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An exhausting journey to globalization

Over the Edge of the World Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe Laurence Bergreen William Morrow: 458 pp., $27.95

November 02, 2003|Anthony Pagden | Anthony Pagden, professor of history and political science at UCLA, is the author of "Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration and Conquest, From Greece to the Present."

On Sept. 6, 1522, a small, battered and rotting ship put into the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain. On board was a crew of 18 Europeans and three captives (described as "Indians," although they were probably Filipinos) and 381 sacks of cloves. The vessel's name was Victoria. It was all that remained of a fleet of five ships and some 260 crew that had left the same port three years earlier under the command of Fernao de Magalhaes, known to the English as Magellan, in search of a sea route west to the "Spice Islands." It was also the first vessel to have circumnavigated the globe.

Of all the significant maritime voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries, that of Magellan is among the least well known. The reasons are not hard to find. Unlike Columbus or Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci or John Cabot, Magellan himself did not survive the journey to boast of his exploits and ensure the survival of his reputation. Unlike Columbus, he had not come across an unknown landmass of any size. True, he had happened upon the Philippines and claimed them for Spain. But the Philippines were not America. Like Da Gama, he had discovered a route that made it possible to reach the East by sailing west, but it was a route that was to be of no practical use until the development of faster, stronger ships more than two centuries later. But for all that, the little Victoria had sailed right across the Pacific Ocean, thus demonstrating that -- if nothing else -- it was a far larger body of water than anyone had believed. Although the journey would not be repeated until Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation in 1580 and the Pacific Ocean would remain largely uncharted until Louis Antoine de Bougainville and James Cook went there in the 18th century, Magellan's voyage remains one of the most remarkable in the annals of navigation.

Like the voyages of Columbus and Da Gama, Magellan's was an outcome of the struggle between Spain and Portugal for control of the trade between Europe and the East -- above all in spices, whose commercial value was immense. In 1518 Magellan persuaded the young Charles I of Spain (a year later he would become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) that he could reach the Moluccas -- the Spice Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific from which most of the spices (particularly cloves) sold in Europe originated -- by sailing down the east coast of South America and then west through the strait linking the Atlantic and the Pacific. In this way he would avoid the Cape of Good Hope, which was controlled by the Portuguese. The only trouble with this idea was that no one knew whether such a strait actually existed, and most navigators, including Magellan, believed the Pacific Ocean to be a narrow strip of water separating a massive American continent from an equally massive Asian one.

The voyage was fraught with difficulties from the start. In the first place, Magellan was a foreigner. There was nothing unusual in this: Columbus had been Genoese, Vespucci was Florentine, John Cabot was a Venetian. Magellan's crew was made up of North Africans, Basques, French, Flemings, Englishmen, Greeks and Neapolitans. But Magellan was a Portuguese defector who was regarded by his Spanish officers as a potential traitor. For most of the journey he was forced to suppress insubordinations and one full-scale mutiny, which, had it succeeded, would have put an end to the voyage just as it was beginning to achieve its objective. He lost one of his ships in a storm, and the crew of another, the San Antonio, mutinied before reaching the Pacific and returned to Spain.

Despite the conflict with his men and the imprecision of the instruments and maps on which he relied, Magellan did manage to locate a waterway linking the two oceans -- one that now bears his name -- and on Nov. 28, 1520, the fleet sailed out into what was then called the Western Sea. It was a moment of great triumph, and Magellan "wept for joy" and named the final cape he had rounded "Cape Desire, for we had been desiring it for a long time." From there on he expected an easy passage; in fact, however, his journey had only just begun. When the fleet made its next landfall nearly four months later on the island of Guam, its crew decimated by scurvy and reduced to eating the leather off the yardarms, it had traveled more than 7,000 miles, much farther than any previous European vessel. But it was still nowhere near the Spice Islands.

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