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

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Rafael Sabatini’s “Scaramouche”

BLOG #9, SERIES 5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #27
RAFAEL SABATINI’S SCARAMOUCHE
February 26, 2014

As mentioned in our January 29 blog, our daughter Michelle suggested we pose one question to our Book Club members each month. By responding (on Facebook), we could thereby get more discussions in motion.

So here is Question #2: As you have journaled your book-related thoughts, what kind of mental dialogue with yourself has resulted? In other words, what do you find is most helpful in enabling you get to the essence of a given book?

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Few historical novels are more beloved than this one. Certainly, it has long fascinated me. In fact, I have now read it around six times down through the years. And that’s unusual for I rarely read a given book more than once.

One reason for my returning to the book again and again has to do with my intense interest in the time period in which Sabatini sets the action: the French Revolution. That disruptive out-of-control time period that separates Louis XVI from the Napoleonic Empire. That French revolution breaking out a scant thirteen years after our American revolution.

Like most historical fiction readers, I’m not much interested in historical novels that are not true to their time period. I guess, in a way, I too like to have my general history reading sugar-coated by excitement and romance based on the author’s prior historical research of the time period.

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Scaramouche has been filmed twice: first in 1923, and second (and more significantly) in 1952. Directed by George Sidney, and screenplay by Ronald Millar and George Froeschel. Star-studded cast includes Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh, Mel Ferrer, Henry Wilcoxon, Lewis Stone, Nina Foch, Richard Anderson, and Robert Coote. The highlight is the climactic sword duel–longest in cinematic swashbuckling history.

The book begins with a famous line: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

It takes a little while to get through the scene that triggers the rest of the almost unputdownable plot. But there’s far more to the book than mere action, intrigue, and romance: At the heart of it is this great truth: To know all is to forgive all.

It is not a book to read and forget: rather it is a book that keeps on giving as long as you live.

Rafael Sabatini’s life (1875-1950) was almost as eventful as his action-packed novels. He was born in the then small town of Jesi, Italy, near the seaport of Ancona. Apparently, he was illegitimate [not even a factor today in American when almost half of all children are born out of wedlock]. You will note in Scaramouche that the stain of his own birth gave Sabatini the incentive to dig deep into the issue in his fiction. Sabatini’s parents were well-known opera singers who traveled the world. His mother was English.

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Sabatini grew up in England and Portugal, exposed to many languages. Early on, he fell in love with the borderland between England and Wales. In Porto, Portugal, Rafael attended a Catholic school. A few years later, the Sabatinis returned to Italy, this time to Milan. The son was then sent to a school in Switzerland. Here he added French and German to his linguistic arsenal. He spent most of his teenage years here.

When he was seventeen, his father sent him to Liverpool, England to immerse himself in the business world. But he soon turned to writing romances instead. By 1899, he was selling his short fiction to national magazines such as Pearson’s Magazine, London Magazine, and Royal Magazine. But once he devoted himself to full-time writing, he generally produced a book a year.

During World War I, he became a British citizen. In 1921, it was Scaramouche that catapulted him to world-wide fame; in fact, the book became an international best-seller. In 1922, Captain Blood sold even more copies.

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His novels were set all over Europe, and in the New World as well. If you are anything like me, you will have developed such an addiction to his historical fiction by the time you finish Scaramouche, you will set about tracking down the rest of them for your library. Here they are:

  •  The Tavern Knight, 1904
  •   Bardelys the Magnificent, 1906
  •   The Trampling of the Lilies, 1906
  •   Love-at-Arms, 1907
  •   The Shame of Motley, 1908
  •   Saint Martin’s Summer, 1909
  •   Anthony Wilding, 1910
  •   The Lion’s Skin, 1911
  •   The Life of Cesare Borgia, 1912 (history)
  •   The Justice of the Duke, 1912
  •   The Strolling Saint, 1913
  •   Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, 1913 (history)
  •   The Gates of Doom, 1914
  •   The Sea-Hawk, 1915
  •   The Banner of the Bull, 1915
  •   The Snare, 1917
  •   The Historical Nights’ Entertainment: First Series, 1918-1938
  •   The Historical Nights’ Entertainment: Second Series, 1919
  •   Scaramouche, 1921
  •   Captain Blood, 1922
  •   Fortune’s Fool, 1923
  •   The Carolinian, 1925
  •   Bellarion, 1926
  •   The Nuptials of Corbal, 1927
  •   The Hounds of God, 1928
  •   The Romantic Prince, 1929
  •   The Minion, 1930
  •   The Chronicles of Captain Blood, 1931 (or Captain Blood Returns)
  •   Scaramouche the Kingmaker, 1931
  •   The Black Swan, 1933
  •   The Stalking Horse, 1933
  •   Captain Blood, 1936 (or The Fortunes of Captain Blood)
  •   The Lost King, 1937
  •   The Sword of Islam, 1938
  •   Master-At-Arms, 1940
  •   Columbus, 1942

