On September 6, 1522, a horribly battered ship manned by eighteen malnourished, scurvy-ridden sailors appeared on the horizon near a Spanish port. They were survivors of the first European expedition to circle the globe. Originally comprised of five ships and 260 sailors, the fleet's captain and most of its crew were dead. How did Ferdinand Magellan's voyage to circle the worldone of the largest and best-equipped expeditions ever mountedturn into this ghost ship? The answer is provided in this thoroughly researched tale of mutiny and murder spanning the entire globe, marked equally by triumph and tragedy. Thrilling, grisly, and completely true, Magellan: Over the Edge of the World tells a story that not only marks a turning point in history, but also resonates powerfully with the present.
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Over the Edge of the World
By Laurence Bergreen
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2017 Laurence Bergreen
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On June 7, 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world in half. The Treaty of Tordesillas established an imaginary line running down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Everything to the west of the line belonged to Spain, and everything to the east went to Spain's chief rival, Portugal. The only exception was Brazil, which Portugal also ruled.
Rather than settling the heated dispute over the New World, recently discovered by Christopher Columbus, the treaty ignited a furious race among nations to claim new lands and control the world's trade routes. At the time, Europeans were deeply ignorant of the world at large. Under the influence of Ptolemy — Claudius Ptolemaeus, a Greco-Egyptian mathematician and astronomer who lived in the second century CE — astronomers believed that the sun circled the earth. Ptolemy's influential work Geography spoke of a magnetic island; if ships sailed too close to it, the nails would be pulled from their hulls and the vessels would sink. Cartography (mapmaking) was often a matter of guesswork. The maps of 1494 depicted a world seamlessly combining heaven and earth. Mixing geography with mythology, adding phantom continents while neglecting real ones, cartographers made images of a world that never was. In the Age of Discovery, more than half the world was unexplored, unmapped, and misunderstood by Europeans. Although men of science and learning agreed that the earth was round, some mariners feared they could literally sail over the edge of the world.
Although enormous regions of the globe, previously blank, were getting filled in as explorers brought home news of their discoveries, especially in Africa, the true extent of the Pacific Ocean remained unknown. Even with this profound lack of understanding, Spain and Portugal competed to establish their global empires.
* * *
Both the Spanish and the Portuguese recognized that a water route to the Indies — the area now known as India and Southeast Asia — could provide priceless merchandise, including the most precious commodity of all: spices.
Spices had played an essential economic role in civilizations since antiquity. In the Age of Discovery, the European quest for spices, like the global quest for oil today, drove the world's economy and influenced its politics; trade in spices became completely intertwined with exploration, conquest, and imperialism. But spices — white and black pepper, myrrh, frankincense, nutmeg, cinnamon, cassia, mace, and cloves, to name a few — evoked a glamour and aura all their own; for Europeans, the mere mention of their names summoned the wonders of the Orient and the mysterious East.
Arab merchants traded in spices via land routes reaching across Asia and became skilled at boosting prices by concealing the origins of their goods. The merchants maintained a virtual monopoly by insisting their precious wares came from Africa, when in fact they grew in various places in India, in China, and especially throughout Southeast Asia. Europeans came to believe that spices came from Africa, when in fact they only changed hands there.
Under the traditional system, spices, along with diamonds, pearls, opiates, and other goods from Asia, reached Europe by slow, costly, and indirect routes over land and sea, across China and the Indian Ocean, through the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Merchants received them in Europe, usually in Italy or the South of France, and shipped them overland again to their final destination. Along the way, spices were sold as many as twelve different times, and every time they changed hands, their prices shot up.
Spices were the ultimate cash crop.
The global spice trade underwent an upheaval in 1453, when the great city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the Turks and the time-honored spice routes between Asia and Europe were severed. The prospect of establishing a spice trade via an ocean route, instead of the former overland routes, opened up new economic possibilities for any European nation able to master the seas. For those willing to assume the risks, the rewards of an oceanic spice trade, and the potential for control over the world's economy, were irresistible.
* * *
Portugal was the first European nation to exploit the sea in its quest for spices and the global empire that went along with them. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, daring, even reckless mariners presented themselves to the Portuguese king to seek backing for their journeys of exploration. Among the most persistent supplicants was a minor nobleman with a long and checkered history in the service of the Portuguese empire in Africa: Fernão de Magalhães, or Ferdinand Magellan.
According to most accounts, Magellan was born in 1480, in the remote mountain village of Sabrosa, the seat of the family homestead. He spent his childhood in northwestern Portugal, within sight of the pounding surf of the Atlantic. His father, Rodrigo de Magalhães, traced his lineage back to an eleventh-century French crusader, De Magalhãis, who was given a grant of land by the Duke of Burgundy. Rodrigo himself qualified as minor Portuguese nobility and was remembered as a sheriff of the port of Aveiro.
Less is known about Magellan's mother, Alda de Mesquita, although there is room for intriguing speculation. The name Mesquita, meaning "mosque," was a common name among Portuguese conversos, converts from Judaism who sought to disguise their Jewish origins. It is possible that she had Jewish ancestry, and if she did, Ferdinand was also Jewish, according to custom. Nevertheless, the family considered itself Christian, and Ferdinand Magellan never thought of himself as anything other than a devout Catholic.
