Just looking at the book cover and synopsis, I knew this was going to be a thrilling historical book. Right from the outset, you’re thrust into the complex world of 16th century Portugal and Spain. Ferdinand Magellan is a Portuguese sailor who is repeatedly denied the chance to sail an expedition to the Moluccas or Spice Islands. These islands harboured naturally growing spices such as cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg which were extremely valuable. A few hundred pounds of cloves could purchase a seaworthy ship. Having been denied funding for his expedition and with the king of Portugal oblivious to his proposal, he left Portugal and went to Seville, Spain where with the help of a certain Ruy Faleiro, a seasoned sailor, and connections from his father-in-law, he manages to navigate the bureaucracy of Spain and successfully pitch his plan to sail to the Moluccas and claim them for the young king of Spain, Charles. Magellan claimed that the Spice Islands lied in Spanish territory as designated by the treaty of Tordesillas several years earlier. The Treaty split the world in two; the west from Cape Verde islands just off the North African coast onwards belonged to Spain and the East up to the Indies and beyond belonged to Portugal. This Treaty was drafted shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for Spain to enable Spain to expand it’s empire to the Americas. What the Treaty didn’t take into account was the shape of the planet.
This was not just any ordinary expedition of discovery. It was also albeit a scientific one. For one, it would prove that the earth is round. Although it had already been proved by Erastothenes in ancient Egypt over 1500 years earlier, the more astonishing proof was circumnavigating the entire world. Secondly, this voyage proved something else entirely unknown; that the planet is covered mostly by water. Land occupies a small portion of it. Thirdly, it proved that the Americas were not part of the Indies but an entirely different continent.
Magellan’s plan was simple and precise. They were to sail to Brazil and then continue downwards to the South Pole until they found a passage or strait that led them to the Spice Islands. Columbus had attempted to find the strait leading to the Indies from the Americas because he knew the world was round and therefore you could reach the east if you sailed west long enough. Magellan had maps that were borrowed from different sources which speculated over a passage leading to the Indies. Having convinced the Casa de Contratación (House of Commerce which was in charge of expeditions) and King Charles of Spain, he was given funding and all the necessary help to make the voyage a success. The 19 year old King Charles was counting on the voyage to finance his political aspirations. He was set to be crowned King of the Holy Roman Empire, the highest position in Europe but he needed to bribe the electors in Germany and the ostentatiously greed pope with tributes. So the voyage, if successful, would partially help the young king become the most powerful man in Europe.
It is human nature to make up stories about things we don’t understand. And that was what people did during the Age of Discovery. They thought that ocean water boiled at the equator, that if you sailed too far, you would fall off the edge of the world, that there were ferocious monsters like dragons which devoured sailors and that there were magnetic islands which pulled nails out of approaching ships. All this was just plain superstitious nonsense which people believed because they did not understand or know anything about the oceans. It also prevented many adventurous people from risking their lives to sail the oceans. It was probably one of the reasons why Magellan almost failed to mobilise his crew in Seville and had to look in other cities.
Magellan was given 5 ships; Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago. The whole fleet was named Armada de Molucca. Trinidad was the flagship and Magellan was the disciplinarian Captain General. They set sail in mid 1519 after months of preparation and assembly with a crew of 260 men of various nationalities from Portuguese to Spanish to French to Norwegian to Venetian and many others. Out of all these only a handful survived the entire journey. Eighteen to be precise. Others perished in war, mutiny, execution and scurvy. A few defected from the mission in San Antonio and returned to Spain. Magellan, being Portuguese, had a difficult time handling the self entitled Spaniards on the ship and his authoritarian brand of leadership did not help. This culminated in a mutiny while they were near the South Pole. In demonstrating his power, Magellan executed some of the mutineers and plugged their heads on sticks. A priest and another mutineer survived this ordeal but were marooned on a remote isolated island. Meanwhile, the Armada braved some of the worst weather known to sailors and many perished while navigating the strait. Food was insufficient and the men tried to fish or when they came across an island, they tried to get the inhabitants to give them provisions. When they were in Rio De Janeiro, they enjoyed feasts with the local people and, having been starved of female companionship, resorted to having wild orgies with the native women.
The voyage is full of scenarios of this kind. The armada coming across a primitive people and trading with them for provisions and other valuable items. Sometimes islanders are not hospitable to strangers. Many times, they seemed to be hospitable hosts. Magellan and his crew held feasts with islanders in the Pacific and even tried to do mass conversions of all the islanders to Christendom. Magellan’s overindulgence in the affairs of local peoples soon paid off with his death.
On the flagship, there was an educated fellow with connections to the Casa and the church, who was listed as the chronicler of the voyage, Antonio Pigafetta. He took a keen anthropological look at the people and cultures they came into contacts with and kept records of everything that happened during the voyage. Eventually, only two ships, Trinidad and Victoria, reached the Spice Islands. It was a long arduous journey in which many lives were claimed. The crew had survived massacres, wars, scurvy, extreme cold and high tides.
In the end, the Armada managed to prove that the earth is round by moving to the west until they reached the east. They also dispelled many longstanding myths concerning navigation, cosmology, geography, and oceanography. Although the voyage cost 4 ships of the Armada, it also provided many cloves (about 381 sacks) which were enough for the owners of the ships and the king to make a profit from the voyage. The voyage also changed our thinking of how we viewed the world around us, our place in it, and our knowledge concerning the world. It is probably the single most important voyage of the Age of Discovery for it’s sheer accomplishment of circumnavigating the globe, which was very unlikely had they known the perils standing in their way. Magellan’s circumnavigation proved to be near impossible to replicate afterwards mainly because of the extreme harsh weather in the strait and at the southern tip of South America. King Charles tried to send 3 more voyages unsuccessfully and Magellan’s voyage begun to look more and more daring and extraordinary. Indeed it was.
One thing I noticed while reading is that the author meticulously researched the book and indeed there’s a bibliography of sources where every detail comes from. Yet the book reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure fiction novel. I’m impressed at how well written the book is and how Bergreen has detailed facts so well and in unison with the book that it never interrupts the flow of the story at all. He could change the subject to rocket science in the middle of the book and you wouldn’t notice how he even begun or delved into the topic. All you would know is that you’re hooked. What a breathtaking book!!