If possible, secure a Houghton Mifflin hardback with dust-jacket. However, Bantam sold untold thousands in paperback form.

A Trembling World, Part Two

 A TREMBLING WORLD
 Part Two

 WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In earlier blogs, I have referred to my own fascination with the turning of zeroes, how every fin de siecle results in a fruit basket-upset of all the values by which society lives.

Well, the last eleven years have proved that my assumption remains valid.  Almost nothing is the same as it was back in the 1990’s.

For one thing, never before has our planet been more interconnected, with national borders meaning less than today.  The world wide web has nailed the lid on that old order.  Thanks to this web, dictatorships are falling like so many dominoes in the Middle East.  But what takes their place is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the supreme question is this: Is democracy possible in the Muslim World?  Or does the theocratic nature of Islam preclude the establishment of a true democracy.  As I write these words, thoughtful Egyptians are extremely apprehensive about what may follow Mubarak.  No one knows if Tunisia is capable of establishing a free society.  The same is true of Libya.  Turkey has been tilting backwards from a secular free society towards theocratic governance.

What we do know is that all across the Middle East there is a yearning for the freedoms we westerners take for granted.

STAGGERING TOWARDS A NEW TEMPLATE

What is coming at us, no one knows.  All we know is that there are ominously deep cracks in the old one.  According to famed economist, Kenneth Rogoff, “Europe and the U.S. are not experiencing a typical recession or even a double-dip Great Recession. That problem can ultimately be corrected with the right mix of conventional policy tools like quantitative easing and massive bailouts.  Rather, the West is going through something much more profound: a second Great Contraction of growth, the first being the period after the Great Depression.  It is a slow-or no-growth waltz that plays out not over months but over many years. [Quoted by Rana Foroohar, in “The Decline and Fall of Europe (and maybe the West),” Time, August 22, 2011].

In the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, what is desperately needed is not politicians but statesmen: men and women who put the good of their country over mere re-election.  In times like these, weakness at the top will inevitably prove fatal.  Not a temporizing Chamberlain but a Washington, a Lincoln, a TR or FDR—a Winston Churchill.  This is why so many current “leaders” are going to be “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” (See William Broyles “Oval Office Appeaser” (Newsweek, Aug. 22, 29, 2011).

Foroohar is anything but optimistic in her analysis: “The euro is the only viable alternative to the dollar as a global reserve currency.  The British pound is history, and emerging-market currencies are still too small, volatile and controlled.  And while plenty of investors are fleeing into gold, the world gold market isn’t big enough to accommodate serious dollar diversification without massive inflation in gold itself. . . .  It is unclear at this stage whether the euro will even survive the debt crisis that has engulfed Europe, one that is in many ways worse than the one we’re experiencing in the U.S.”

So, will Germany be the white horse that rides to Europe’s rescue” Foroohar is doubtful: “Even in good times, it is never easy to balance the fiscal needs of a high-cost exporter like Germany with those of cheap and cheerful service economies like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.  In bad times, it’s impossible.”

What about the U.S., are we likely to be the white horse again like we were after World Wars I and II?  Foroohar’s assessment of that likelihood is bleak: “both Europe and the U.S. will continue to struggle with the crisis of the old order.  Populations will have to come to terms with no longer being able to afford the public services they want.  Investors will have to cope with a world in which AAA assets aren’t what they used to be.  Businesses will deal with stagnating demand, and workers will face flat wages and high unemployment. . . .  It’s the end of an era in which the West and western ideas of how to create prosperity succeeded.  The crisis in Europe and the challenges yet to come on either side of the Atlantic take us into a whole new era.”