* * *
At twelve years of age, Ferdinand Magellan moved with his brother, Diogo, to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, where the two became pages at the royal court. There, Ferdinand took advantage of the most advanced education available in Portugal: he was exposed to religion, writing, mathematics, music and dance, horsemanship, martial arts, algebra, geometry, astronomy, and navigation. Through his privileged position at court, Ferdinand came of age hearing about Portuguese and Spanish discoveries in the Indies, and he learned the secrets of the Portuguese exploration of the ocean. He even assisted with preparing fleets to leave for India, familiarizing himself with provisions, rigging, and arms.
Magellan seemed destined to become a captain himself, but in 1495 his patron, King João, suddenly died. João's successor, Manuel I, mistrusted young Magellan, then still a teenager. As a result, the fast-rising courtier found his career blocked. Although he retained his modest position at court, he spent the next decade with no prospect of leading a major expedition for Portugal.
Finally, in 1505, at age twenty-five, Ferdinand Magellan received an assignment aboard a mammoth fleet bound for India. He spent the next eight years trying to establish a permanent Portuguese presence in India, dashing from one trading post to another and from one battle to the next, surviving multiple wounds. If nothing else, he learned to stay alive in a hostile environment.
Magellan displayed remarkable bravery and toughness, but in the end his foreign service proved a mixed adventure. He invested most of his fortune with a merchant who soon died; in the aftermath, Magellan lost most of his assets. He requested compensation from King Manuel, but the king refused. Despite his eight years of service abroad, facing dangers and receiving wounds, Magellan found that his relationship to the court was no better than it had been when he left home.
* * *
Magellan, still bristling with ambition, returned to Lisbon and began a new phase in his career. Seeking to make himself useful to the crown, he involved himself with the Portuguese struggle to dominate North Africa. In 1513, he seemed to find an ideal opportunity when the city of Azamor, in Morocco, suddenly refused to pay its annual tribute to Portugal. The Moroccan governor ringed the city with a powerful, well-equipped army. King Manuel responded to the challenge by sending the largest seaborne force ever to sail for his kingdom: five hundred ships, manned by fifteen thousand soldiers — the entire military strength of his small nation.
Among the hordes of soldiers sent to defend the honor of Portugal was Ferdinand Magellan, who brought along an aging horse, the only one he could afford on his drastically reduced budget. He rode courageously into battle, only to lose his horse to the Arabs. What had started so bravely for Magellan turned into a near disaster, as he barely escaped from the siege with his life. The larger picture was more favorable, as Portugal reclaimed Azamor, but Magellan remained furious. He had lost his horse in the service of his country and king! And the Portuguese army offered him only a fraction of what he considered to be his horse's true value.
Displaying a hotheadedness and tactlessness that would emerge again and again throughout his career, Magellan wrote directly to King Manuel, insulting numerous ministers and insisting on receiving full compensation for the horse. The new request was swiftly dismissed as a minor nuisance.
Magellan's reaction was telling: rather than quitting the field of battle in disgust, he stubbornly remained at his post, somehow acquired a new horse, and participated in skirmishes with the Arabs who swooped out of the desert to harass Portuguese soldiers guarding Azamor. Magellan showed himself to be a fearless warrior, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.
In one confrontation, he received a serious wound from an Arab lance, which left him with a shattered knee and a lifelong limp; it also ended his career as a soldier. But at last he received the recognition he craved, for his service in battle earned him a promotion and a share of the spoils.
The reward, however, proved to be his undoing. In a subsequent battle, the Arabs surrendered an immense herd of livestock, which Magellan used to pay off tribal allies. As a result of this transaction, Magellan and another officer were indicted for selling four hundred goats to the enemy and keeping the proceeds for personal gain.
The charges were preposterous. Magellan, as a quartermaster, was entitled to his spoils of war, and it was not clear that he received payment for the beasts. He found the allegations ludicrous and failed to respond to them. Without authorization, he left Morocco for Lisbon, where he appeared before King Manuel. Magellan did not apologize for his action; instead, he demanded an increase in his moradia — the allowance he received as a member of the royal household. Making a bad situation even worse, he lectured the king, reminding him that he, Ferdinand Magellan, was a nobleman who had rendered long service to the crown and had the wounds to show for it.
King Manuel's judgment was swift and sure: Magellan was to return to Morocco immediately to face charges for treason, corruption, and leaving the army without authorization. This he did. After investigating the evidence, a tribunal in Morocco dismissed all charges against him, and he returned to Lisbon clutching a letter of recommendation from his commanding officer. Displaying superhuman stubbornness, Magellan went back to his sovereign king to demand the increased moradia with more passion than ever.
Once more, the king refused.
* * *
Magellan was entering middle age with a bad leg and an unfairly tarnished reputation. Short and dark, and teetering on the brink of poverty, he looked nothing like the aristocrat he thought himself to be. And he still yearned to distinguish himself in the service of Portugal, to make a name for himself that would rank him with the important figures of the day, the explorers who had opened new trade routes for Portugal in the Indies and, in the process, become rich themselves.
