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The man who almost sailed the world

Author offers new chronicle of Magellan's voyage

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

Author offers new chronicle of Magellan's voyage

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Laurence Bergreen

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It was Mars that led to Magellan.

Laurence Bergreen, who has written books about Al Capone, Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin, always wanted to write a story about an ocean voyage, "but I could never find the right one," he said in an interview.

"I kept it in the back of my mind as I was going from one biography to another. I could never quite figure out the right person, the right voyage, the right framework for it, until my previous book, 'Voyage to Mars.' The NASA scientists planning the exploration of our solar system kept making analogies to Magellan.

"Finally," he added, "the proverbial light bulb went off."

The result is "Over the Edge of the World" (William Morrow), in which Bergreen tells the story of Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first voyage to circumnavigate the globe -- though, having died in the Philippines, Magellan himself never lived to finish the trip.

Not being a seasoned mariner himself ("I'm a Sunday sailor"), nor fluent in medieval Portuguese and Spanish (the languages of survivors' accounts, since, Bergreen noted, the standard English-language life of Magellan dates from the nineteenth century), the author had his work cut out for him.

So -- partly thanks to a reported $650,000 advance -- he employed a team of translators, drew on contemporary accounts, and ran the Strait of Magellan himself to get a feel for Magellan's voyage. In doing so, he decided to go beyond simple biography, continuing the story of the voyage after Magellan's death in the Philippines on April 27, 1521.

He also outlined one of the first arms races in modern Europe, a harbinger of the colonialist skirmishing which would form the first European superpowers since the Roman Empire.

'Spices were like oil'

Author Laurence Bergreen

Indeed, Spain and Portugal were the dominant seafaring kingdoms at the time, and their rivalry was intense. The goal: control of the world's lucrative spice trade.

"Spices were like oil," Bergreen said. "They were the commodity that made the world economy go. ... The idea was to do an end run, to reach the Spice Islands by sailing West ... and break the [Arab] monopoly on the spice trade."

The two countries went about their business very differently, however. Spain used its wealth to back voyages of discovery, often led by foreigners such as Columbus, and trumpeted the results. Portugal, though it had a naval academy founded by Prince Henry the Navigator and probably the edge in maritime capabilities, was extremely secretive.

"We actually don't know all of what they were doing, because it was illegal in this era to publish books on ocean exploration," he said. "It was illegal to own a map; they were kept under lock and key, the equivalent of nuclear secrets."

Magellan, a Portuguese national, was one of those sailors who petitioned his king for support, was turned down, and went to work for Spain -- renouncing his loyalty to king and country in the process ("I think the right word is 'defected,' " Bergreen chuckled). He hoped to distinguish himself by embarking on a quest for lucrative new trade routes in the service of the Spanish crown.

Big mistake. Magellan became an international pariah, branded a traitor by his own people and distrusted by those whom he served, to the point of having to put down a mutiny in 1520. Moreover, not even Spain trusted him completely: there were Spanish agents in Magellan's crew placed there to undermine the Portuguese captain's authority and to insure that nothing vital was leaked to Portugal.

Point of return

For his own part, Magellan's haughty manner and his secretiveness of the mission's goal didn't endear him to his crew. He used the dreaded strappado on the mutineers, a process involving clever use of weights and pulleys to pull a victim's arms and legs off.

start quoteIt was illegal to own a map; they were kept under lock and key, the equivalent of nuclear secrets.end quote
-- Laurence Bergreen on a 16th-century custom

Bergreen's book goes beyond reliance on the traditional sources, such as Antonio Pigafetta -- one of the voyage's few survivors and the official chronicler of the voyage -- to firsthand accounts of ordinary seamen, as well as NASA imagery of the weather and tidal patterns characterizing the Strait that bears the explorer's name.

It also finishes what Magellan himself could not, following his dwindling armada from its mauling in the Philippines to its bedraggled return to Seville on September 6, 1522. Only one ship out of the original five remained, with 18 emaciated survivors aboard -- as well as approximately half a ton of precious cloves and a new route to the Spice Islands.

Bergreen also chronicles some of the less savory -- but all-too-common -- behavior of the voyagers, much of which has become better known in recent years.

"We hear a great deal more about how the sailors lived, the orgies with [native] women," the author said of what his new research had turned up. "We got a full account, X-rated, about Magellan's voyage ... orgies on beaches, sailors fathering children by local women."

Bergreen's book comes nearly a year after another book described how the Chinese, not Europeans, made the first global circumnavigation, and did it in 1421, a full century before Magellan. When questioned about this, Bergreen did not flinch.

"Show me the maps," he said. "Magellan was relying on European maps exclusively, to the best of my knowledge. Now, this is more than 500 years ago, something else could turn up, but when his astronomers and cartographers start talking about what they're doing ... they're talking about European maps and ones they're making from their own observations. ... The Chinese treasure fleet had been mothballed long before Magellan set to sea."

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