Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe|
by Laurence Bergreen
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|A Review of: Over the Edge of the World: MagellanĘs Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
by George Fetherling
The first person to complete a circumnavigation was Ferdinand
Magellan(in Portuguese, Ferno de Magalhes). In fact he accomplished
the feat twice-or tried to. On the second voyage he was killed
halfway round by indigenous people in the Philippines (a foreshadowing
of Cook in Hawaii of course). The handful of companions who had
survived to that point completed the expedition without him. Their
tale is an important part of Laurence Bergreen's biography Over the
Edge of the World, a narrative with a strong bass line but one that
also suffers from a desire to be more sensational than it needs to
be (for the material is quite colourful enough as it is).
Magellan was in the employ of Spain and did much to shape the
commercial and imperial map of the world that in so many of its
large particulars remained intact until the twentieth century.
Unlike a number of the other famous explorers, he accomplished what
he was sent out to do: he found the Spice Islands and returned with
their eponymous products. Like all such figures, including Cook and
indeed even Shackleton, he was a tough character. He had to be to
locate what came to be called the Strait of Magellan, a slightly
less fatal way of managing the bottom of South America than actually
going round the Horn in the literal sense.
Bergreen's weakness is that he is a professional biographer (his
previous subjects have included Al Capone, Irving Berlin and Louis
Armstrong), not a specialist. It is almost cruel to put his book,
informative and sometimes exciting though it is, next to one such
as Bering by Orcutt Frost, a scholar who has specialized in his
subject as part of a wider study of the relatively short-lived
Russian empire in western North America. Vitus Jonassen Bering
(1681-1741) was the great Russian explorer of the North Pacific.
His two voyages (like Magellan, he didn't survive the second)
resulted in a token Russian presence in California and a much larger
one in Alaska, which the US finally purchased from the czar in the
mid nineteenth century. At least partly, the deal was a delayed
result of the exploration that Wilkes undertook in Alaska waters.
Clearly, Frost has been accumulating his knowledge over a long
period. He writes without any annoying sense of entitlement. His
tone, rather, is that of someone who is in full control of material
he has mastered, painfully, year after year, without apparent thought
of deadlines. Read Bergreen then Frost because the latter provides
a fine example of how this type of book should be written.