Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

( 66 )


Ferdinand Magellan's daring circumnavigation of the globe in the sixteenth century was a three-year odyssey filled with sex, violence, and amazing adventure. Now in Over the Edge of the World, prize-winning biographer and journalist Laurence Bergreen entwines a variety of candid, firsthand accounts, bringing to life this groundbreaking and majestic tale of discovery that changed both the way explorers would henceforth navigate the oceans and history itself.

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Ferdinand Magellan's daring circumnavigation of the globe in the sixteenth century was a three-year odyssey filled with sex, violence, and amazing adventure. Now in Over the Edge of the World, prize-winning biographer and journalist Laurence Bergreen entwines a variety of candid, firsthand accounts, bringing to life this groundbreaking and majestic tale of discovery that changed both the way explorers would henceforth navigate the oceans and history itself.

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Editorial Reviews

New Zealand Herald
“A marvelous piece of scholarship”
The New York Times
Prodigious research, sure-footed prose and vivid depictions make for a thoroughly satisfying account of the age in which Iberian seafarers groped their way around the world. Binding it all together is the psychology of Magellan's flawed leadership, the source of constant tension in his fleet. Driven by a fanatical dream to find the Spice Islands, Magellan was a frustrated Portuguese nobleman sailing for the king of Spain and a complicated man with absolute power of life and death over his crew. Almost five centuries after embarking on his world-changing voyage, he emerges here in the hands of a capable biographer who is simultaneously attracted and repelled by his excesses. — W. Jeffrey Bolster
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Bergreen, who has penned biographies of James Agee, Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin and Al Capone, superbly recreates Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan's obsessive 16th-century quest, an ill-fated journey that altered Europe's perception of the planet: "It was a dream as old as the imagination: a voyage to the ends of the earth.... Mariners feared they could literally sail over the edge of the world." In 2001, Bergreen traveled the South American strait that bears Magellan's name, and he adds to that firsthand knowledge satellite images of Magellan's route plus international archival research. His day-by-day account incorporates the testimony of sailors, Francisco Albo's pilot's log and the eyewitness accounts of Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta, who was on the journey. Magellan's mission for Spain was to find a water route to the fabled Spice Islands, and in 1519, the Armada de Molucca (five ships and some 260 sailors) sailed into the pages of history. Many misfortunes befell the expedition, including the brutal killing of Magellan in the Philippines. Three years later, one weather-beaten ship, "a vessel of desolation and anguish," returned to Spain with a skeleton crew of 18, yet "what a story those few survivors had to tell-a tale of mutiny, of orgies on distant shores, and of the exploration of the entire globe," providing proof that the world was round. Illuminating the Age of Discovery, Bergreen writes this powerful tale of adventure with a strong presence and rich detail. Maps, 16-page color photo insert. (On sale Oct. 14) Forecast: The national broadcast/print campaign will navigate book buyers into stores via a 15-city NPR tour plus a 25-city radio satellite sweep. Bergreen will give a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in early November, which could generate further interest in this title. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Bergreen (Voyage to Mars; Louis Armstrong) applies his successful writing skills to this inside story of what really happened during Magellan's epic, three-year circumnavigation of the globe. On September 6, 1522, of the five vessels that began the historic voyage, only one (the Victoria) sailed into the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda, holding a mere 18 survivors from the original crew of 260. Bergreen provides a gripping, first-rate story of the harrowing journey, the death of Magellan and nearly his entire crew, and the loss of three of the ships (one had already returned to Spain). Bergreen bases the text on exhaustive research into over 500-year-old original and secondary source documents from five languages, including the extensive eyewitness account by Antonio Pigafetta, the official chronicler of the voyage. Readers will be thrilled by Bergreen's superb, lively writing. The work nicely updates Tim Joyner's ten-year-old Magellan and provides a readily accessible, general history of this important event in world history that will also attract interest in academia. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid account of Magellan’s star-crossed voyage around the world nearly five centuries ago. Fond of epic adventures and odd ducks alike, Bergreen (Voyage to Mars, 2000, etc.) finds a nice blend of the two in Ferdinand Magellan’s life and career. Considered a tyrant by some, a traitor by others, and often in trouble with one legal authority or another, Magellan seemed driven by a need both to serve the powerful and to make himself rich and/or famous in the bargain; he also had a habit of tripping himself up and making powerful enemies, racking up charges of selling provisions to the Arab enemy in one war and earning mistrust for abandoning his native Portugal for the chance to command an expedition for archrival Spain. Magellan’s skills as a soldier and apparent lack of fear in promoting his aims—if matched by a deeply provisional knowledge of the world beyond Iberia—eventually won him the exclusive contract to find the fabled Spice Islands and claim the lands he found for Christianity and Spain. Thanks to bad luck, poor skills on the human-relations front, and some unfortunate missteps at sea, Magellan found himself confronting near-constant mutinies great and small; he survived them only to die, in 1521, in the Philippines after picking a fight with the natives in a misguided attempt to prove his omnipotence. Bergreen, citing Magellan’s shipmate and chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, suggests that the Captain General’s ever-quarrelsome crew deliberately failed to come to his aid—"or their officers ordered them to stay put," effecting an easily disguised mutiny by another name. Only one of the Magellan armada’s ships made it back to Spain, and 200 sailors died on the voyage.Still, Bergreen writes, the expedition had an important effect not only in pointing the way to the Spice Island trade, but also in dispelling reigning myths about "mermaids, boiling water at the equator, and a magnetic island capable of pulling the nails from passing ships." Very nicely written through and through, and a pleasure for students of world exploration. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060936389
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/2/2004
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 86,363
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurence Bergreen is the author of four biographies, each considered the definitive work on its subject: Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Capone: The Man and the Era, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, and Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life Beyond Earth. A graduate of Harvard University, he lives in New York City.

