Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: Over the Edge of The World

This is a great read.

"Over the Edge of the World" by Laurence Bergreen tells the story of the first circumnavigation of the world by a fleet led by Ferdinand Magellan. In the end he was not one of those circumnavigators, being cut down and killed in an inglorious battle in the Philippines.

It is a fantastic story, starting with a devious power battles in the Spanish Court and leading on to storms at sea, mutiny, strange foreign lands, discoveries, desertion, hardships, orgies, death, and finally triumph.

The first chapter tells of this triumph as the handful of survivors, as thin as skeletons, drifted along in a boat whose hull had rotted and sails were torn and bleached by the sun. Just 18 of the original 260 men that left in a fleet of five boats made it home in that, the Victoria. Its hull was packed with a fortune of spices - the driving motivation behind the expedition.

We know a lot about the voyage from first hand accounts by those that sailed with Magellan, most importantly Antonio Pigafetta.

Pigafetta was 28 when he left Spain, and his writing has a young man's enthusiasms in it, including graphic and detailed descriptions of anything relating to sexual customs of the cultures he encountered or practices of the crew upon encountering uninhibited women on tropical islands.

The voyage was quite an achievement given the relative small sizes of the boats and how little they knew, such as the causes of scurvy that caused the death of many of the sailors (though not the officers who had a supply of quince).

You can imagine the amazement and wonder of these Europeans so far from home, meeting peoples and cultures so different from their own. Funnily enough it made me think of Star Trek - "to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before!"

There were also parallels to modern day problems, in that Magellan kept on getting involved in local politics, taking sides, stirring things up, and then having to fight wars such as the one that led to his death.

Well written and structured it is a good holiday read and informative on this, the first circumnavigation and one of the greatest of all voyages of discovery.

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