Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

In 1519 the world was a much different place. It was believed that the waters of the "Ocean Sea" (as the Atlantic Ocean was known at the time) boiled at the equator, that magnetic rocks existed under the surface of the water which would pull the nails from the wooden ships-- sinking them almost instantly. Some people even held onto beliefs of mermaids and sea monsters. Histories had been written of fictitious rulers of foreign lands like Prester John-- stories which were taken as fact rather than fiction. These ideas were accepted, not just by the illiterate masses, but also by the learned scholars and scientists of the day.

Contrary to the teachings of many grade school textbooks, most people did know that the world was round-- even at the time of Columbus discovery in 1492. However, the cosmologists of the era (astronomers/astrologists) grossly underestimated the size of the Earth-- many by as much as fifty percent.

After many failed petitions to King Manuel of Portugal to fund a westward voyage to get to the Spice Islands in the Far East, Fernand de Magallenes-- or Ferdinand Magellan as he later came to be known renounced his King and turned to King Charles V of Spain for the financial backing he needed for his voyage. And so begins Bergreen's exceptional account of Magellan's circumnavigation.

Bergreen's writing brings Magellan to life. He's not just a name in a textbook. Where Magellan once was just a name in a textbook, Over the Edge of the World gives Magellan a personality and gives a far greater appreciation of Magellan's accomplishment.

There were so many reasons that Magellan's expedition should have been unsuccessful, and some may even argue that it was. The Armada de Moluccas left Seville with 5 ships and 250 men in 1519. Only one ship and 18 men would complete the journey in 1522. Magellan faced and quelled two mutinies. He dealt with starvation, scurvy, fierce storms, wanton lustful orgies between his men and the native women they encountered in South America and the Phillipines and for his ambition he paid with his own life.

Bergreen, however, owes a tremendous posthumous debt of gratitude to Magellan's fiercely loyal Venetian chronicler, Antonio de Pigafetta. Pigafetta kept a remarkable journal and log of the voyage. Pigafetta took it upon himself to learn the tongues of the native Patagonians, Moluccans, and other peoples the expedition encountered. So much care was put into Pigafetta's research and studying of native cultures it can even be said that he was a founding father of the science of anthropology. If not for Pigafetta's accounts Over the Edge of the World might have been a very different book had it been written at all.

The implications of Magellan's circumnavigation are farther reaching than many realize. Put to rest were the myths and erroneus tales from antiquity which had been accepted as fact for so long-- there were no magnetic rocks or boiling equatorial waters nor were there mermaids or sea monsters as once had been accepted. While Columbus had and pursued the idea first, Magellan's voyage fully realized Columbus' dream. Columbus died never truly realizing what exactly he'd accomplished. Magellan actually succeded in accomplishing what Columbus had set out to do. And in so doing he changed the way people looked at and understood the world around them.

A testament to the accomplishment-- a follow-up expedition was sent out shortly after the return of the Victoria (the only ship of the 5 to succcessfully complete the voyage, one other ship, the San Antonio was succecssfully mutinied and turned back to Spain before ever reaching the Pacific) with 5 much larger ships and 450 men-- only 1 ship and 8 men survived the follow-up expedition. It wasn't until Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in the Golden Hind nearly 70 years later that Magellan's achievement was matched.

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