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First Chapter

Over the Edge of the World
Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

Chapter One

The Quest

"He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship, " quoth he.
"Hold off !unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
"Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

On June 7, 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world in half, bestowing the western portion on Spain, and the eastern on Portugal.

Matters might have turned out differently if the pontiff had not been a Spaniard -- Rodrigo de Borja, born near Valencia -- but he was. A lawyer by training, he assumed the Borgia name when his maternal uncle, Alfonso Borgia, began his brief reign as Pope Callistus III. As his lineage suggests, Alexander VI was a rather secular pope, among the wealthiest and most ambitious men in Europe, fond of his many mistresses and his illegitimate offspring, and endowed with sufficient energy and ability to indulge his worldly passions.

He brought the full weight of his authority to bear on the appeals of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the "Catholic Monarchs" of Spain who had instituted the Inquisition in 1492 to purge Spain of Jews and Moors. They exerted considerable influence over the papacy, and they had every reason to expect a sympathetic hearing in Rome. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted the pope's blessing to protect the recent discoveries made by Christopher Columbus, the Genoese navigator who claimed a new world for Spain. Portugal, Spain's chief rival for control of world trade, threatened to assert its own claim to the newly discovered lands, as did England and France.

Ferdinand and Isabella implored Pope Alexander VI to support Spain's title to the New World. He responded by issuing papal bulls -- solemn edicts -- establishing a line of demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese territories around the globe. The line extended from the North Pole to the South Pole. It was located one hundred leagues (about four hundred miles) west of an obscure archipelago known as the Cape Verde Islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Africa. Antonio and Bartolomeo da Noli, Genoese navigators sailing for Portugal, had discovered them in 1460, and ever since, the islands had served as an outpost in the Portuguese slave trade.

The papal bulls granted Spain exclusive rights to those parts of the globe that lay to the west of the line; the Portuguese, naturally, were supposed to keep to the east. And if either kingdom happened to discover a land ruled by a Christian ruler, neither would be able to claim it. Rather than settling disputes between Portugal and Spain, this arrangement touched off a furious race between the nations to claim new lands and to control the world's trade routes even as they attempted to shift the line of demarcation to favor one side or the other. The bickering over the line's location continued as diplomats from both countries convened in the little town of Tordesillas, in northwestern Spain, to work out a compromise.

