Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

by Laurence Bergreen
ISBN: 0066211735

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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.

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