Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Edge of the World, a book review.

Over the Edge of the World Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe/Lawrence Bergreen. Published by William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0066211735. 458 p.

Over the Edge of the World Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe / Lawrence Bergreen, 2003, boasts a title so enticing that you just have to look inside its covers. It’s the story of explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his maritime journey of three years, the first circumnavigation of the world for a European monarchy’s quest to conquer the unknown. Born Fernão de Magalhães, he was a Portuguese enterpriser who dared to sail for King Charles of Spain, journeying “over the edge” to the other side of the world. He discovered the route to the east by sailing west from Spain, across the Atlantic Ocean, and south, through Cape Horn, which is the southern tip of the South American continent. Between what is now known as Magellan's Strait and the islands of the Pacific Rim, Magellan’s fleet dwindled, yet he and his crew managed to reach the Philippine Islands. But he died in a violent attack by native people there when he tried to force them to convert to Catholicism. His pilot, Juan Sebastian De Elcano, a Basque captain, sailed the ship Victoria home to Spain in 1522.

Writes Milt Weiner, a Museum volunteer in a review of Bergreen’s book for the Library:
“Five ships and 260 sailors under the command of Magellan started in 1519. On September 6, 1522, 18 sailors and 1 ship without Magellan returned to Seville, Spain. Despite the journey’s hardships, the Victoria and her diminished crew had accomplished what no other ship had done before.”

“Magellan believed that he could do what his boyhood hero, Christopher Columbus had never actually accomplished—reach the fabulous Indies by sailing westward across the ocean.”

Bergreen’s colorful style brings you right into the events of the early 1500s. Little do we know of the intrigue and strife in store for a multi-national crew of members from many European countries who were assigned to the five ships of the fleet, called an armada, the Armada de Molucca. Indeed this passage portends an enticing read:

“From the moment the fleet left Seville, Pigafetta kept a diary of events that gradually evolved from a routine account of life at sea to a shockingly graphic and candid diary that serves as the best record of the voyage.” – p.63.

More books about Magellan's voyage:
Antonio Pigafetta’s Log of Magellan’s Voyage, was written in Italian and translated into English. It was reprinted by the Yale Library in 1969. Other writers about Magellan and his quest are Tim Joyner, Magellan, published by International Marine, 1992; Rebecca Steffof, Ferdinand Magellan and the Discovery of the World Ocean, 1990; Stefan Zweig, Conqueror of the Seas the Story of Magellan, published by Viking Press, 1938 (text is also available online.)

Explanations of words and phrases:
Armada de Molucca
: name of the enterprise of discovery supported by King Charles of Spain in 1519; Magellan’s five ships were christened the Victoria, Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepćion, and Santiago.
armada—a fleet of warships (Webster’s New World Dictionary, ©1984)

Moluccas—islands of Indonesia (Wikipedia, available at
and at Wikisource, available at

Lawrence Bergreen: biographer of Al Capone, Irving Berlin, James Agee, and Louis Armstrong; is a researcher’s author who includes detailed Notes sections and Bibliographies. His books are available in public libraries, and are all in print as of February, 2010.

Circumnavigation: to sail entirely around the world. (Random House Dictionary, ©1966.)

Juan Sebastian De Elcano: the Basque captain of the flag ship Trinidad, who became master of the Victoria when Magellan met his fate. (Rebecca Steffof, Ferdinand Magellan and the Discovery of the World Ocean, published by Chelsea House, 1990.)

over the edge: in Medieval times, people believed the earth was flat, not round.

Philippine Islands: a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, in Asia (Oxford Atlas of the World, published by Oxford University Press, 2009); the Philippines were first discovered for the Europeans by Magellan’s enterprise in 1522.

Magellan’s Strait or Estrecho de Mallaghaes is located in the southern tip of South America, on the South Atlantic Ocean side of the continent, in the country of Chile. (Oxford Atlas of the World, published by Oxford University Press, 2009)

Museum volunteer: At the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, volunteers answer questions at the front desk, give museum tours, operate the tug ANGELS GATE, use the Morse code, build ship models, and staff The Sea Chest, the museum’s gift shop. Visit the web page at for more information.

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