In Tordesillas, the Spanish and Portuguese representatives agreed to abide by the idea of a papal division, which seemed to protect the interests of both parties. At the same time, the Portuguese prevailed on the Spanish representatives to move the line 270 leagues west; now it lay 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, at approxi-mately 46°30'W, according to modern calculations. This change placed the boundary in the middle of the Atlantic, roughly halfway between the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The new boundary gave the Portuguese ample access to the African continent by water and, even more important, allowed the Portuguese to claim the newly discovered land of Brazil. But the debate over the line -- and the claims for empire that depended on its placement -- dragged on for years. Pope Alexander VI died in 1503, and he was succeeded by Pope Julius II, who in 1506 agreed to the changes, and the Treaty of Tordesillas achieved its final form.

The result of endless compromises, the treaty created more problems than it solved. It was impossible to fix the line's location because cosmologists did not yet know how to determine longitude -- nor would they for another two hundred years. To further complicate matters, the treaty failed to specify whether the line of demarcation extended all the way around the globe or bisected just the Western Hemisphere. Finally, not much was known about the location of oceans and continents. Even if the world was round, and men of science and learning agreed that it was, the maps of 1494 depicted a very different planet from the one we know today. They mixed geography with mythology, adding phantom continents while neglecting real ones, and the result was an image of a world that never was. Until Copernicus, it was generally assumed that the earth was at the absolute center of the universe, with the perfectly circular planets -- including the sun -- revolving around it in perfectly circular, fixed orbits; it is best to conceive of the earth as nested in the center of all these orbits.

Even the most sophisticated maps revealed the limitations of the era's cosmology. In the Age of Discovery, cosmology was a specialized, academicfield that concerned itself with describing the image of the world, including the study of oceans and land, as well as the world's place in the cosmos. Cosmologists occupied prestigious chairs at universities, and were held in high regard by the thrones of Europe. Although many were skilled mathematicians, they often concerned themselves with astrology, believed to be a legitimate branch of astronomy, a practice that endeared them to insecure rulers in search of reassurance in an uncertain world. And it was changing faster than cosmologists realized. Throughout the sixteenth century, the calculations and theories of the ancient Greek and Egyptian mathematicians and astronomers served as the basis of cosmology, even as new discoveries undermined time-honored assumptions. Rather than acknowledge that a true scientific revolution was at hand ...

Over the Edge of the World
Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
. Copyright © by Laurence Bergreen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 66 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Gellin' with Magellan (Pen name: "Wally")

    If all history were written in the style in which Bergreen takes up the Ferdinand Magellan's pioneering circumnavigation of the world (at a time when seamen still feared either being overwhelmed by sea monsters or falling off the edge of the world), teachers would find many more of their students eager to study history. On practically every page the reader is treated to well researched insights into the state of navigational technology and cartography as well as anthropological awareness in the early sixteen century. Indeed, the reader feels himself a passenger on one of Magellan's fragile ships as the fleet slowly, and at great loss, batters its way through what later would be known as the Straits of Magellan and the tumultuous and unanticipated expanse of the Pacific Ocean for a cargo of spices then worth far more than their weight in gold. The present-day relevance of this extraordinary account becomes apparent as the reader realizes that this early intercontinental exploration parallels, in many ways, the stage we are at and the unknown dangers we confront in present-day interplanetary exploration. Although the frontiers are now incredibly more distant, the courage required of the seamen five centuries ago was no less than that displayed by our astronauts. The reader should be cautioned at the beginning of this book to fasten his/her seat-belt.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2011

    Highly readable, very compelling

    This book had me hooked from the beginning. The oceanic explorers were the most daring people alive in the 16th century and Magellan epitomized the type: driven, intelligent, wily, and strangely also rigid and unbending in many ways that eventually came to undo him. Bergreen is an excellent storyteller weaving the narrative of this journey skillfully with flashbacks and foreshadowing. Highly recommend this book to all interested in the people who dared to conquer the superstition and mystery that was the world.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2008

    A Page Turner

    Over the Edge of the World is a great book that keeps you turning pages. It is written as it could be a novel with great detail but Begreen summarizes each main passage of the importance of what had just happened and why it happened. It is easy to read, and makes you want to keep reading. The subject is very interesting and really brings you back to that time. Highly reccomended

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2005

    Eye-opening account...

