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on 1 September 2007
This is a superbly written book which I found difficult to put down. I feel I can add but little to the review already posted here. It is a brilliant historical narrative about the first circumnavigation of the world when, among other aspects, it was not known just how 'wide' the Pacific Ocean was and just when landfall would be made after leaving the Americas. The secondary title refers to a 'Terrifying Circumnavigation' and indeed it was: this is not a tale of noble heroes but of mutinies, shipwrecks, murder, executions, massacres, drowning, starvation, bigotry, betrayal ... all human life is here! The book is so well produced with index, notes, maps, bibliography and at the beginning a 'cast list' of the men and the ships: ideal, if like me, the reader finds non-English names hard to remember. Mr Bergreen has achieved something few writers are able to: writing interesting history.
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VINE VOICEon 5 August 2009
How 260 men set out from Seville in September 1519 to find a new route to the Spice Islands, and how a mere 18 returned having completed the first circumnavigation of the globe after nearly 60,000 miles and three years is an epic story that has found a worthy author. Laurence Berggreen rewards the reader by marrying scholarly research with eloquent, readable prose.

There is no attempt to portray the achievement as heroic, astounding though it was. This is an account of hardship, disease, torture, murder, betrayal, but it is also a vivid tale of discovery and observation of previously unknown places, people and things. Framing it all, and giving the narrative a shape that might translate to a novel, is the rivalry between Spain and Portugal for commercial domination of the oceans.

Even as the end is almost within reach, there is no certainty of success for the single remaining ship of the five that set out. Berggreen writes, "... the weather continued to batter the boat by night too, so there was no rest for the crew, nor safe harbour, nor cooking fire, nor soft dry blanket, nor guarantee that their misery would end any time soon ... And so they tried again and again, fleeing for their lives, hoping to cheat death just one more time."

This is history as thriller. Simply magnificent.
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on 3 October 2006
Most people know who Magellan was and know that the Magellan Strait is named after him, that he never actually made it around the world himself, and that some of his crew were the ones who actually got all the way around. There's far more to Magellan and his Armada de Molucca than this which is told in great style by Laurence Bergreen in this gem of a book.

Magellan had great difficulty in raising the money to fund the trip and he seems to have cleverly benefited from the rivalry between Spain and Portugal at the time. Indeed, this rivalry is a feature of the book throughout and contributed to mutinies and disputes between Magellan (who was Portuguese) and his (mainly Spanish) crew.

Magellan was an inspiring character and Bergreen paints him in a very flattering light. While stubborn, Magellan got his crew as far as the Philippines against monstrous odds. Bergreen describes the cruelty, disgusting conditions, suffering, and fears of the crew in great style and makes the reader feel part of an epic journey.

For me the real star of the book is Antonio Pigafetta who was one of the few who made it around the world back to Spain. His eye witness account, while very flattering to Magellan (he was a Magellan loyalist) provides the backbone of the story.

Some parts of the story are lightly dealt with - the Indian Ocean crossing and the last leg of the journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Spain are low in detail compared to the rest of the book.

The is a very useful reference section at the end which is also worth going through, if only to see the level of in depth research carried out by Bergreen. The index is also quite detailed. It is a great resource for others who may want to study Magellan some more.

This book is highly recommended. It is easy to read and very informative.

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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.
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on 3 December 2007
Having read and studied a great deal on epic sea journeys of bygone ages, I had never read an account of Magellan's voyage. In an effort to stem this ignorance I picked up Laurence Bergreen's book and quite simply found it to be a fantastic read and by far the finest book devoted to the age of discovery that I have read. What Magellan achieved is quite simply breathtaking. Not only was his expedition the first to discover an ocean passage around the South American continent (obviously the Magellan Straight) but also the first to complete a historic first circumnavigation of our globe. However such a simple summation is like comparing a drop of blood to a severed artery.

Magellan a Portuguese national somehow gets the king of Spain to fund his ambitious expedition to find a route to the `Spice Islands' of the Moluccas. Leaving Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships and two hundred and sixty men the expedition returns three years later in one ship with eighteen souls. During an amazing but terrifying sixty thousand mile odyssey there does not seem to be a calamity that the `Moluccas expedition' did not encounter. They braved mutinies, storms, scurvy, drownings, torture, executions, wars, desertions, murders and other endless perils. Bergmen portrays each dangerous scenario accurately and with consumate detail.

Apart from the dangers there are also the amazing experiences beheld of men encountering new peoples, customs, lands, flora and fauna. There are accounts of orgies with dusky Pacific Rim maidens as well as sections devoted to foreign kings and chieftains and their practices. All topics are amply described and are utterly fascinating...I found the Philippine custom of `Pelanging' very interesting but hope it does not get a modern resurgence (read about it or Google it).

Ultimately what was the journey for...well it was to find a new route to the Spice Islands. To pioneer a new trading route to bring back the then amazingly expensive spices such as cloves, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. A sailor bringing back a small satchel of such spices in those days would enrich himself to the extent that he could purchase the ship that he journeyed on during the expedition. Return with spices the expedition survivors did, only one ship's worth but that resulted in nearly a million dollars worth of cargo ...without adding half a millennium of inflation!

All of this is well told by the author in a superbly researched book that is equally well written with great descriptive detail. It also abounds with lateral information such as a fascinating description of 14th century Pacific Chinese treasure fleets and other like maritime information along with linkages to other great explorers of the age. The book is such an easy read you tend to forget the amount of information you have got from it.

