Historical non-fiction is a difficult genre. It would be easy enough if the writer was only interested in attaining a readership of bona-fide history buffs but if one is trying to attract a larger audience the wicket gets much stickier. The writer must remain true to the facts while also creating an engaging, compelling tale.
Laurence Bergreen does just that in his fabulous story of Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe.
In Over the Edge of the World, Bergreen combines his considerable skills-- for setting historical context, for storytelling and for writing beautiful prose—to tell this amazing story of exploration and discovery. From the outset, Bergreen does a wonderful job of framing the story within the perspective of the times and the religious, political and social climates. The first part, which is all about this context-setting, is a bit dry but it’s so very important to the story.
The reader must understand that in 1519 Europe, the undiscovered lands of world maps were filled in with the fanciful imaginings of astrologers and philosophers. The concept of longitude was still unknown. Tales of sea monsters and soul-stealing sea sirens were passed on as fact. Mariners literally believed they might sail off the edge of the world. In those days this trip around the world was not unlike the first trip to the moon.
In the world economy, spices were more valuable than gold. A small sack of spices was worth a small fortune; penniless sailors could return home wealthy. And Europe's two maritime superpowers, Portugal and Spain, endlessly vied and sometimes openly fought for control of the world spice trade.
Seafaring in the early 16th century was most heinous. These ships had no sanitary facilities and the odors of rotting food, animal wastes (when they had them) and foul bilge-water were constant companions. There were no hammocks for the crew--men just slept on the hard wood deck on the rare occasions when they got any sleep at all. Sailors often worked around the clock at the back-breaking chore of pumping water out of the ship until they could find a safe harbor for making repairs.
They frequently starved for a long stretches of the journey as food stocks became depleted or inedible. They died slow and agonizing deaths from scurvy. [Interesting factoid: It was a mystery to mariners why the officers seemed oddly immune to the ravages of scurvy. The reason is quite simple. Most often the officers had private stores of quince jelly which would have provided ample vitamin C to protect them from the ravages of scurvy. Now you know.]
But these also carnally-starved sailors often found themselves on islands full of exotic naked women who were openly sexual. Needless to say, orgies often ensued and the Europeans were exposed to bizarre sexual practices that both enticed them and scared the bejesus out of them. Especially the practice of palang, which required the males of the tribe to pierce or sew various accoutrements of pleasure to their penises in order to better satisfy the ladies. The island ladies liked ‘em lumpy.
Now, that I’ve piqued your interest by playing the sex card I feel nothing more need be said but here’s a quick wrap-up. In 1519 Magellan set sail with a fleet of five ships and more than two hundred men, in search of the Spice Islands. They explored, discovered, mutinied, suffered, had a few orgies and died ..a lot.
Three years later they returned with an abundance of spices on just one ship carrying eighteen emaciated men. Now that’s what I call a remarkable sea-faring adventure.