Excerpt from Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Over the Edge of the World

Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

By Laurence Bergreen

Over the Edge of the World
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2003,
    480 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2004,
    528 pages.

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In this, the first phase of his career abroad, Magellan had 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 ensuing confusion, Magellan lost most of his assets. He petitioned King Manuel for restitution, but the king refused the request. After all those years of service abroad to the crown, all the dangers he had experienced, and the wounds he had received, his relationship to the court was no better than it had been when he left home years before.


Returning to Lisbon, Magellan, still bristling with ambition, commenced 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 to demonstrate his loyalty and usefulness to the crown when the city of Azamor, in Morocco, suddenly refused to pay its annual tribute to Portugal. The Moroccan governor, Muley Zayam, 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, fifteen thousand soldiers, the entire military might of this small nation.

Among the hordes of soldiers sent to defend the honor of Portugal was Ferdinand Magellan, along with an aging steed, the only mount he could afford on his drastically reduced budget. He rode courageously into battle, only to lose his horse to the Arabs. What 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 the city, but Magellan remained indignant. He had lost his horse in the service of his country and king! And the Portuguese army was offering him only a fraction of what he considered to be his mount's true value as compensation.

Displaying a hotheadedness and tactlessness that bedeviled his entire career, Magellan wrote directly to King Manuel, insulting numerous ministers by circumventing their jealously guarded authority, and insisted on receiving full compensation for the horse. Manuel proved no more generous than he had been on the occasion of Magellan's previous demand for compensation of his lost investment. 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 wastes to harass Portuguese soldiers guarding Azamor. Magellan showed himself to be a fearless warrior, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy on a daily basis. 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. With his irrational idealism and loyalty, his wounds, and his unquenchable thirst for battle and righting perceived wrongs, Magellan came to seem like a real-life Don Quixote.

At last, he received a taste of recognition he craved when his service in battle and war wounds earned him a promotion to the rank of quartermaster. The position entitled him to a share of the spoils of war, which proved to be his undoing. In a subsequent battle, Arabs surrendered a immense herd of livestock, over 200,000 goats, camels, and horses. Magellan was among the officers responsible form distributing the spoils in an equitable fashion, and he decided to pay off tribal allies with some of the captured animals. 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, on their face, preposterous. Magellan, as a quartermaster, was entitled to his spoils of war, and it was not clear that he received any. He failed to respond to the charges, and without authorization, left Morocco for Lisbon, where he appeared before King Manuel. Magellan did not apologize for his conduct in Morocco, but demanded an increase in the allowance he received as a member of the royal household, his moradia. Making a bad situation even worse, he lectured the king, reminding him that he, Ferdinand Magellan, was a nobleman, and had rendered lifelong service to the crown, and had the wounds to show for it. Nothing but a more generous moradia would suffice to acknowledge his stature, his sense of honor, and his idealism. Jealous rivals whispered behind Magellan's back that his limp was merely an act designed to elicit sympathy.

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