Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Book Review - Over The Edge Of The World

Today, I finally completed "Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe" by Laurence Bergreen.

This book took me an exceptionally long time to finish reading (6 weeks total, around 3 of those solid reading), a length of time I normally reserve for the likes of Ayn Rand or J.R.R. Tolkien, however I am glad I invested in it.

Laurence Bergreen has done a terrific job compiling a vast variety of sources to create an insightful and full account of the Armada de Molucca (Magellan's attempt to find a strait through Brazil, helping Spain establish an oceanic trade route to the Spice Islands, the Mollucas). Primarily utilising the poetic, fanatic and very ahead-of-its-time diary of Antonia Pigafetta, the author deviates away from the main story at various points to delve into the rich history of all the supporting characters - foreign tribes, Chinese empires, and the finer details of the era's papacy, to name but a few of the diversions.

This is both the book's strongest and weakest point, for, while these detours serve to greatly enrich the tome, painting a vivid and detailed picture of the state of the world at that time, they sometimes serve as unnecessary distractions from the main crux of the story. Occasionally, I found myself reading on auto-pilot through these sidenotes, trying to rush back to the main story.

However, each time I always snapped out of my daze and re-read ever paragraph in earnest. This book is simply too rich and fascinating to deserve anything less.

To surmise on the story - Ferdinand Magellan, a Portugese sailor, attempts many times to convince the King of Portugal to finance an expedition to locate a rumoured strait thought to exist in the south of Brazil. A victim of various contrasting political issues, Magellan finds himself at the head of a 5 ship expedition in the name of the King of Spain, charged with locating the strait, the Spice Islands, the spices held within, and establishing without any doubt that the Islands lie in the realm of Spain. Various tragedies and tribulations strike the Armada, and while some are the direct fault of Magellan's ego and blinding faith in his own abilities, you cannot help but feel drawn to this charismatic and exciting character. I do not wish to spoil the story any further, as I feel this is a great read and implore you to explore its contents for yourself.

I warn you now that the rest of this post will be less about the book and more about my thoughts on various matters - and I will be drawing on some SPOILERS!! to make my points, so be warned -read on at your own peril.

Still here?

What struck me most about this story was the horrible conditions of the world at that time. While I, somewhat naturally, felt myself drawn into the stories and wishing I could have been a part of the expedition, the harsh reality is that many of these men suffered great misfortune. The years covering this expedition are 1519 to 1522, and while both of this decade's high-seas adventure movies are set in later times, (I am of course referring to Pirates Of The Caribbean (~1740) and Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (~1800)) they paint a far too pretty picture of life on the open sea. Bergreen's book does no such thing.

Of the 230+ members of the original crew, only 18 make the trip around the world successfully, Magellan not numbered among them. Having survived mutiny attempts, a desertion, scurvy and other such disasters, Magellan finally met his end at the hands of a tribe he had scorned. While the story of Magellan vs Lupa Lupa makes for a great and proud note in the history of the Philippines, at the time it created a huge vacuum in the power hierarchy of the Armada. Through many more fatal trials, one ship made it back to Spain with 18 crew members and a large cargo of cloves.

In a selfish move to save their own pride and avoid a life in jail, the survivors painted a modest picture of Magellan, branding him a traitor, a fool and a general discredit to Spain and the King. Coupled with the testimony of the previous arrival of a boatload of deserters, Magellan's legacy, at the time at least, was left in ruins. Only Pigafetta, a detailed logger of events and admirer of Magellan, and Magellan's cousin, who had been left abandoned in a Spanish jail cell since the arrival of the deserters, who had taken him hostage, were left as eye-witness testimonies of Magellan's brilliance and loyalty, for, despite all his faults, Magellan did remain loyal to Spain, the King, his duty as leader of the Armada, and without his courage, confidence and navigational, and leadership, skills, the Armada would have never made it around the world. This much proved true as the King of Spain attempt no fewer than 5 further expeditions to navigate the Brazilian strait and obtain more spices from the Islands. All of them failed early in the course of their travels.

What angered me the most about these turn of events was the mistreatment of these survivors, as well as Magellan's legacy. Although Pigafetta was granted the freedom to present his record of events to the Kings of Spain, Portugal, France and Italy (an amazing achievement at the time, considering the political turmoil), eventually granted permission to print and distribute his book when he returned to his home of Venice, Magellan's surviving family and legacy was left in ruins. All of the crew who returned to Spain were sent to prison for sentences of several years on average. Although many were pardoned, they were hardly offered the rewards befitting such a glorious achievement. In fact, it would appear that those who benefited the most from the expedition were the cowardly deserters who abandoned Magellan at the Brazilian strait to return home and lie to their King, as even the King of Spain ended up near bankrupt, and the Islands were eventually proven to lie in Portugese territory.

All that remains of their various legacies is a plaque detailing the names and roles of the 18 survivors, Pigafetta's published journal and the name of the Brazilian strait, to this day still know as the Strait of Magellan. Perhaps the reason I am touting this book so strongly, besides it being a thoroughly well-written piece of entertainment and an engaging history lesson, is that I feel a great injustice has been served to these men and their families, who by all rights should have been bestowed many riches and honours.

Alas, history seems forever written by the winners, or at least the inherently powerful. When you think of explorers, the mind immediately conjures images of the likes of Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo and Sir Francis Drake. I feel that Ferdinand Magellan should be spoken amongst them, as arguably his achievements surpass, or at least equal, the above. Indeed, Sir Francis Drake certainly owes a great debt to Magellan's precise navigational instructions, and Magellan succeeded where Columbus failed, in finding a water route to the Spice Islands.

I implore you to seek out the above book and learn more about the man and the mission of Ferdinand Magellan, and certainly praise must be heaped upon Laurence Bergreen's writing style, in allowing the man in Magellan to come to life and overshadow Bergreen's own talents in writing.

(On a more light-hearted sidenote, this book, in allowing me to experience the harsh realities of living life on the open sea, without the proper diet and skills, especially in attempting to travel to the extreme South or North of the Americas, has made me think twice about my "zombie survival plan" (don't pretend that you don't have one either!) of simply commandeering a vessel and surviving a leisurely sail around the world. The world that Bergreen describes is not a pleasant one in the slightest.)

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