Crossing Magellan's Wake
18 November 2007 | Mexico
I just finished reading "Over The Edge of the World" by Laurence Bergreen which is a gripping account of the first voyage around the world. It tells the unbelievable true story of Magellan, a Portuguese mariner, who in the early 1500s, renounces his loyalty to the King or Portugal in favor of the King of Spain and convinces the latter to finance a five ship armada to seek a west about route to the Spice Islands (Indonesia). Magellan is convinced that there is a southern strait which will allow his ships to pass through the Americas and reach the Spice Islands. He does find this strait which now bares his name and successfully navigates it. Although to do so, he brutally suppresses a mutiny which contributes to the circumstances of his death and taints his reputation forever.
Ultimately the voyage completes its primary goal of reaching the Spice Islands and is even profitable notwithstanding the human cost. Less than 10 percent of the 260 crew survive and three of five ships are lost. Only one ship makes it around the world which is an extraordinary accomplishment for the time. The voyage's contribution to the European understanding of the world is pivotal as it dispelled many myths and inaccuracies that had existed since the dawn of civilization including the size of the known world.
I plotted the Armada's approximate course around the world on our Nobeltec charting system (picture above). The book gives enough description to plot their presumed route pretty closely (over one hundred references to location). It is so much fun find the specific places events happened on a chart. For example, it is easy to imagine just how the first mutiny was defeated while looking at a chart of the very protected Puerto San Julian in modern day Argentina. It has a very narrow entrance and big tides so I can just see the currents that Magellan cunningly used to drift the mutinous ships of the Armada towards his flagship in the middle of the night. It is also fun to see where Julie and I crossed the Armada's wake four times during our trip around the world almost 500 years later.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it especially to sailors. There are lots of historical anecdotes the author includes which give great color and context to the story.
One of the anecdotes I would like to follow up on is the story of Cheng Ho and the Chinese Treasure Fleet. If anyone knows of any good books covering this story please post a comment. Thanks, Chris