It seemed that Magellan was a fool to ask the same king who had refused to increase his moradia to back a voyage to the Indies with the goal of discovering a water route to the legendary but little-known Spice Islands — the Moluccas (an archipelago, or group of islands, that is part of modern-day Indonesia) — but the would-be explorer saw matters differently. He was offering the king a scheme, admittedly a bit vague and risky, to fund the crown with the wealth of the Indies. Magellan believed that he could do what his boyhood hero Christopher Columbus had claimed to do but never actually accomplished: reach the Indies by sailing westward across the Atlantic Ocean.
Realizing that he needed help to persuade King Manuel, Magellan brought a well-known figure with him: Ruy Faleiro, who was a cosmographer — a combination of mathematician, astronomer, and nautical scholar — but was also prone to rapidly changing his mind. When Magellan and Faleiro presented themselves at court with their plan, the king was already prejudiced against the stubborn, defiant Magellan and the volatile Faleiro — both men whose requests he had refused in the past.
Three times, Magellan asked for royal authorization. Three times, the king refused. Finally, in September 1517, Magellan made a clumsy last-ditch attempt to win backing from the Portuguese court. He asked if he could offer his services elsewhere, and, to his astonishment, the king replied that Magellan was free to do as he pleased. When Magellan knelt to kiss the king's hands, as custom dictated, King Manuel concealed them behind his cloak and turned his back on his petitioner.
* * *
The humiliating rejection proved to be the making of Ferdinand Magellan.
After he received the final rejection from the Portuguese king, the thirty-seven-year-old Magellan suddenly found direction in his life. He moved quickly, carried along by his own ambitions and by the tides of history. By October 20, 1517, he had arrived in Seville, in southwestern Spain. Ruy Faleiro soon joined him there.
Newly arrived mariners from Portugal and Italy such as Magellan found a welcome reception in Spain. Within days of his arrival, Magellan had signed documents formally making him a subject of Castile (the main kingdom of what is now Spain) and its young king, Charles I. No longer was he Fernão de Magalhães; in Spain, he became known as Hernando de Magallanes.
Magellan brought with him to Spain many of Portugal's most precious and sensitive secrets: information about secret expeditions, a familiarity with Portuguese activity in the Indies, and an acquaintance with Portuguese navigational knowledge of the world beyond Europe. But he needed a sponsor.
Brashly, he decided to turn to the court of Spain. His timing was perfect. Spain was trying to catch up to Portugal, the leader in ocean exploration. Charles I was a shy, uncertain eighteen-year-old; he was accustomed to deferring to the bishops who ran the day-to-day affairs of the court, but he was desperate to prove his power. Magellan was an unknown quantity to the Spanish court and ministers. He had renounced his loyalty to Portugal, but he remained an outsider in Spain, on probation and under suspicion. In these difficult circumstances, getting the financial backing for his proposed voyage would require an enormous expenditure of effort and cunning, as well as a generous amount of luck.
Soon after arriving in Seville, Magellan became acquainted with Diogo Barbosa, another Portuguese expatriate. Barbosa had settled in the city fourteen years earlier and was now knight commander of the Order of Santiago. Magellan began to woo Diogo's daughter, Beatriz; the relationship developed very quickly, and they married before the year was out. Suddenly, Magellan had an important sponsor in Seville, as well as a financial stake, because Beatriz brought with her a large dowry. She might have been pregnant at the time of their marriage; a child, named Rodrigo, was born the following year.
* * *
Guided by the Barbosa family, Ferdinand Magellan prepared to persuade the powerful Casa de Contratación (House of Commerce) to allow him to undertake his daring voyage. Founded in Seville in 1503 by Queen Isabella, the Casa managed expeditions to the New World on behalf of the Spanish crown. The Casa was controlled by a man who was neither a navigator nor an explorer: Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the Bishop of Burgos, a cold, manipulative bureaucrat who jealously guarded his power.
Although Magellan and Fonseca despised one another and fought bitterly, Magellan knew he needed Fonseca's backing in matters of exploration because King Charles would do whatever the experienced old Bishop Fonseca recommended.
Excerpted from Magellan by Laurence Bergreen. Copyright © 2017 Laurence Bergreen. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Dates,
Prologue: A Ghostly Apparition,
Chapter One: The Quest,
Chapter Two: The Man Without a Country,
Chapter Three: Neverlands,
Chapter Four: "The Church of the Lawless",
Chapter Five: The Crucible of Leadership,
Chapter Six: Castaways,
Chapter Seven: Dragon's Tail,
Chapter Eight: A Race Against Death,
Chapter Nine: A Vanished Empire,
Chapter Ten: The Final Battle,
Chapter Eleven: Ship of Mutineers,
Chapter Twelve: Survivors,
Chapter Thirteen: Arrival in Paradise,
Chapter Fourteen: Ghost Ship,
Chapter Fifteen: After Magellan,
Notes on Sources,
About the Author,