Review: Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

Laurence Bergreen, 2003

Quick, what’s the difference between Vasco da Gama and John Cabot? If you’re like me, you lump all the pre-Moon mission explorers into one great big boatload of men in funny outfits who sailed off into the great beyond with very little clue as to what was over the horizon. The New World? Sea monsters? Untold wealth? Or a very long drop off the edge? It’s been a long time since eighth grade world history, so I couldn’t tell you too much about Magellan, Drake, Cortes, Cook, even Columbus, and for someone who enjoys stories of the sea as much as I do, that’s a crying shame. It’s time to re-educate myself. Lucky for me this book came along to get things started.

In this day and age, where an 18-hour flight can take you to the other side of the world, it’s difficult to comprehend the terror and wonder of an uncharted journey to far off lands, sights as never before seen, almost certain danger and the very real possibility of death. Over the Edge of the World is the fascinating telling of such a journey. It’s interesting, exciting, and entertaining–everything that you could ask for in historical nonfiction. Author Laurence Bergreen weaves the facts and background into the journey without weighing the story down with too much historic, political or maritime detail. Context is important to this story, and he conveys it in a way that enhances and never obscures what’s at the heart of the book–a terrifying and momentous journey, the first circumnavigation of the globe.

With the backing of Spanish investors and the blessing of Spain’s King Charles, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portugues sailor, commanded the Armada de Molucca in search of a more direct route to the Spice Islands, to claim them for Spain, and return with a fortune in cloves and nutmeg. From the beginning, the odds were stacked against him. In addition to the physical hardships of the journey, poor diet, harsh weather, rough seas, hostile natives and the fact that they were never quite sure exactly where they were going, many of Magellan’s crew were mutinous from the start. Never a good combination for smooth sailing.

The first turning point in Magellan’s story is his discovery and successful navigation through the unknown straight that would come to bear his name.

Magellan’s skill in negotiating the entire length of the strait is acknowledged as the single greatest feat in the history of maritime exploration. It was, perhaps, an even greater accomplishment than Columbus’s discovery of the New World, because the Genoan, thinking he had arrived in China, remained befuddled to the end of his days about where he was, and what he had accomplished, and as a result he misled others. Magellan, in contrast, realized exactly what he had done; he had, at long last, begun to correct Columbus’s great navigational error.

One of the most amazing aspects of Magellan’s journey is one I’m almost embarrassed to admit I didn’t know before reading this book: Magellan didn’t really circle the globe–he was killed in the middle of the voyage on an island in the South Pacific. In fact, of five ships and 260 sailors who left to chart a new route to the Spice Islands in 1519, only one ship with eighteen sailors and three captives on board returned to Seville, Spain three years later.

A trap that often befalls nonfiction, especially books about An Event–the first circumnavigation, the explosion of a volcano, or the rescue of sailors stranded in the arctic–is the need to heighten the suspense with melodramatic foreshadowing to excess. When it’s done right, (as it is here) it can be effective and poignant; when it’s not (Krakatoa), it can be exasperating and down-right annoying.

Fortunately for historians, Bergreen and in turn we readers, the journey was recorded by a few members of the party. In particular, the journals of Antonio Pigafetta, the Armada’s chronicler, provide a rich detail that draws the reader into the tale on a much more personal level.  [****]

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5 Responses

  1. Kathryn

    Thanks guys. Right after I posted this review, I read the NYTimes book review and thought, man, am I lame. So, thanks for the compliment.

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