Dr. Joe’s Book Club – Laurence Bergreen’s “Over the Edge of the World”

BLOG #22, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB
LAURENCE BERGREEN’S OVER THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
May 28, 014

 

Scan_Pic0102

Recently, while we were visiting my sister Marjorie and her husband, Elmer Raymond in Red Bluff, California, Elmer asked if I’d yet read Bergreen’s landmark biography of Ferdinand Magellan. I had not so he loaned his copy to me. All the way back to Colorado, on Amtrak, I continued reading it. By the end, I knew it had to be my next Book of the Month selection.

The book is a biography, true; but much more than just a biography, it is the story of one of the greatest and most daring adventures in the history of this planet. If you’ve ever wished to cut your teeth on a book guaranteed to stretch your mind, this would be it.

Thirty years that doubled the size of the known world! It boggles the mind just to imagine such a thing. It is true that supposedly Scandinavian mariners had reached Labrador in 986 and 1000, but few people were aware of it. Many considered such a voyage to merely be a myth.

It was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks that dramatically shifted the western world’s attention in a totally different direction. For now, the Turks controlled the land and sea routes to the East. There was then no consensus that the world was a sphere. The great land mass of Europe and Asia constituted, with Mediterranean Africa, the known world. But then, note what happened! Two nations: Portugal and Spain were to dominate the doubling of the known world in just a few short years, at the then fastest sea-speed known to man, sail-driven caravels and galleons.

Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator inaugurated the commercial revolution that was to transform the map of the globe. Spain came late to the game. Not until 1479, with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella did Spain even become a state. Even then, it took their conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492 to enable Isabella to send Christopher Columbus on his voyage, seeking a sea route to the Indies. Columbus landed on Watling Island in the Bahamas on October 12 of 1492; he discovered Cuba on October 18; on December 25, his flagship, the Santa Maria was sunk in Haitian waters [it has been in the news during the last couple of weeks–apparently its wreckage has finally been found]! During his four voyages to what he mistakenly assumed to be part of the Indies, Columbus also discovered Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Dominica, the Orinoco River, Honduras, and Panama. Had he only known it, when he was on the Panamanian east coast, he was only 40 miles from discovering the Pacific Ocean, the vastest ocean on earth, that Christmas of 1502. He died in 1506, still not knowing just what it was he had discovered.

In 1513, Nuñez de Balboa discovered a new ocean, which he called the “South Sea” (the Pacific).

In 1497, King Manuel of Portugal, jealous of the honors and wealth that Columbus was bringing to Spain, commissioned Vasco de Gama to find a sea route to India (at that time no one had any idea just how huge Africa was). Mariners for centuries had been too terrified of the unknown to venture south of Africa’s big hump. Forced by storms to take a circuitous route, the 28-year-old captain took 137 days, voyaging some 5,000 miles, to reach the Cape of Good Hope. It would take him 178 more days, and 4,500 more miles to reach Calicut on the Malabar Coast, where he anchored on May 20, 1498. Finally, the Portugese had found a route to India to replace the land routes through Arabia and Persia.

Proud of having finally reached the real India while the Spanish navigators were still stumbling around the Caribbean, Portugal hadn’t given a thought to the world west of them. But in 1500, Portugese navigator Pedro Cabral, driven far off the coast of Africa by a terrific storm, found himself on the coast of Brazil. Two years later, Amerigo Vespucci arrived at the conclusion that South America was actually a continent–not part of India.

Scan_Pic0103

 

Enter Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 1521). In 1495, he entered the service of Manuel “the Fortunate,” King of Portugal. He spent his early years sailing under Portugese captains such as de Almeida, in the islands of the Indies. The object of their search was the legendary Spice Islands (the Moluccas), which they finally reached in 1511. In 1513, he was wounded in Morocco. Afterwards, having fallen out of favor with King Manuel, Magellan renounced his Portugese citizenship and offered his services to Charles V” of Spain. He announced his desire to seek out a western route to the Spice Islands by sailing around South America, hopefully discovering a strait through which his ships could traverse. On August 10, 1519, Magellan left Seville with a fleet of five vessels. Little did he know what lay ahead! Of those five ships, only one of them would return after circumnavigating the globe, for the first time in human history.

