“Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen

This is the exciting account of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan.  Actually Magellan himself died along the way, as did many of his men.  Out of the original five-ship “Armada de Moluccas” commissioned to find a western water route to the spice islands, only the Victoria and a handful of sailors (about 10% of those who started the voyage) made it back to Spain three years later.

Magellan was from Portugal, but after years of failing to win the support of the Portugese king to back his expedition, he turned to Portugal’s arch-rival, Spain.  (Little did Magellan know that Portugal already had a highly secretive trading network in the spice islands, and was busy establishing a trade monopoly.  No wonder the king cared little for Magellan’s plan.)  When King Charles agreed to sponsor the expedition, there was somewhat of a diplomatic incident given the recently signed Treaty of Tordesillas and mutual suspicion between the nations.  When the going got tough during the voyage, it was easy for the Spanish captains and crew to assume Magellan was really a Portugese spy intent on their destruction.

Indeed, mutiny did break out during the winter at Port Saint Julian in Patagonia.  When three out of the five ships mutinied against their Captain General, the outnumbered Magellan displayed some guts by dividing and conquering the rebel ships and then having the leaders drawn and quartered.  He also marooned one of the rebellious Spanish captains and a priest, which caused big problems for his reputation when word got back to Spain.  But Magellan himself was dead by then…

The fleet, minus one wrecked ship and another that returned to Spain, eventually found the Strait of Magellan and crossed the Pacific Ocean.  Arriving at the Phillipines, they quickly strayed from their commercial mission and became involved in local politics and religious conversion.  Establishing an alliance with the first friendly king they met, Magellan decided to strengthen the ties by attacking a rival tribe.  Overestimating the advantage of their superior technology, namely plate armor and primitive, widely inaccurate and slow firearms, Magellan and some of his crew were overwhelmed by the sharpened bamboo sticks of 1500 warriors on the island of Mactan.

In a very interesting display of the two sides to every coin, today at Mactan harbor there is a monument with two inscriptions.  “Here on 27th April 1521 the great Portugese navigator Hernando de Magallanes, in the service of the King of Spain, was slain by native Filipinos.”  On the reverse side, “Here on this spot the great chieftain Lapu Lapu repelled an attack by Ferdinand Magellan, killing him and sending his forces away.”  The historical record tells nothing more about Lapu Lapu than this incident, but evidently he’s a Filipino national folk hero of sorts simply for this lone act of defiance against the western invaders.

Magellan’s demise reminded me of Cook’s death in Hawaii about 260 years later.  In fact, I was struck by a lot of similarities between the voyages.  Even in the long time span between them, the challenges of exploration via sailing ship and the strangeness and hazards of the alien cultures they encountered seemed very similar.  The each had a gifted chronicler – Magellan had Antonio Pigafetta and Cook had Joseph Banks.  I wonder if today we wouldn’t celebrate these two explorers quite as much without the records these scribes left behind.  Never underestimate the value of a good journal!  Makes me wonder if there is some unknown explorer from the Age of Discovery that is unknown simply because no one ever took notes during the trip…

The other thing that struck me about the expedition was the incredible diversity of the cultures Magellan and his crew encountered.  It’s amazing to think that there was a time when virtually whole continents of people knew so little about each other.  The mutual discoveries, interaction and even altercations that resulted shaped our world today and make the study of history oh so interesting.

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One response

  1. […] Non-fiction Runner-up: Over the Edge of the World. […]

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