Magellan’s Terrifying Voyage Around The World

Magellan_Elcano_Circumnavigation-enAs I’ve said many times, maritime nonfiction satisfies my craving for a time when men were really men – not softies like most men today, with their smart phones, tablet computers, paper cuts, cubicles, facial lotions and pedicures. Maritime nonfiction, particularly stories of the great explorers, provide far more compelling lessons on leadership and self-actualization than any contemporary business or psychology books.

Which is why I read Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World, a biography of Ferdinand Magellan, who is famous as the first European explorer to circumnavigate the world from 1519-1522. This was part of a quest to find a route to the Spice Islands by sailing East — and enable Spain to remain competitive with Portugal in the global spice trade. (This followed Christopher Columbus’s prior four voyages to establish a route to Asia for Spain; Columbus failed to acknowledge that his Indies were actually an entirely new continent, though Spain eventually realized this.)  Click image to see hi-resolution map.

Bergreen’s work is a gripping page-turner that pieces together disparate accounts of the sailors, the pilot’s log and especially the journal of Antonio Pigafetta, a Magellan loyalist and scholar who shadowed Magellan and documented most of the journey. Bergreen’s portrayal of Magellan is admirable, though it reflects the Age of Discovery – a European world of perceived enlightenment, imperialism, technology, greed, politics, the church and sexuality. Most of all, Bergreen brings light to the magnitude of the voyage and the leadership and courage of Magellan — including his heuristic, fact-based approach to the world.

His voyage would be a completely practical and empirical approach to discovery. He would go and see for himself: the first ever global autopsis. That ambition alone made it a daring and significant endeavor. The time was ripe for Magellan and his Armada to sweep away a thousand years of accumulated cobwebs. The reign of Hearsay was coming to an end.

Over three years, Magellan’s expedition overcame mutiny, tribal war, tribal orgies, brutal islanders, severe weather, sickness, fear of sailing over the edge of the world, and Portugal’s determination to seek his head for treason. (Magellan was Portuguese, and his failed attempts to seek backing from his Kind prompted his conversion to Spain.)

His sophisticated approach to navigating unchartered waters went far beyond technical ability in boat handling and direction finding; it revealed an ability to deploy novel tactics to overcome one of the greatest challenges of the Age of Discovery: namely, how to guide a fleet of ships through hundreds of miles of unmapped archipelagos in rough weather. Magellan’s skill in negotiating the entire length of the straight [of Magellan] is acknowledge as the single greatest feat in the history of maritime exploration. It was, perhaps, an even greater accomplishment than Columbus’s discovery of the New World, because the Genoan, thinking he had arrived in China, remained befuddled to the end of his days about where he was and what he accomplished, and as a result he misled others.

Among my favorite passages in the book was Magellan’s revenge on his expedition’s mutineers. He marooned some traitors on a barren island in South America, and beheaded and quartered others —  while displaying the heads on deck to remind the rest of the crew the consequences of disloyalty.

One of the outstanding reasons that his crew had the courage and determination to circumnavigate the globe, even if it meant sailing over the edge of the world, was that he compelled them to do so. Fear was his most important means of motivating his men; they became more afraid of Magellan than the hazards of the see.

And he did this with religious conviction.

In contrast to his pragmatic crew members, who considered themselves travelers through an alien landscape, Magellan conducted himself as if he were an instrument of the world. He believed that Providence had sent him to the Philippines to bring Christianity to the heathen and considered the local customs as grave social ills. In Magellan’s mind, Christianity offered the best, and the only cure.

While one of his ships made it around the world, Magellan was killed in the Philippines while meddling in tribal disputes. Of the original five ships and 270 crew, 18 survivors barely made it back to the home port of Seville.

Magellan’s life, as portrayed through Over the Edge of the World, is a tale of vision and tenacity. It’s a good perspective for any reader seeking reassurance while navigating challenging environments.


Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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