Magellan himself would be killed, after unbelievable hardships, complete with mutinies, desertions, loss of ships, and epidemics of scurvy that decimated his mariners. In those days, no one knew what caused scurvy or how to cure it. As fate would have it, he’d be killed in the Moluccas, the Spice Islands he’d already explored back in 1511. He’d also escaped being murdered by the express directive of the King of Portugal who was willing to kill the explorer rather than have him complete the first circumnavigation of the globe. Even after Magellan’s death, the Portugese did the utmost within their power to keep any of Magellan’s mariners from making it back to Spain alive. On September 8, 1522, three and a half years after leaving Seville, only eighteen of the original 280 mariners arrived back in Spain, more dead than alive, in a crippled ship that barely made it into port. They had traveled over 60,000 miles (the equivalent of over two and a half times around the world!).

Fortunately for Magellan’s memory, aboard that one battered little ship was Antonio Pigatetta, the indefatigable chronicler of the expedition; it would be his incredibly detailed chronicles of the epic voyage, published in Venice twenty years later, that would set the record straight, for Charles V cared only for the vast treasure in spices that came home with the eighteen survivors–didn’t even give a passing thought to Magellan’s giving his life on behalf of him and his realm.

By making it into the harbor, by that act, Spain displaced Portugal as the world’s premier maritime power, Magellan proved that the world was a sphere and much much larger than anyone had ever dreamed of, that it was possible to circumnavigate the entire globe, and that the known world had in that moment – doubled.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Magellan’s name has never received its due recognition in general history. It ranks with those of Columbus, Marco Polo, and Henry the Navigator. The circumnavigation of the globe is as great an event as the discovery of America. Magellan achieved what Columbus planned–the linking of west Europe with Asia by direct transit over the western ocean.”

* * * * *

With all this as a preamble, you ought to be ready to pounce on a copy of the book, sit down, and get ready for one of the greatest reads of your lifetime.

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen (New York: William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2003). It has now been published in trade paper; in fact it is already in its 13th trade paper printing.

GRENADA

“The smells we encounter on the road probably rate as our most intense—and lingering—travel experiences, though we tend to disregard them…. In search of that ever elusive sense of place, we travelers often skip over the one quality that couldn’t be more essential to it…. Smell is the outlier of our five senses, primal but powerful, but evanescent….What smell denies us in the moment of experience, however, it returns a hundredfold in the long run….That is the big difference between photographs and smells: one reminds you of where you’ve been, the other returns you there.”
—Daisann McLane (National Geographic Traveler, April 2011)

ITS HISTORY

Columbus (on his third voyage) in 1498, was the first European to set eyes on this island. The Caribs (a fiercely independent race) considered it their home. But what chance did they have pitting their small numbers and Stone Age weaponry against hordes of invading British and French? Cornered at last in 1651, after a century and a half, rather than leave their beloved island, the last surviving Caribs (men, women, and children) leaped off precipitous cliffs to their deaths

The nation of Grenada (the southernmost tip of the Windward Islands) is in size 120 square miles (21 by 12 miles), and consists of three islands: Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique; 90% of the approximately 100,000 population lives in Grenada.

After bickering over the islands for over a century and a half, the British (no small thanks to the Treaty of Paris in 1783) finally took full possession. In 1877, it became a Crown Colony; in 1974 it became an independent nation. But its post-independence road has been anything but smooth. It entered the U.S. history books on October 25, 1983, when Reagan invaded it; in the process, 70 Cubans, 42 Americans, and 170 Grenadians died. Indeed it was the long arm of Fidel Castro that caused Washington to step in.

REACTIONS

Today this lovely mountainous island, graced by rainforests and waterfalls and 45 white sand beaches, attracts 400,000 visitors a year, 285,000 disembarking from cruise ships such as ours. Fully one-sixth of the island has been set aside in parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Coffee time on the veranda

We awoke at 6 a.m., with still no land in sight. About half an hour later, a knock on the door; it was Tondi (our butler), smiling as always, with his wake-up goodies (croissants, butter, jellies, Danish rolls, orange juice, and steaming hot coffee), who, after spreading a spotless white tablecloth on our veranda table and napkining us, left us reveling in luxury and the sound of the waves breaking against the ship. Now this was really living! Afterwards, we trekked to the rear of the ship for our real breakfast. 🙂

Shortly after we returned to our room, Grenada began to loom ever larger out of the mists. And later yet, we saw ahead of us the picturesque capital city of St. George, one of the loveliest port cities of the Caribbean.