    Bergreen's book transported me to the world inhabited by Magellan and his contemporaries...the account is so exciting that it reads like a novel. I agree about the map issue that was brought up by another reader and also found myself wishing there were more maps interspersed throughout the text. However, the maps that were provided were beautifully done.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2009

    Fascinating about the Portuguese/Spain Imperialist Explorers Lost at Sea Seeking the Spice Islands

    This is the first nonfiction sea exploration book I have read (also covers some 15th, and some 16th centuries of sea exploration history) and it was quite detailed in information about the islands/natives the Magellan exploration visited, and the lifestyles of the seamen explorers, most detailed by the Pigafetta seamen explorer scribe on the ship, one of the few survivors. Out of around 5 ships and 226 seamen, only 4 ships and around 18 seamen survived. I did not feel sorry for their problems at sea because of their imperialist attitudes of those times (they felt they could just kidnap natives, and steal from natives). The immature culture of Spain vs. Portugal and visa versa is also covered.

    What I found most interesting was their mentioning of some of the natives on some islands they visited as cannibals, but one wonders if that is what the Magellan sea explorers sometimes gave into since it was the Magellan explorers that were months at sea with shock and awe storms, and at times not reaching a shore for many months and often lacking food (especially meat/fish, citric foods, vegetables) on board the ships. This is not to say they were not wrong about some of the island natives being cannibals, but the possibility that the Magellan seamen were probably such also and projected their cannibalism onto the islanders...

    What also was interesting was the extent the world maps were considered top secret during those times, and people could be jailed for having a world map if they were not tops in the explorer trade. And, the false maps circulated to cover explorers' trails.

    Although the Magellan expedition is known to be the first around the world, I recently saw a program on the Science Channel where a world map was found in South America that had a much more accurate world map (most likely done by indigenous, though the researchers in that science segment thought it might be extraterrestrial) more than 500 years earlier than the Magellan expedition.

    I wonder how long it will be until the Strait of Magellan will just be called the Strait of Brazil, etc.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2005

    Magellan's Fire!

    The words amazing, riveting and gripping are often overused. When it comes to describing the events and characters that undertook the first-recorded European circumnavigation of the globe - no other words would do justice. This is by far the most richly detailed, deeply historic account of the Renaissance equivalent of space travel. No other book has fired my imagination or passion for the history of this period than Bergreen's 'Over the Edge of the World'. If you love adventure, the ocean and a tale as epic as Homer's Odyssey, you will love this book. CS Acta New York, New York

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2014


    Very well written. Highly recommemded.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2013

    Great resource

    Though a bit tedius at the start, this summary of Magellan's voyage around the world is a surprisingly entertaining account.

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  • Posted June 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    For every Filipino like me, Magellan's voyage to the Spice Islan

    For every Filipino like me, Magellan's voyage to the Spice Islands in 1521 is a very important fact of history. This is because it brought about the first contact between the Orientals and the Europeans, that was recorded. Bergreen's rendition of the voyage is compelling and oozing with very interesting details. From his storytelling we can see the very hard experience that Magellan and his men went through in finding the straight that leads to the Pacific ocean, the Philippines and ultimately: the Spice Islands, the main reason for the trip. Perhaps it will take another decade or two before another book of this caliber will be printed. This is pure history, well researched and interestingly presented for the modern day reader. Aside from the Pigafetta codex, Bergreen has exhausted all the possible sources to write this powerful history of the first voyage around the world or as codex in the Escorial would say "Il Premiere viaggio il mundo",

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2013

    Can a book about Magellan be a page-turner?

    Absolutely yes!! Kept me up for three nights. Amazing. We never learned history the way it is presented here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2012

    One of my favorite books ever!

    I was instantly caught up in sixteenth century Spanish/Portugal politics, the manners and beliefs of that period, and mostly the amazing quest of Magellan who was obsessed with finding a new route to the Spice Islands. Fiction could never be this good. I was completely caught up with how the sailors felt as they were lost for months on the Pacific, fearful that sea monsters were real or wondering if they would sail off the edge of the world. Their discovery of new lands and people could be compared to space travel for us today and meeting aliens. I couldn't put this book down and recommend it for anyone who loves history, and especially for those who think history is boring.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2012

    Best book Laurence Bergreen wrote

    History come to life with interesting stories of courage, daring and discovery at sea. Highly recommended !

