Historian Laurence Bergreen has previously written biographies of
such diverse figures as Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, James Agee and
Irving Berlin, as well as books about space exploration and network
broadcasting. So he might seem an unlikely candidate to tackle the
epic story of Ferdinand Magellan's three-year voyage around the
world (1519-1522) --- the trip that proved once and for all that
the earth was round, corrected wildly inaccurate notions of where
continents and ocean lay, and affected global geopolitics down to
the present day.
Well, unlikely candidate or not, Bergreen has done a superb job.
This is one of the most consistently readable, deeply researched
and scrupulously fair historical narratives to come around in a
long time. The people involved --- on shipboard, in royal palaces,
on desolate seashores, on primitive islands --- come alive on the
page. Landscapes and seascapes alike are vividly rendered. Customs
and lifestyles of remote tribes are presented without
condescension. Magellan himself becomes a fully rounded human
being, a baffling mixture of fearless, resourceful mariner and
foolishly pugnacious religious fanatic.
Magellan was a Portuguese who wanted to sail to the fabled Spice
Islands for the glory and commercial advantage of his country.
Rebuffed by Portugal's king, he offered his services to the
ambitious King Charles I of Spain, Portugal's great rival on the
high seas. Charles sent him off in 1519 at the head of an armada of
five proud ships.
As most people know, Magellan himself never made it all the way. He
was killed in a needless battle with natives on a small Philippine
Island, largely through his own foolish meddling in a local quarrel
and his vindictive hatred of anyone who refused to accept Christian
baptism. Four of his ships were destroyed during the three-year,
60,000-mile trip. Of the 260 men who set out from Spain, only 18
made it back, emaciated and starving. Magellan himself ended up
despised posthumously by both Portugal and Spain.
Bergreen tells this story in large part through the writings of
several surviving eyewitnesses, most notably a young Italian named
Antonio Pigafetta, who left a wonderfully detailed and eloquent
memoir of the entire trip. Bergreen fleshes out these on-the-spot
accounts with the writings of previous historians, his own research
and --- a historian's privilege --- some shrewd projection of
500-year-old events into present-day terms. Going to sea in 1519
was "the Renaissance equivalent of becoming an astronaut;" the
expedition's return was "the Renaissance equivalent of winning the
Bergreen is also good at evoking landscapes visited by Magellan's
men --- the brooding, icy desolation of Tierra del Fuego, the
decadent luxuriousness of various Pacific islands, the treacherous
sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope. Also stressed is the racial
tension between Spaniards and Portuguese on board ship that bred
several attempts at mutiny (at least one of them successful) and a
constant undercurrent of cutthroat seaborne politics.
Magellan was able to survive all of this by imposing his iron will
on officers and crew. Once he was killed, a crisis of leadership
engulfed the expedition and nearly caused it to fail utterly.
As Bergreen fleshes out this extraordinary story, the reader can
learn much about such things as methods of torture employed,
bizarre sexual practices encountered, worldwide weather patterns,
details of flora and fauna along the route, and the constant
jockeying for advantage between the two great maritime superpowers
of the day. If an interesting digression is called for, Bergreen
delivers it, but not at suffocating length (an example: the story
of the little-known Chinese "Treasure Fleet" that had been trading
with the Spice Islands long before Europeans got there).
Only one minor criticism is worth noting: One wishes there were
better maps, especially of the passage through the Strait of
Magellan at the southern end of South America. The endpaper maps,
while colorful, are hardly adequate.
Reviewed by Robert Finn on January 22, 2011