As we came into port, slowly nosing into position next to the just arrived Princess Cruise Line’s Emerald of the Sea, I was jolted by an epiphany: Only feet away, in matching cubby holes, were men and women, a number still in bathrobes. They were watching us as intently as we were watching them—out of these few seconds came this unsolicited epiphany: In each matching cubicle across from us are others just like us. Each, like us, with kindred dreams, yearnings, hopes, aspirations. Like us, they’ve come here hoping to learn, to grow, to make the most of whatever life is left to them. Each of them is perhaps wondering the same thoughts about us!

As a result of those sudden insights, people I’d never even met before suddenly seemed like friends I’d like to know.

Chenille plant

Then, at 8:12, a voice over the intercom: “Time to disembark!” Today, Bob and Ed were taking the Estange Rain Forest tour with me, and Lucy and Jo taking the Spice tour with Connie. And speaking of spice, for good reason, Grenada is known around the world as “The Spice Island,” growing one-third of the world’s nutmeg and mace (second only to Indonesia); also growing cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and cacao (chocolate). A blind person would have known where we were by the fragrance: Daisann McLane was writing about just such a place as this. For the rest of our lives, the smell of nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon would transport us back to Grenada.

Netfishing

Since it was raining, we raced for our bus (#100/600); our genial guide’s name was Roger. Grenada receives 60 inches of rain a year, but the rainforest where we were headed, much more—up to 200 inches! First we experienced city streets, followed by narrow scenic roads along the coast. Then up, up, up, into the mountainous rainforest. We stopped at a spice plantation. Fascinating! Roger educated us in spice lore (specifically spices, cacao, cinnamon, bay-leaf, nutmeg, etc). How cinnamon is merely a stick off a tree, with a strong fragrance. Cloves – always reminds me of unfond memories in dental offices. Pain too—especially during my growing-up years. Observing other groups led by noncommunicative guides, we felt blessed. Farther on, Roger would stop periodically so we could see the kind of tree each spice grew on. We were now up to around two thousand feet; here and there we passed rivers, creeks, and waterfalls.

Nutmeg drying

Headdress on woman outside rainforest museum

Listening to Roger, I was struck again by how pathetically eager he (like our guides in sister islands) was that we come away from this all-too-short visit to the island with a deep appreciation of its uniqueness, its beauty, its friendly people—most important of all: That we’d come back! Oh there’s so much insecurity in our world—reminding me of Thoreau’s timeless observation that, around the world, the average person lives a life of “quiet desperation.”

Grenada certainly lives up to its beautiful namesake in Spain.

Then that poignant moment, back on the Constellation, when we joined hundreds of other passengers on the top deck, then watched for the lines to be cast off, the smoke begin to rise from the smokestack, the waving at passengers in Emerald of the Seas (next to leave the harbor), the mournful blast of our horn echoing across the water, and then the slowly receding city—and finally the island itself. No matter how many times I experience such a leaving, it never fails to move me deeply. Especially when I wonder, Lord, how many more such leavings are left to me?

Next week: Netherlands Antilles

ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA

THE ISLAND’S HISTORY

If you are a history buff, Antigua is the one must-see destination in the Leeward and Windward island chains. It is also the largest in the Leewards: Antigua (13 by 9 miles) covers a land-mass of 108 square miles; Barbuda (11 by 6 ½ miles) covers 62 square miles. As a basis of comparison, St. Martin and Sint Maarten together total up to only 37 square miles.

It was discovered by Columbus in 1493, who named it Antigua, after a church in Seville, Spain. But the Arawak Indians first settled here about 2000 years ago, followed by the Caribs around 1200 A.D. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Antigua was all but impregnable because of numerous forts and because it was the headquarters for the British fleet. In fact Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded here from 1784 – ‘87. In those days this region was ranked higher in importance to Great Britain than North America, no small thanks to sugar. Like most Caribbean islands of the time, it was populated by African slaves. Because of sugar, Antigua was deforested, consequently today it is covered mainly with scrub brush.

