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

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Throughout all the turmoil, Portugal retained its ambition to wrest control of the spice trade from the Arabs, and to reach the Spice Islands. In pursuit of this goal, daring, even reckless mariners presented themselves to the king to seek backing for their journeys of exploration to these exotic and dangerous new worlds. Most met with frustration, for the Portuguese court was a place of intrigue, suspicion, double-dealing, and envy.

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, he was born in 1480, in the remote mountain parish 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 distinguished himself sufficiently to be rewarded with a grant of land from the duke of Burgundy. Rodrigo himself qualified as minor Portuguese nobility, and served as a sheriff of the port of Aveiro.

Less is known about Magellan's mother, Alda de Mesquita, and there is room for intriguing speculation. The name Mesquita, meaning mosque, was a common name among Portuguese conversos 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 Jewish law. Nevertheless, the family considered itself Christian, and Ferdinand Magellan never thought of himself as anything other than a devout Catholic.

Even these basic outlines about Magellan's ancestry are in doubt. In 1567, his heirs began squabbling over his estate, and questions arose over his exact place in the Magalhães family tree. The difficulties in tracing Magellan's ancestry arise from the idiosyncrasies of Portuguese genealogy. For example, until the eighteenth century, males usually assumed their father's last name, but the females often chose other surnames for themselves. They took on their father's name, or their mother's, or even a saint's name. And some children assumed a grandfather's name, or their mother's last name, or still other family names. Ferdinand Magellan's brother Diogo took on the name de Sousa, from his paternal grandmother's family. The irregularities make it difficult to determine even today exactly which branch of the Magalhães family tree can rightfully claim the explorer.


At twelve years of age, Ferdinand Magellan and his brother Diogo moved to Lisbon, where they became pages at the royal court; there Ferdinand took advantage of the most advanced education in Portugal, and he was exposed to topics as varied as religion, writing, mathematics, music and dance, horsemanship, martial arts, and, thanks to the legacy of Prince Henry the Navigator, 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 was privy to the secrets of the Portuguese exploration of the ocean. He even assisted with preparing fleets leaving for India, familiarizing himself with provisions, rigging, and arms.

Magellan seemed destined to become a captain himself, but in 1495, his patron, King João, the leader of a faction with only tenuous claims to the throne, suddenly died. João's successor, Manuel I, mistrusted young Magellan, who had, after all, been allied with the opposition. As a result, the fast-rising courtier found his career stymied. Although he retained his modest position at court, the prospect of leading a major expedition for Portugal seemed to vanish. Finally, in 1505, after a decade of anonymous service at the palace, Ferdinand and Diogo Magellan received dual assignments aboard a mammoth fleet consisting of twenty-two ships bound for India, all of them under the command of Francisco de Almeida. Ferdinand Magellan 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; he survived multiple wounds and, if nothing else, learned to stay alive in a hostile environment.

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