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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Even so, the ocean proved extremely hazardous. Prince Henry sent no less than fourteen expeditions to Cape Bojador within twelve years, and they all failed. He convinced Gil Eannes, a Portuguese explorer, to try once more, and in 1434, Eannes finally accomplished what so many had said was impossible: He sailed safely past Cape Bojador. The following year Eannes, together with Alfonso Gonçalves Baldaya, returned to Cape Bojador; fifty leagues past the cape, they explored a large bay and came upon a caravan of men and camels. Baldaya sailed farther south and collected thousands of sealskins; this was the first commercial cargo brought back to Europe from that part of Africa. On subsequent voyages, Portuguese ships brought gold, animal hides, elephant tusks-and slaves.

Every captain sponsored by Prince Henry was under orders to record the tides, the currents, and the winds, and to compile accurate charts of the coastlines. Voyage by voyage, these charts added to the Portuguese knowledge of the oceans and of the world beyond the Iberian peninsula.


Although Portugal was celebrated for leading Europe into the Age of Discovery, Portuguese kings often frustrated their heroic mariners. In 1488, during the reign of João II, Bartolomeu Dias reached the southernmost point of Africa and rounded what is now known as the Cape of Good Hope; his voyage opened new possibilities for Portuguese trade and conquest. On his return, Dias attempted to claim a reward for his feat, but received practically none. Ten years later, when King Manuel I had succeeded to the throne, Vasco da Gama retraced Dias's route around the tip of Africa and reached Mozambique on the southeastern coast; there he replenished his supplies and sailed farther east to establish an ocean route to India. Da Gama received a royal appointment as viceroy of India, and King Manuel anointed himself "Lord of Guinea and of the navigation and commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India" -- all of it thanks to Vasco da Gama. Across Europe, other monarchs disparaged Manuel as "The Grocer King," and Vasco da Gama came to believe that he had been inadequately rewarded for his service to the crown. In time he joined the ranks of explorers who became estranged from this vain ruler.

King Manuel's indifference to those who had risked their lives to advance the cause of the Portuguese empire had much to do with his ingrained fear of rivals within Portugal. Ever since the start of his reign in 1495, he had enjoyed great commercial success as the wealth of the Indies flowed into the royal coffers, thanks to the exploits of da Gama and other Portuguese explorers, all of which the king took as his due. But King Manuel was no adventurer, and he lacked an appreciation beyond the strictly commercial aspects of what his explorers had done for the Portuguese empire. Rather than doing battle himself, he preferred to remain in his palace, faithful to his wife and to the Church, and tending to Portugal's domestic issues.

Manuel's harshest policies concerned the Jews of Portugal, who distinguished themselves as scientists, artisans, merchants, scholars, doctors, and cosmographers. In 1496, when King Manuel wished to take the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella as his wife, he was told that he could do so only on condition that he "purify" Portugal by expelling the Jews, as Spain had done four years earlier. Rather than lose this valuable segment of the population, Manuel encouraged conversions to Christianity--forced conversions, in many cases. As "new Christians" (the title fooled no one), Portuguese Jews continued to occupy high positions in the government, and received royal trading concessions, in Brazil especially. Despite these accommodations, anti-Semitism in Portugal led to a massacre of Jews in Lisbon in 1506. Manuel punished those responsible, but the legacy of bitterness lingered, and many Jews left the country for the Netherlands.

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