Today, most of its 65,000 population lives on Antigua, only 1200 in Barbuda (mainly a wildlife sanctuary), 30 miles away. Because of its 365 beaches, thirty plus hotels, deep-water port for cruise ships, and modern airport, it has become one of the Caribbean’s major tourist destinations.

Nelson’s Dockyards (lovingly restored), with its yacht-filled English Harbour, is today the world’s sole remaining Georgian shipyards; it is also the site of one of the world’s top five regattas. Antigua is also one of the best places to spot celebrities such as Eric Clapton, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman, each of whom own or have owned homes here.

Antigua and Barbuda are today an independent nation within the political umbrella of the British Commonwealth.

Falmouth Harbor

View from Shirley Heights - Nelson's Fort

REACTIONS

We were the first cruise ship of the day to dock in St. John’s harbor. On this tour, Bob Earp, and Ed Riffle joined me for a tour of the island. For us, the piece de resistance had to be Shirley Heights, with its fortified hilltop buildings that once housed the officers’ quarters. The views from here are breathtaking! It was high enough so that there was less risk of dying from malaria. Even more than in the Nelson Dockyard below, it was easy here to close your eyes to slits and imagine the continuous coming and going of redcoated officers in their horse-drawn carriages—the center of attention Lord Nelson himself, destined for immortality in the later Napoleonic wars.

Tour guide lecturing on Nelson's Dockyards

It was hard to leave this magical spot and descend to English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyards. A fascinating place to explore. How we wished we’d had more time to take it all in. For being fully restored (unlike Shirley Heights), it makes it seem like just yesterday that it teemed with an average of a thousand men, and in the harbor were great ships of the line, some with their sails being furled and others with seamen racing up the masts to unfurl them so they could put out to sea. By listening to our guide and reading the tablets and placards we discovered that, for the average seaman, it was anything but romantic: life was brutal and short, no small thanks to malarial mosquitos and dissolution through rum, rum stored in leaden-based casks. Not for these semi-slave seamen the life Lord Nelson; Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence (later King William IV), who served here under Nelson, and the privileged officers, were able to live.

Lucy and Jo shopping in St. John

Then it was back to St. John, to purchase post cards, and return to our ship. Always we were conscious of time, for if we were but minutes late, the ship would sail without us—more on that later!

Next is the island of St. Lucia.

ST MARTIN / SINT MAARTEN

After three days at sea, we were more than ready for the palm-fringed hills of St. Martin looming out of the mists. It was humid; not surprising given that the further south from Fort Lauderdale one sails, the closer to the equator—and hence ever more humid it becomes. Each day, as we did our laps on the top deck, we sweat more. Finally I learned my lesson: take my laps early in the morning—then return to the room, remove wet clothes, and shower.

THE ISLAND’S HISTORY

Before long, Phillipsburg came into view. The island bears the distinction of being the world’s smallest land mass to be shared by two countries: The Netherlands and France. Columbus it was who named it, passing by it on Nov. 11, 1493; since that was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, so he named it.

It has had a turbulent history, repeatedly being invaded by one European power after another; in fact, borders changed sixteen times in 150 years! Finally, the Dutch and the French outlasted all others and settled into an uneasy joint tenancy. According to legend, this is how they finally divided up the place:

Concluding that settling the matter with blunderbusses (ponderous muskets much more likely to maim the gunman than the victim) was an awfully messy way to settle border issues, they selected one representative from each side, had them stand back to back, then walk in opposite directions on the coastline until they met face to face on the other side of the island. As it turned out, the Frenchman supposedly walked considerably faster than the Dutchman, consequently the French ended up with the biggest piece of the pie. Some say that the Frenchman quenched his thirst along the way with French wine while the Dutchman imbibed the more potent Dutch gin, contributing no little to his slower gait. Others with more suspicious minds point out that when the 1648 Treaty of Concordia was signed, the French had a more powerful navy. But be that as it may, the two countries have coexisted rather peacefully ever since.

