on 4 March 2004
Mr. Bergreen writes with style and learning; it is an excellent book and the narrative makes for compelling reading. He describes the conditions of the Age of Discovery and the motivations that drove men to take great risks in the expectation of great rewards. He brings to life the myths and superstitions that seafarers of the time believed in, the fear of the unknown, the perils at sea, the hopelessly unseaworthy condition of the ships, scurvy, mutiny, betrayal and all that happens when 234 sailors set out and only 18 return. The first voyage around the globe lasted two weeks short of three years and they sailed some sixty thousand miles, which was some fifteen times longer than the distance covered by Columbus in his first voyage to the New World, thirty years before.
The book contains a useful cast of the principal characters; excellent notes on sources, a scholarly bibliography and a useful index. Each chapter is headed by remarkably apposite quotations from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".
The book needs to be read, not as a biography of Magellan, but as an account of the first circumnavigation of the globe. Given the number of survivors it is not surprising that witnesses' first hand accounts are few and far between. Antonio Pigafetta, from Vicenza, a loyal supporter of Magellan who had been taken on as a supernumerary, left a very detailed journal and this is the principal direct source. Francisco Albo, a pilot, left a log book and Gines de Mafra, a navigator, who was captured by the Portuguese and incarcerated in Lisbon for five further years, left some memoirs written long after the event. No wonder then that it is Pigafetta who leaps from the page and comes across as a very interesting personality. His book, "A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation", translated by R. A. Skelton, becomes irresistible reading as soon as the last page of "Over the Edge of the World" has been turned.
Magellan - Fernão de Magalhães, (the captain-general's Portuguese name, his origins being important for the understanding of events), appears as a figure seen through a mist, perhaps because his journals and papers were "lost" after his death on the island of Mactan in the Philippines. This was the first, and last time, that Magellan interceded in a tribal war at the behest of one of the chieftains and, together with many others, got killed for his pains. It remains one of the great mysteries of history why he decided to trust this particular chieftain. His at times erratic and irrational behaviour leads one to wonder whether he was quite stable.
Shortly afterwards, the same chieftain invited surviving members of the crew for a banquet at which a massacre took place which cost the lives of a further 27 Europeans.
Apart from his two wills, written before his departure from Seville, no direct word from those years has come down through the ages. He seems to have been in conflict most of the time: with King Manuel I of Portugal in the first instance; with the officials in Seville during preparations for the voyage and, not least, with his Spanish captains and crew. In the words of Mr. Bergreen, "his erratic behaviour - sometimes beneficent, sometimes menacing, occasionally both - suggests that his accomplishments had gone to his head and caused him to take an increasingly zealous approach to religious matters". Judging the man by his actions rather than by what is said of him, to me he came across as a manic-depressive in the clinical sense. And this included his cunning. His great virtue was his considerable skill as a navigator and his ability to understand sea charts. He was a man of great individual courage and determination, but his leadership qualities are questionable. Admittedly, he was dealt a very poor hand:- the centuries old rivalry, not to say enmity, between the Spanish and the Portuguese, which persists in the psyche of the two nations to this day, made it difficult for him to command captains and crew imposed on him by the Spanish King's eminence grise, Archbishop Fonseca.
The resentment between the Spanish and the Portuguese permeates the story at all levels. The Spanish King, Charles I, practically insolvent, needed money to get himself elected as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and restore the Spanish finances with the huge profits from the spice trade. The king of Portugal, Manuel I, protected by Treaty and multiple marriages between the two royal families, was keen to safeguard an important State secret: the illegal trade in spices that Portugal had enjoyed since 1513, when a warehouse with light fortifications had been established in Ternate in the Spice Islands.
This explains the peculiar tensions between the two monarchs that come across in Mr. Bergreen's book, in particular the Portuguese king's mistreatment of people engaged in Magellan's enterprise and the rather aloof detachment of the Spanish king.
What has great resonance are the parallels with the world as it is today. Spices, like oil, are the economic engine; navigators, facing unknown terrors, are the astronauts; caravels and galleons, the former manoeuvrable and the latter with large capacity for carrying goods, are the spacecraft. Interference in tribal disputes a long way from home, are the Middle East of today, the results not being much different.
Mr. Bergreen gives us many gems:
- Did you know that Magellan's slave, Enrique of Melaka, might in fact have been the first man to circumnavigate the globe, albeit in multiple voyages?
- That the Armada passed over the Mariana Trench, 36,000 ft. below the Ocean surface and therefore deeper than Everest is high?
- That the importance of the International Date Line, though known, was first realised at the end of this voyage and was still being adjusted as recently as 1995?
- That, in addition, they were the first to see a llama or guanaco, a penguin, a seal, two of our closest galaxies (the Magellanic clouds), the extent of the Earth?
I wish that I had written this book.