Saturday, March 17, 2012

Laurence Bergreen's "Over The Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe" (Cadillac)


Magellan never did manage to circle the globe, but his expedition did.  Leaving with three ships, only one managed the first circumnavigation of the Earth, and just barely at that.  Quite aside from the technical and geographical challenges this amazing feat of history presented are all too common political and psychological ones, and all of these together present the context for another fantastic read in the vein of history in the age of discovery.

Laurence Bergreen, as I’ve said here before, captures such histories impressively.  His history of Polo’s adventures to Asia were my introduction to his work, and based on another great reading of his history of Columbus’ voyages the week before, I decided to pick this up on the road in Philly. (Traveling myself, it seemed particularly appropriate, though I enjoyed much more comfort and certainty than those several hundred years before me.  Air Canada lost my luggage and delayed my flights, but at least I arrived back alive and in good health.)

Much like Columbus, Magellan was beset by a host of challenges at home that crippled the voyage well before it set sail.  As a Portuguese captain, there was a fair degree of mistrust by the opposing super-power Spain, and he was kept on a rather short and tight leash.  Problems in his mandate and control erupted from the outset, and continued to plague the adventurers well after Magellan had fallen, as the ships tread lightly through Portuguese dominated territory in South-East Asia and around the African horn.

Only just hitting the South American coast had already seen Magellan’s hand forced in many ways, resulting in attempted mutinies, and tortuous deaths of perpetrators, described in morbid detail in this account that makes hair stand on end.  He had learned well from the executors of the Spanish Inquisition, and utilized several of the brutal punishments to stem the sentiment of dissent brewing amongst his co-captains.  He stranded a priest and a noble relative of a key benefactor of the voyage on a small Argentinean island as a due but contentious decision to ensure the future success of the mission to find the lucrative spice islands of the far-east (as approached from the west).  This would prove more costly than anticipated.

Upon discovery of the strait that would come to bear his name, a ship managed to slip away in mutiny, returning to Spain with nothing but ill words to speak of Magellan’s brutality and poor treatment of crew and crown.

Entering the Pacific was a welcome turn in fortune, but a short trip to the spice islands was not to be had.  The size of the Pacific was not anticipated, and the mutinied ship carried much needed stores for such a long passage that were now denied.  While it might seem tiresome to repeat the sentiment here, I can’t help but try to empathize with the feelings of the crew as they set upon this long and arduous crossing without sense of where they were, and how they might survive it all.

Pigafetta, a key chronicler of the voyage, took this time to compile a rudimentary lexicon of a South American they had snatched from his home.  The captive died on the crossing, tossed into the sea.  In fact, Pigafetta proves an invaluable source of much of what we know about the voyage, and the fact that he was among the few that returned alive (along with his faithful and robust account) is surely a great treasure to our collective history.  His was a narrative account, rather than a technical one as an officer or official might collect.  He was a staunch loyalist to Magellan, which colours his account, but provides a sense of personality to it all.

Pigafetta, chronicler of the circumnavigation.

Magellan devolves into a religious and hubristic zealot by the time he arrives in Asia.  This is a man on a mission for god.  It’s this affectation that accounts for his death at the hands of an inconsequential band of local malcontents as he tries to prove the mettle of European guns and armor, even as he tries to impose Christianity on those he meets.  It’s a sad end for a man who should have led his expedition home, but less an accident than Cook’s untimely demise in Hawaii.  His crew mates saw this coming, but were powerless (and some say complicit) in his death on a beach as he tried to brag his way to minor local fame.

Ferdinand Magellan.  Author of the first circumnavigation, but dead before it was realized.

My task here isn’t to recount the history in detail (I recommend you read it yourself), but the bottom line is this; the mission limps home after another long saga of trials, finding the spice islands and loading up on goods worth their weight in gold.  By the time the final remaining ship hobbles back to the safety of Spain, very few remain to recount the tale of this first triumphant circling of the Earth.  They are perplexed, despite their careful keeping of the logs, at the fact that they are off by a day, not having the schema to appreciate the crossing of a date line as they beat the rotation of the globe over time.  The mutineers of the early part of their voyage had beat them home with news of Magellan’s alleged transgressions, which added more grief to their long and arduous circling.

In the end, says Bergreen, it was Magellan’s slave Enrique who completed the real first circumnavigation.  An Asian captive, he arrived home before the Europeans who still had half a world to cross.  He was able to speak the language (or a dialectical variant that sufficed) of those in the Philippines they met at the far side of the Pacific.  At Magellan’s death, he fled, and rightly so, as Magellan’s will had stipulated he be freed at his death.  The remaining masters of the expedition did not want to part with his expertise in local language.  This too would prove more costly than the rash move of forcing him into continued slavery.  He conspired with the locals, assuring them of the ill intentions of the sailors, leading to a massacre on shore that deprived the mission of several of these few remaining able commanders.  This is great reading, and great history.  Magellan falls after several blows as he tries to force some stubborn locals into conversion to Christianity and the will of his new-found friends nearby.  Modesty and a sense of the local realpolitk might have changed history and his place in it immeasurably.  So it goes.

Magellan was reviled in his time, though he’s still remembered for his discovery of the strait to the Pacific that bears his name.  Had he not succumb to rank European and Christian hubris, he may have completed his voyage.  Reading the already-known end of this great explorer doesn’t make it any less powerful, and Bergreen had me tightly wrapped into the narrative throughout.  It’s a great history and a great tale, and I recommend it highly.


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