The island itself is known as St. Martin, the northern part is a subprefecture of Guadaloupe (an overseas department of France) and the southern part is the northernmost part of the Netherlands Antilles, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There are no border crossings anywhere in this small island. Officially, there are approximately 27,000 people living on the French side and 32,000 on the Dutch side. But, complicating the situation no little are the 16,000 to 20,000 illegal aliens on the island, many from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In fact, only about 20% of the islanders were born on the island.

We would notice the same fluidity population-wise in other Caribbean islands, yet each “islander” we interacted with while visiting a given island, appeared to take genuine pride in being a local. Of course, tourism, being today by far the largest cash crop, has generated a good share of these migrations. And St. Martin is one of the Eastern Caribbean’s most popular islands, no small thanks to its famous white sand beaches, attractive lodgings, good restaurants, and two distinctly different cultures.

Ever wonder how the legendary governor of the New Amsterdam (later New York) colony, Peter Stuyvesant, got his famous peg-leg? Wonder no longer: in 1644, during one of the invasions of St. Martin, this intrepid Dutchman lost a leg to a cannon ball.

On September 4, 1995, St. Martin took a direct hit from Hurricane Luis, that roared across the island with 130 mph winds, causing a billion dollars damage. Hundreds of boats were shattered, thousands of homes and businesses had their roofs blown off, many simply disintegrating. Needless to say, the tourism-based economy was also in shambles. Ever so gradually, the islanders have rebuilt and most of the hotels have reopened.

REACTIONS

Marigot Harbor on the French end of the island

The Constellation docked in Phillipsburg, and from there I boarded a bus for a tour of the island. It doesn’t take long. Most all the population crowds into Marigot on the French side and Phillipsburg on the Dutch side. While both sides have their unique differences and distinctiveness, I couldn’t help but notice that the Dutch side appeared to be both cleaner and more prosperous than the French side. Certainly shoppers found the south side more rewarding than the other. In fact, it was surprising to discover how few of our shipmates even ventured to the French side.

There was lots of company in the harbor: two Norwegian ships (one the monstrous Epic), two Celebrity ships, a Disney ship, and so on. At any given moment, most of those passengers could be found elbowing their way through the duty-free shops.

On my tour bus—the Riffels took another bus—, we were blessed with a superb tour guide named Dahlia. I have discovered that, more than any other factor, tour guides make or break a given trip. Dahlia more than made the visit to her beloved island worth-while, filling us in on lore, history, stories, etc. Proudly, she pointed out that celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin have homes here.

My seatmate was a sweet college freshman from Buenos Aires. Daniela knew very little English, but fortunately I knew Spanish, so we got along fine. A public relations major, she was being rewarded for her good grades by this cruise; family members ensconced in adjacent seats, obviously relieved that her seatmate spoke Spanish, soon ceased worrying about her. Daniela was the exception age-wise, as it being January, most of our shipmates were considerably older than she—very few children or young couples.

Dahlia urged us all to cone back! Clearly, cruisers are anything but a luxury to islanders, but rather the difference between survival—and not. To most of them, we were all “rich.” And, according to third world standards, we were.

Shopping in Phillipsburg

As to my reactions, both harbor cities were lovely. But tourist destinations, not just in the Caribbean but around the world, all suffer from a blighting same ol’ same ol’ness. First-timers almost invariably cart home a lot of kitschy items they’ll never look at again. Their general quality, sad to say, varying very little from country to country. But, here and there, astute travelers track down items of enduring value that will stand the test of time.

Most valuable of all, surprisingly, are post cards, for without them to provide identification for all the hundreds of photos you take, resulting photo albums will end up structureless and devoid of significance.

Back on the ship, those who truly love traveling can be counted on to climb the stairs to the top deck so they can take in the magic of leaving the port—more often than not around sunset. That first puff of smoke from the smokestack, the casting off of the rope tentacles, the deep mournful blasts from the mighty horn, the interchange of waves between passengers on the leaving ship and those waiting for their turn in line, are always poignant.

As Phillipsburg slowly receded from view, I wondered if we’d ever return. I sighed, because life is so short, and there are so many wonderful places we’ve yet to see!

* * * * *

Next stop is Antigua.