was sent on the mission, because even though Magellan had turned over Portuguese charts, etc, and declared his loyalty to Spain, the Spanish could never be certain of him. So...to make a long story short, eventually Magellan and his little fleet began their adventure, not only to find the spice islands & claim them for Spain, but to try to discover a water route of which the Portuguese had no knowledge. The result of his voyage was tragic for everyone but Spain, in the long run. You've all heard of the Straits of Magellan, so the outcome is no big surprise...but the story of the fleet getting to that point and then to the death of Magellan is the meat of this book.
In fact, the book to the point of Magellan's death is perfect. I was so into the story that another long night of reading ensued until I realized at 3 am that I had to be up at 6:30 and probably needed rest. Not only did the author use a great source in the voice of the voyage's chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, to give details, but he also supplied references to works that would have been familiar at the time to sailors, including fantastic stories of Pliny and Marco Polo of sea monsters & cyclopean-type natives, etc etc. I have to go find those now & read them for myself. After seeking out and reading reviews of this book, I noticed that many current readers thought that Bergreen failed to provide answers to certain details Pigafetta had mentioned, such as "giants" among the Patagonian natives. Well, you can't have everything & that certainly didn't spoil the reading for me, although I did find myself wondering. What wasn't explained was certainly more than made up for in the author's story of the voyage up to Magellan's death.
It seems to me, though, that after that point, the book lapsed. Of course, Bergreen has to get the survivors of the skirmishes back to Spain and tell what happened, but IMHO, the ardor & depth with which the author told the story up to that time just vanished. That doesn't mean it wasn't good, by any stretch.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the subject matter. The details of the problems caused by the need to convert the poor natives along the way to Catholicism are great; without armchair quarterbacking from the view of time & knowledge you can just see what this led to in later voyages and with what zeal the missionaries were going to screw up the rest of the the islanders/natives not yet discovered.
It had been 27 years since Columbus had first reached the New World when Magellan set out from Seville in 1519. Spain had reached what it still thought was the “Indies,” by sailing west, but had not turned its discoveries into a paying proposition since the Western hemisphere had few trade goods, and the gold and silver of South America had yet to be developed. Both Spain and Portugal were aware that the South American land mass was very large, and neither had found a route around it or through it to the very profitable Moluccas or Spice Islands. Portugal, in the mean time, had reached the Moluccas by sailing south and then east around Africa. [It still surprises many people to learn that Vasco da Gama did not reach the real Indies until several years after Columbus had reached the Caribbean islands.]
In 1494, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull dividing the world for new discovery between Spain and Portugal, ceding to Spain all the undiscovered land west of a line 100 leagues (about 400 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Portugal was given all the undiscovered land east of that line. This compromise raised some very thorny questions. First, because at that time longitude was difficult to determine accurately, there was ample room for dispute about the actual location of the line. Second, the line was far enough west to cede part of what became Brazil to Portugal. (Later negotiation would fix the ultimate boundaries of that country.) Third, the line extended all the way around the globe through the poles, and no one knew where the line extended in the Eastern hemisphere. Thus, no one knew on which side of the line the Spice Islands were located.
Magellan was Portuguese by birth. He first tried to induce the King of Portugal to outfit an expedition to the Spice Islands by sailing west. Possibly because Portugal had already found an attractive route to the east, the king showed little interest in Magellan’s plan. In Charles I of Spain (later the most Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V), Magellan found a willing patron.
Obtaining five well provisioned and well armed ships was a good start, but Magellan had a long way to go. For one thing, his efforts to provision the fleet became known in Portugal, and the Portuguese wanted to prevent him from finding an alternate route to the Spice Islands. In order to avoid the Portuguese, he first set sail along the coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic. The crew might have inferred their destination from the name of the fleet, The Armada de Molucca, but Magellan kept their mission a secret for fear of mutiny. Moreover, the other ship captains disliked and distrusted him, perhaps because of his Portuguese background.
Magellan thwarted two serious mutinies from Juan de Cartegena, one of his captains. He merely demoted Cartegena after the first, but marooned him with no hope of rescue after the second.
