Title: Over the Edge of the World
Rating: 4 Stars
This had been on my to-read list for many years. When it came out, it was highly rated. However, I didn’t think that the narrative would suck me in. When you think about it, it’s a story about a sixteenth century voyage where almost everyone died. Something like 260 or so Europeans went out and 18 came back (and one of the people who did not come back was Magellan himself). A three year voyage and only 18 survivors? How much first hand descriptions of the voyage could there have been?
Such data is what narrative historians rely upon. My guess would have been that this book would have been a dry recitation of facts about something that took place five hundred years ago.
Much to my shock, it was actually quite engaging. The preparation for the voyage was well documented. Magellan comes across as a complex character. He is fiercely ambitious but falls upon the wrong side of Manuel I, the King of Portugal. He repeatedly begs Manuel to grant him a charter so that he can prove that there’s a better path to the Spice Islands sailing from the West. Manuel repeatedly refuses him. In desperation, he asks Manuel’s permission to seek his objective through Charles I, the King of Spain. Manuel grants it.
Magellan goes to Charles I, who somewhat amazingly (for his own avaricious, ambitious needs) almost immediately grants him a charter. Magellan directly sets to work organizing his armada of five ships. Manuel discovers that Magellan is serving Charles I (after explicitly giving him permission to do so), first tries to get him to come back to Portugal, and failing that, actively tries to prevent from sailing. Once underway, Manuel I sends a fleet after Magellan to capture him. Such is the way of kings.
Being a Portuguese leader of a Spanish fleet, Magellan comes into trouble almost immediately. The Spanish captains barely obey him and one of them is actively conspiring against him. At one point, three of his boats join together in a mutiny. Only quick thinking from Magellan keeps the mutiny from being successful. He can’t really execute the main ringleader because of his political connections in Spain, so Magellan ‘humanely’ decides to leave him (and a priest!) on a remote deserted island. The two men fall sobbing to their knees and beg for forgiveness as Magellan sails his fleet away. They never appear again in history, so we can only assume that their time on this island was nasty, brutish, and short.
A common theme throughout the book is the almost unimaginable nature of the extreme hardship that the crew had to endure. At one point, one of the ships is out on a scouting expedition and is destroyed in a storm. The men on that ship have to figure out how to get back to the main ship. This involves five hardy volunteers crossing a river and climbing over a mountain range in horrible weather with very limited food. They do manage to get back to the main fleet, but then, with more men and supplies, have to turn around and do the whole round trip again.
Crossing through the Strait of Magellan was a nerve wracking exercise of navigation. Once they got through the strait, then they thought that they were home free. No one at that time had any idea of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Crossing the vastness of the Pacific, many sailors died of scurvy and virtually everyone suffered from it.
During all of these travails, Magellan led with an indefatigable will and an iron fist. As he kept surmounting seemingly impossible obstacles, he began to feel that he was truly on a mission from God. This manifested itself when the expedition reached the Philippines. Instead of single-mindedly pursuing the Spice Islands as per his charter, he began to see his mission as more evangelical in nature. He’d go to islands and would actively try to convert the natives to Christianity. Although successful, it’s not clear, given the language and the custom differences, how much of it took hold.
Regardless, as he took on a more personal interest in the salvation of the natives, he necessarily became embroiled in their inter-tribal conflicts. It was this that ultimately led to him being hacked to death in battle. If he’d stayed focused on the original purpose of his mission, he could very well have survived the expedition, to the greater benefit of all of its members.
Almost immediately upon his death, discipline began to wane. The necessary work to keep ships in good shape lagged. One ship was almost immediately scuttled.
Ultimately, the surviving squadron of ships do make it to the Spice Islands and they do load up their cargo holds with many tons of the valuable spices.
However, the ships continue to suffer. Now down to two ships, they agree to separate (which Magellan would have never allowed). One ship is captured and destroyed by the Portuguese. The other ship, in desperate straits, just barely manages to limp back home to Spain to complete the circumnavigation.
To reiterate, 260 men went out, 18 came back.
This story jumps off of the page. Bergreen does come across multiple sources that he uses to weave together a stirring narrative. A special shout-out must go to Antonio Pigafetta, who joined the expedition almost on a whim. He wrote an engaging journal for the entire three year expedition and was one of the 18 that came back. Much of the information from this book clearly came from his journal.
This was a heroic story stirringly told. I had low expectations for it and it greatly exceeded them.