Book Review: “Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen

October 7, 2009

Of late, I have been intrigued by books about exploration, geography, and the Age of Discovery.

1521: It’s the height of the Spanish Inquisition. The New World has been discovered, but is mostly a cartographic blank spot (embellished with dragons and mermaids). European men and women are dirty and poor, for the most part, and the continent’s cultural centers are still dragging themselves out the Middle Ages. Romanticize all you want the call of the sea, the jolly rum-soaked life of the sailor, or the noble call of exploration, but the machinations behind Ferdinand Magellan’s historic first circumnavigation of the globe are much darker: greed and imperialism, mostly.

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.



LibraryThing Tags:

nonfiction, exploration, 16th century, portuguese, spanish, european, geography, navigation, maritime, cartography, imperialism, magellan, circumnavigation, read, readin2009

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