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Over the Edge of the World
Ferdinand Magellan's daring circumnavigation of the globe in the sixteenth century was a three-year odyssey filled with sex, violence, and amazing adventure. Now in Over the Edge of the World, prize-winning biographer and journalist Laurence Bergreen entwines a variety of candid, firsthand accounts, bringing to life this groundbreaking and majestic tale of discovery that changed both the way explorers would henceforth navigate the oceans and history itself.
512 pages; ISBN 9780061865886
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"He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship, " quoth he.
"Hold off !unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
"Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
On June 7, 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world in half, bestowing the western portion on Spain, and the eastern on Portugal.
Matters might have turned out differently if the pontiff had not been a Spaniard -- Rodrigo de Borja, born near Valencia -- but he
was. A lawyer by training, he assumed the Borgia name when his
maternal uncle, Alfonso Borgia, began his brief reign as Pope Callistus III. As his lineage suggests, Alexander VI was a rather secular
pope, among the wealthiest and most ambitious men in Europe,
fond of his many mistresses and his illegitimate offspring, and
endowed with sufficient energy and ability to indulge his worldly
He brought the full weight of his authority to bear on the
appeals of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the "Catholic Monarchs" of Spain who had instituted the Inquisition in 1492 to purge
Spain of Jews and Moors. They exerted considerable influence over
the papacy, and they had every reason to expect a sympathetic hearing in Rome. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted the pope's blessing to
protect the recent discoveries made by Christopher Columbus, the
Genoese navigator who claimed a new world for Spain. Portugal,
Spain's chief rival for control of world trade, threatened to assert its
own claim to the newly discovered lands, as did England and France.
Ferdinand and Isabella implored Pope Alexander VI to support
Spain's title to the New World. He responded by issuing papal bulls -- solemn edicts -- establishing a line of demarcation between
Spanish and Portuguese territories around the globe. The line extended from the North Pole to the South Pole. It was located one
hundred leagues (about four hundred miles) west of an obscure
archipelago known as the Cape Verde Islands, located in the
Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Africa. Antonio and Bartolomeo da Noli, Genoese navigators sailing for Portugal, had discovered them in 1460, and ever since, the islands had served as an
outpost in the Portuguese slave trade.
The papal bulls granted Spain exclusive rights to those parts of
the globe that lay to the west of the line; the Portuguese, naturally,
were supposed to keep to the east. And if either kingdom happened
to discover a land ruled by a Christian ruler, neither would be able
to claim it. Rather than settling disputes between Portugal and Spain,
this arrangement touched off a furious race between the nations to
claim new lands and to control the world's trade routes even as they
attempted to shift the line of demarcation to favor one side or the
other. The bickering over the line's location continued as diplomats
from both countries convened in the little town of Tordesillas, in
northwestern Spain, to work out a compromise.
In Tordesillas, the Spanish and Portuguese representatives agreed
to abide by the idea of a papal division, which seemed to protect the
interests of both parties. At the same time, the Portuguese prevailed
on the Spanish representatives to move the line 270 leagues west;
now it lay 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, at approxi-mately 46°30'W, according to modern calculations. This change
placed the boundary in the middle of the Atlantic, roughly halfway
between the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The new boundary gave the Portuguese ample access to
the African continent by water and, even more important, allowed
the Portuguese to claim the newly discovered land of Brazil. But the
debate over the line -- and the claims for empire that depended on
its placement -- dragged on for years. Pope Alexander VI died in
1503, and he was succeeded by Pope Julius II, who in 1506 agreed to
the changes, and the Treaty of Tordesillas achieved its final form.
The result of endless compromises, the treaty created more
problems than it solved. It was impossible to fix the line's location
because cosmologists did not yet know how to determine longitude -- nor would they for another two hundred years. To further
complicate matters, the treaty failed to specify whether the line of
demarcation extended all the way around the globe or bisected just
the Western Hemisphere. Finally, not much was known about the
location of oceans and continents. Even if the world was round, and
men of science and learning agreed that it was, the maps of 1494
depicted a very different planet from the one we know today. They
mixed geography with mythology, adding phantom continents while
neglecting real ones, and the result was an image of a world that
never was. Until Copernicus, it was generally assumed that the earth
was at the absolute center of the universe, with the perfectly circular planets -- including the sun -- revolving around it in perfectly
circular, fixed orbits; it is best to conceive of the earth as nested in
the center of all these orbits.
Even the most sophisticated maps revealed the limitations of the
era's cosmology. In the Age of Discovery, cosmology was a specialized, academicfield that concerned itself with describing the image
of the world, including the study of oceans and land, as well as the
world's place in the cosmos. Cosmologists occupied prestigious
chairs at universities, and were held in high regard by the thrones of
Europe. Although many were skilled mathematicians, they often concerned themselves with astrology, believed to be a legitimate
branch of astronomy, a practice that endeared them to insecure
rulers in search of reassurance in an uncertain world. And it was
changing faster than cosmologists realized. Throughout the sixteenth century, the calculations and theories of the ancient Greek
and Egyptian mathematicians and astronomers served as the basis of
cosmology, even as new discoveries undermined time-honored
assumptions. Rather than acknowledge that a true scientific revolution was at hand ...