The correct summation of this book is that it is about a sea journey....a journey that was over a dozen times longer than Columbus's, a journey of an expedition that discovered the world and changed the course of history.....quite simply the most important sea voyage in maritime history.
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on 12 June 2012
"On 6 September 1522 a battered ship appeared on the horizon near the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain." And with this opening line Laurence Bergreen brings us back to that historic moment when the only ship of Magellan's great fleet returns home. I loved this opening chapter. The haunting way he portrays the ship and its crew is terrifying yet draws you in. Just what happened to the rest of the fleet? Where are Magellen and the 242 other members of the crew? It's a story at once fantastic and terrible. And, as cliché as this may sound, you really won't want to put it down. Everything is described in rich detail. I particularly enjoyed reading about life on board the ships. It's exactly what an adventure story should be. Highly enjoyable read and definitely recommended.
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on 9 February 2012
This is a superbly researched, highly detailed and breathtaking account of the first circumnavigation of the earth, which reads like a gripping adventure narrative and successfully avoids the stale, academic and stuffy pitfalls of many a history book. The description of the frequent perilous storms and squalls, national rivalries, mutinies, betrayals, big-foot Patagonian giants, pygmies, cannibals, water gypsies, Arab and Chinese traders, religious zealotry, disastrous battles, 'depraved' sexual acts, and the emaciated condition of the handful of survivors all paint a desperate portrait of the men who would go on to change our understanding of the world forever.


Following Bergreen's epic, I then went onto read a biography of Sir Frances Drake, which highlighted a large flaw in 'Over The Edge Of The World'. When reading the story of Magellan, I often wondered throughout why finding the Strait of Magellan was such a big issue in the first place. Why, I thought, didn't the explorers just ignore this treacherous branching expanse and sail a little further south instead, crossing from the Atlantic into the Pacific around the southern tip of South America (Cape Horn)? Surely it wouldn't have been much further to go and would have probably saved on a lot of misfortune, so why didn't they? Well, as I later discovered, at that time in history it was a popular belief among Europeans that South America connected directly onto a giant landmass engulfing the far end of the southern hemisphere, called 'Terra Australis' (which was said to counter-balance the otherwise top-heavy landmasses of the northern hemisphere) Therefore, at the time, nobody believed there was any ocean at all beneath South America, which explains why Magellan's crew didn't think to have a gander a bit further south. (It would be some sixty years before Francis Drake discovered Cape Horn and the connecting seas beneath, and he would also prove on the same voyage that 'Terra Australis' didn't connect to Java in Indonesia either!)

Okay, perhaps it was just a minor oversight that Laurence Bergreen didn't provide that information, but to me it was a glaring one, because that background info was crucial for my understanding of the motives behind Magellan's endevours, and I can't be the only one. Please don't let this put you off reading 'Over The Edge of The World', however. It remains an enriching, involving work, which magnificently brings Magellan's world to life. If anything, my further reading on Drake's global circumnavigation has proven less absorbing and highlights the wonderfully vivid feat Laurence Bergreen has achieved!

Fans of this style of seafaring odyssey set in the Age of Discovery will also be enamored with the historical works of Giles Milton - whose books 'Big Chief Elizabeth', 'Nathaniel's Nutmeg', 'Samurai William' and 'White Gold' are all as well-written and equally fascinating.
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on 22 April 2012
Laurence Bergreen writes an incredibly vivid account of Magellan's circumnavigation and completely draws the reader in to this immense journey. The book is packed with detail, facts and side stories but never to the detriment of the main narrative, which is something so many authors fail to achieve. Not only is Magellan's own story brilliantly written but the world at the turn of the 16th Century is captured in it's terrifying essence. Bergreen ties the overriding beliefs of the time (political and religious), to the actions of Magellan and his crew, which gives a real insight into the reasons for some brutal and at times, seemingly, insane actions. As with many historical accounts, there are sections of pure speculation but I feel he makes it clear when this is the case, so the solid and known facts are never lost. It's a gripping tale and an epic journey for the reader and the characters within.

History is an incredible series of remarkable stories, such as this one but is so often told in dry, lengthy prose. If only it was all written by writers of this calibre. This book feels more like an exciting novel than a factual history text.
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on 10 November 2005
This book is amazing! Bergreen writes with such drama and pace that the experience is almost like reading a narrative of some carefully crafted adventure story. The fact that this is a historic account of actual events makes it all the more appealing. Vivid descriptions of what the crew went through and the myths and legends of the World they lived in, really bring the whole thing to life. Extracts from the Armarda's journals make you feel like you're actually on board ship with them!
There's a wonderful feeling of progessing along a voyage of discovery - and not knowing what's coming next. Will there be another terrifying storm, can Magellan hold authority over his crews, what new lands will be discovered and will the natives be cannibals? The mistrust and bitterness between officers and crew, often on the verge of mutiny, makes the atmosphere of the book even more tense.
By the way, this is not a heavy, history text book. It's an exciting true-life story, with fascinating insights into a World long gone. I highly recommend this book.
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on 31 March 2010
I bought this after reading Dan Carlin refer to it in his Hardcore History podcast - what a treat. A brilliant account of a truly terrifying trip and an amazing insight into the 16th century world view. With just the right flavour of what these men actually put themselves through - in terms of endurance and endeavour - in the name of God, the Spanish Crown and riches beyond the dreams of avarice. If you thought the Rocket Jockey Flyboys of the 1950s and 60s were fearless pioneers, you should read this. King Kong sized cohones. Magellan is to be considered THE definiteive explorer of his - and any - age.
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