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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  • First Published:
    Oct 2003, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2004, 528 pages

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Age--and too dry to cultivate cinnamon, cloves, and pepper. An Indonesian ruler was said to have boasted to a trader who wanted to grow spices in Europe, "You may be able to take our plants, but you will never be able to take our rain."

Under the traditional system, spices, along with damasks, diamonds, opiates, pearls, 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 Persian Gulf. Merchants received them in Europe, usually in Italy or the south of France, and shipped them overland to their final destination. Along the way, spices went through as many as twelve different hands, and every time they did, their prices shot up. Spices were the ultimate cash crop.

The global spice trade underwent an upheaval in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, and the time-honored overland spice routes between Asia and Europe were severed. The prospect of establishing a spice trade via an ocean route 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, combined with control over the world's economy, were irresistible.

The lure of spices impelled sober, cautious financiers to back highly risky expeditions to unknown parts of the globe, and enticed young men to risk their lives. In Spain, the best and perhaps the only reason to risk going to sea was the prospect of getting rich in the Spice Islands, wherever they were. If a sailor devoted years of his life to getting there and back, and if he managed to bring home a small sack stuffed with spices such as cloves or nutmeg, legitimately or not, he could sell it for enough to buy a small house; he could live off the proceeds for the rest of his life. An ordinary seaman might attain a modest degree of wealth, but a captain had a right to expect much more than that in the Age of Discovery--not only vast riches and fame, but titles to pass on to his heirs and foreign lands to rule.


Portugal was the first European nation to exploit the sea for spices and the global empire that went along with them. The quest began as early as 1419, when Prince Henry, the third son of João I and his English wife, Philippa, established his court at Sagres, a stark outcropping of rock at the southernmost edge of Portugal.

Known as Prince Henry the Navigator, he rarely went to sea himself; instead, he inspired others to conquer the ocean. Portuguese ships faced obstacles so overwhelming, so shrouded in ignorance and superstition, that only extraordinarily confident and accomplished mariners dared to venture into the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic Ocean was then known.

As a young soldier, Prince Henry had fought against Arabs, and he was determined to drive them from the Iberian peninsula and from North Africa. At the same time, he learned much from his avowed enemy: their trade routes, their science and mapmaking, and most of all, their navigational techniques. When Prince Henry came to Sagres, Europeans knew little about the ocean beyond latitude27°N, marked by Cape Bojador in West Africa. It was believed that the waters south of this point teemed with monsters, that their storms made them too violent to navigate, and that inescapable fogs would envelop wayward ships. In the face of all these dangers, Prince Henry offered a bold reply, "You cannot find a peril so great that the hope of reward will not be greater."

In pursuit of his goal, he attracted navigators, shipwrights, astronomers, pilots, cosmographers, and cartographers, both Christians and Jews, to the academy at Sagres, where they cooperated in the enterprise of exploring the world, under Henry's direction. They designed a new type of ship, the small, maneuverable caravel, distinguished by her triangular lateen sail (the name lateen came from the word "Latin"), borrowed from Arab vessels. Until this time, European vessels such as galleys relied on oarsmen or fixed sails for power. With their shallow draught and movable sails, Henry's caravels could set a course close to the wind, and they could tack, that is, shift their course to take advantage of the wind from one direction and then from another, zigzagging against the wind toward a fixed point. With their maneuverable sails and impressive seaworthiness, caravels became the vessels of choice for exploration.

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