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  • Posted September 9, 2011

    Great adventure story and it actually happened, of course.

    I loved this book. It was almost like being with them on the voyage. I kept thinking about it long after I finished reading. Magellan has long been a hero of mine to have pulled off such a daring voyage. I can hardly wait to read Bergreen's other books. wprincess

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  • Posted December 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This book about Magellan exlores all the secrets issues that tried to defeat him.

    This was a great choice for our book club. This well researched account of Magellan's "circumnavigation of the globe" started with all the amazing facts on how hard it was for him to the helm of the fleet and begin this great adventure. It is fitting that Magellan's name is legend. He was scorned by his own king and could never advance in the Portguese court. So he turned to Spain's Queen Isabella and his remarkable voyage begins when he is in his forty's.
    This book reveals much. The author did a lot of translating of old documents. Good thing the Spainard were good a record keeping. But the Porguese were secretive. The author has been able to bring to light many secrets and produce a very readable history.

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  • Posted July 25, 2009

    An interesting and absorbing novel.

    It is surprising how ambitious the undertakings of the Spaniards and Portugese were in their early expeditions of discovery. Magellan had an almost self-destructive dynmo. He was jealously and often cruelly guarding his rights as a commander of the expedition.
    His only intent was to claim land and riches for Spain. No matter what the cost.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2005

    What a Journey

    This book is outstanding. It is well researched and well written. It reads better than most novels. It's one of those books that takes hold of your life, and everything else seems to be second to finishing the story. It combines elements of history, psychology, sociology, and just plain, good story telling.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2005

    A Real Life Historical Adverture

    This is the real life adventure story left out of our history class in school. An Armada entangled in mutinies, and storms. Adventurous men battles island warriors and taking treasure. There is never a dull moment. It is true, as another reviewer commented; there is extraneous information, such as the Chinese Treasure Fleet, that might distract readers. I found this information brought me closer to the time of Magellan and the Age of Discovery. These sidetracks added to this magnificent voyage while putting in perspective with other not widely known voyages. This book provides the details to the classroom history book. It is a must read for the why and how of the voyage and the true greatness of Magellan.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2005

    Can you imagine the foolish courage?

    I can not imagine what would inspire a group of men to continuosly undertake travels of which they had no idea where they were going, where they would end up once the got there, or even how they would get there? The topic is enthralling and the writing excellent but where are the maps? Apparently, persons who pick up this book are presumed to have a basic working knowledge of the Phillipines, Indionesia, and the South Afican coast. The confusion is worth it however. The story of how the first circumnavigation of the earth's surface inspires wonder and awe. The author is an excellent scholar and has a first rate mind. I do wonder why he felt that the readers needed to know Patagonia tribal words for private anatomical organs.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2004

    wow what a journey

    When I read the New York Times review of Over the Edge of the World I was expecting another rewrite of history that would glorify a murderer along with a vicious culture that enslaved men and contrived to cheat indigenous populations out of their gold and precious jewelry. However I was impressed that Bergreen included the accomplishments of Mariners such as Cheng Ho and the Chinese empire and did not neglect to include the important role that Enrique Magellan¿s slave and the indigenous people of Africa, the Americas, and the Philippines played in the success of the voyage. The voyage itself is relayed in a language that informs while simultaneously allowing the reader to take in the 414 page historical account as one would a great novel or even a movie. I enjoyed this book immensely and as a result I planning to take up sailing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2003

    Good overview of the Armanda's exploration

    As History buff and I future teacher I jumped right into the book. I was looking to find a more in depth account of the Magellan's voyage than you get from history texts. The author did a great job outlining all the angles that went into making the voyage possible and all the obstacles it had to over come. In school Magellan's voyage never discussed the power struggle between Spain and Portugal which manifested itself in it's crew. This was a good read in which the author thoroughly describes everyone's intentions and motives. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who wants a complete understanding of the first circumnaviagation and the trials and tribulations it faced.

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