Magellan endured horrible weather at various times during the voyages. He had to spend several months at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata before attempting to go farther south in search of the strait or cape leading to the Pacific. He was able to distinguish rivers from straits because they discharged fresh water. Finally, on October 21, 1520, more that 13 months after setting sail, they rounded the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and entered what later became known as the Strait of Magellan. Navigating the Strait was no mean task—it took 38 days to debouche into the Pacific. On the way, the captain of one of the ships of the armada decided it would safer to return to Spain, and snuck away instead of exploring the water ahead as Magellan had ordered.
No one at the time had any idea of just how immense the Pacific Ocean is. Nor did anyone with Magellan know the location or existence of hospitable islands. Once into the Pacific, Magellan headed west, with favorable winds, but still took 98 days to traverse 7,000 miles of open ocean and reach land (probably Guam) where he could obtain fresh water and food! During that stretch, he lost many of the crew to scurvy and malnutrition.
Magellan’s encounters with indigenous people, either in South America or the Pacific islands, were always fraught with danger and ambiguity. Some resulted in profitable trading and occasional sharing of native women, but several resulted in battles and mutual killing. The Spanish always had more advanced weapons and armor, but the natives were often lethal and always more numerous.
The armada made land fall in the Philippines on March 28, 1521. After impressing the natives with Spanish prowess in the form of guns and armor, Magellan made friends with a local war lord. Until that time he had been sagacious, disciplined, and prudent. But here, driven in part by a desire to convert the locals to Catholicism, he very unwisely offered his services as a military force to destroy the Mactans, who were enemies of his new best friend. The Mactans turned out to be tougher and more numerous that he had anticipated, and he and a few of his crew (mostly part of the Portuguese minority) were slaughtered in the surf while attempting an amphibious landing. Many of the crew watched his demise from the safety of their two remaining ships. Antonio Pigafetta, the chief chronicler of the voyage, implies that more might have been done to save him, but many of the remaining Spanish officers were jealous of Magellan and disliked him.
The surviving crew members still were a long way from home and had not reached the Moluccas. With the help of local traders, they reached the fabled Spice Islands and loaded their ships with the precious cargo. The return trip was nearly as harrowing as the outward voyage. One of the two remaining vessels decided to return by way of the Pacific in order to avoid the Portuguese. They were never heard from again. The other ship, piloted by Sebastian Elcano, luckily slipped through the Portuguese and limped home along the better known route around Africa, arriving in Spain three years after leaving.
The voyage of the armada represented a tremendous exercise in heroic endurance and navigation. It did not pay off for Spain, however, which never developed a thriving trade in spices. Magellan’s route to the Moluccas was simply too long, dangerous, and costly. Spain’s fortunes were made by developing the New World.
Great story of the larger issues involved in the story of Magellan, who Magellan was, and why this story matter. Plus it's just an exciting story. Never got the whole,
If I wasn't wincing upon reading aout the art of
Reading "Over the edge of the world" did make me wonder why it is Magellen is so well known, yet barely made it 1/2 way through the voyage, while others, like Magellen's slave Enrique, who appears to be the first person to successfully circumnavigate the world, or the Basque Juan Elcano, who commanded the voyage finally back to Spain?
I have read other sources that claim Elcano is not mentioned much due to the fact he was Basque. Who knows? Anyhoo, read the book; it's a ripping tale.
Bergreen's book is an excellent account of the voyage, offering a fairly balanced look at Magellan's accomplishments and failings. He did not have a particularly enlightened view about the native people he encountered (and few of the early explorers did admittedly) so parts were hard to read as he mistreated many, often in the name of his religion. The book relies heavily on the account by Pigafetta, who chronicled the voyage, supplementing to add balance to Pigafetta's near hero-worship of his "captain general."
I thought it was a good book, though for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, this was not an easy read for me. It may have been something about the writing style that didn't appeal to me as I could only read it in short bursts. I'm glad I struggled through though, as I learned a lot and found much of the material interesting.