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‘Into the Darkest Recesses of the Human Soul’
Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, Laurence Bergreen

2003, MJF, NY, 458 pages

Thanks to Dominic Mattero for this wonderful book.

The literature of exploration was my mainstay as a boy, the search to find new wonders at the ends of the undefined earth in a quest to ruin these vey wonders for low personal gain has always thrilled this wonder-prone and cynic-laced mind.

Each chapter is named in lyric fashion and headed with verses from the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. For those interested in the charting of the known world and various theories of pre-Columbian interlopers in the Americas, Bergreen’s examination of Magellan’s cartographic resources does not prove Gavin Menzies’ case for a 1424 Chinese Circumnavigation of the Globe, but leaves an unresolved gap that one could sail a fleet through, in the from of Magellan knowing for certain, and knowing from a visual reference, that there was a straight between the Atlantic and the Pacific, before ever having set sail. There is also the fact that Magellan had served Portugal in Malaysia.

Bergreen’s style is a perfect fit for the subject, his use of primary documents wonderfully enlightening and not overdone, and his modernist hat worn appropriated cocked in early modern style. I will be using his book for numerous examinations of the subjects of heroism, plantation servitude and reactionary heathenism exemplified by white Indians. But the harrowing story of a three-year trip around the world in tiny, bobbling, black-tarred ships, is a tale of limitless skullduggery, human prostitution, savagery, institutional corruption, kingly yearnings for temporal power and one man’s heroic mania to become the Christian Soldier of the Age.

Magellan, an oft shat upon by, yet fanatically loyal subject of the King of Portugal, eventually renounced his nationality and entered the service of the new King of Spain, who was not Spanish in the least. In their savage quest to sail around their implacable Islamic enemies, the agents of the Christian Kings of Iberia sought half-mythic allies on the far side of a dimly understood world. When they more often found stone age heathens living in Edenic paradise they first sought to convert these people into Christians and then settled on turning them into long-suffering grease to lubricate the wheels of their proto-industrial mercantile economies. In the meantime, many explorers engaged in a desecration of their own feudal-based national identities, which was often even more savage than their dismantling of indigenous tribal societies—which were often far from the ideals put forth by modern liberal scholars, but hives of cannibalistic oppression. When greedy, violent men of a heroic self-image but a vile meanness of character found themselves alternately discovering ideal and largely innocent natives and also brutal cannibal chieftoms, extremes in behavior and regrettable encounters often ensued.

From depicting the toilsome life of raped orphan children kidnapped to serve as slave boys on the ships of pious, Christian kings, to investigating the methodology of men as hopelessly greed-sodden in the modern sense as any investment banker, yet seeking to express the heroism of an Odysseus or Roland, in service to higher ideals, Laurence Bergreen has created an insightful chronicle of an age when the world was yet filled with wonder and men remained evil in action by choice, not yet by default.

Below is a taste of Bergreen’s art:

“Magellan’s skill in negotiating the entire length of the strait is acknowledged as the single greatest feat in maritime exploration… They had survived an expedition to the ends of the earth, but more than that, they had endured a voyage into the darkest recesses of the human soul.”

By the Wine Dark Sea

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