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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

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 X
Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Treeborne
    Treeborne
    by Caleb Johnson
    The Treeborne family has lived on The Seven – the local sobriquet for a seven-acre stretch of ...
  • Book Jacket
    Grace
    by Paul Lynch
    Harrowing. Gorgeous. Epic. Grace, Paul Lynch's coming of age novel about a young woman, is set ...
  • Book Jacket: The Perfectionists
    The Perfectionists
    by Simon Winchester
    We seek precision in our lives every day. We want to drive from home to work and work to home safely...
  • Book Jacket: Beauty in the Broken Places
    Beauty in the Broken Places
    by Allison Pataki
    Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are "strong at the broken places," and Allison Pataki found that to ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson

An audacious American epic set in rural Georgia during the years of the Depression and Prohibition.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Clock Dance
    by Anne Tyler

    A delightful novel of one woman's transformative journey, from the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Summer Wives
    by Beatriz Williams

    An electrifying postwar fable of love, class, power and redemption set on an island off the New England coast.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win A Place for Us

A Place For Us

A deeply moving story of love, identity and belonging--the first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

H, W H A Problem

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.