“Magellan was generally at his best, and a far more sympathetic character, when he was the underdog. At such moments, his best qualities came to the fore: tenacity, cunning, and courage. … And it took the massed forces of fifteen hundred men to kill him.”
Life on the open seas during the Age of Exploration seems like a heck of a thing. By which I mean a continuous stream of terrible torments, punctuated by sudden violence, illness, and dread, capped off by bad pay and misery. For some, it was worth it to get out of the even more miserable lives they were living; worth it for a chance at something more. Laurence Bergreen paints the lives of these men with subtle strokes, showing them to be just that, just men in desperate situations. For all Magellan’s deserved accolades, he was not a hero, not a good man who opened the world for the future. He was a driven, ambitious man who wanted to win fame and fortune, and he was a pious man whose religious fervour grew and grew until it consumed him and nearly doomed his expedition. And that’s just part of the story.
Over the Edge of the World is a very readable history of Magellan’s expedition, from its inception through its eventual resolution, stopping at all its many trials and tribulations. A Portuguese sailor working for the Spanish (analogous to a Russian commander being hired by the US government during the height of the Cold War), Magellan faced constant distrust from the Spanish king (himself, not Spanish), and from his Spanish crew and fellow commanders. And that’s not even getting into the strongest antagonism shown to him by the rulers of his Portuguese homeland. Leading a small fleet into unknown waters with faulty maps, insubordinate and mutinous crew, little support, and a Portuguese fleet giving chase.
Bergreen doesn’t shy away from the moral decay and internal conflicts on the fleet. The horrors they inflicted on the indigenous peoples they came across, the naive cruelty and proto-Colonialism, and the religious violence. While they learned about the new world, they brought with them many old world prejudices that tainted everything they accomplished. And that’s before they managed to reach the Pacific Ocean, when the real horror began.
I found much of the information about the islands south of Asia to be very interesting, and makes me want to read up more on that region’s history. I think it was A World Lit Only by Fire that prompted me to pick up this book, and I’m glad I did. As always, with a good history book, it has given me new things to explore. It also reminds me of how awful the past is, how many lessons we must learn from it, and how much we must strive to break free from it, to rise above it. While Magellan is a central figure in the book, and looms large, this is not his story. It’s the story of the fleet he guided, of a motley crew of multi-national curs and scoundrels, and of the new lands they visited. It’s the story of survival beyond the edge of the known world, of grueling horror and torment, and of triumph. And it’s well worth your time.
You can check me out on Twitter at @TheOmegaDork
Or on my Facebook page.
And if you’re interested in seeing the development of my novel (for which Over the Edge of the World was research) and the related tabletop roleplaying game, check out my Patreon Page.