So, with Japan still reeling in the East, does that leave China as the answer?  Not likely.  China’s current growth rate of 8% will inevitably stall, and ominously its people are pouring billions into a housing bubble that may be even worse than those experienced by Japan and the U.S. (See Niall Ferguson’s “Gloating China, Hidden Problems,” Newsweek, August 22, 29, 2011).

So what are our options?

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss some of them.

BARBADOS

ITS HISTORY

Barbados, the easternmost island of the Caribbean, was first discovered by the Portugese explorer, Pedro a Campos en route to Brazil in 1536. He named it Los Barbados because of the island fig trees with their long hanging aerial roots. The island, however, remained uninhabited until 1625, when Captain John Powell landed here and claimed it for England. As was true in most other Caribbean islands, slaves were brought here from Africa to tend the sugar plantations, hence the predominant African population today.

Dubbed “Little England,” it lives up to its name by being the most English of all the Caribbean islands. The islanders remained loyal subjects of the British crown for almost 350 years, then since declaring independence, have remained British because of their Commonwealth status. It is British in so many ways: (1) they drive on the left-hand side of the road; (2) their national sport (make that obsession) is cricket; (3) not far behind being polo and soccer; (4) they love, cultivate, and cherish traditional English gardens; (5) Saturday horse races are part of the culture; (6) most Barbadans are Anglicans; and (7) they still celebrate the monarchy.

The island’s land mass is 166 square miles (21 by 14), and has a population of 285,000. Unlike most Caribbean islands, it is largely of coral formation rather than volcanic. Much of it is relatively flat; its highest point is 1161′ Mt. Hillaby. It is blessed with many lovely beaches: calm turquoise seas on the Caribbean side, wild Atlantic breakers on the east side. Since most of the forests were cut down in order to plant sugar cane, not much is left; even so, Barbadans have created a wildlife reserve to safeguard the species they have left (including over 8000 green vervet monkeys.

As was true with St. Lucia, Barbadans have created over the last four centuries a vibrant and rich culture. In sports, their cricket heroes are known around the world: especially the Three W’s: Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell, and Everton Weeks (all three knighted by the Queen), and Garfield “Gary” Sobers, generally considered to be the greatest cricket player of all time. One of the Eastern Caribbean’s leading poets is Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite, and their foremost novelist is George Lamming.

Through astute planning, and investing, Barbadans have made Grantley Adams Airport the main eastern Caribbean hub for flights from North America and Europe. Cruise ships disgorge over 500,000 tourists a year.

Here’s a trivia item for you: Did George Washington ever leave the North American continent? Yes, but only once. In 1751, then only 19, he accompanied his half brother Lawrence on a voyage to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, came here, and rented lodging, seeking a climate conducive to curing his ailment. George, on the other hand, during the six weeks the brothers spent here, contracted the dreaded disease smallpox, which left his face permanently scarred. As for Lawrence, he was dead within a year—as a result George inherited the Mt. Vernon estate.

Concorde

REACTIONS

It was pouring rain when we disembarked from our ship in Bridgetown. Ed and I were drenched in our mad dash to get to the safety of our bus. Jason, our guide, was most informative. We learned that Trafalgar Square, erected in honor of the greatest naval hero of the age, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, had sailed out of Barbados in 1805, only months before dying in the great battle of Trafalgar, which ended Napoleon’s hopes of dominating the seas. We also learned that Barbados was one of only four permanent airport destinations for the near mythical supersonic passenger jets, the Concordes. Not only that, but one of the few intact Concordes ended up here in a large building constructed around it. Of course I had known of the Concorde’s flying at twice the speed of sound, but never could imagine coming up with the price of a ticket to fly in one. Only princes, potentates, and wealthy people had that kind of money.

Joe inside the Concorde

When we walked into the building, I was overwhelmed by the reality of its size and configuration. It looked otherworldly and forbidding. In a sound and light show we learned that it was supposed to usher in a new age of ever faster flight: getting to places before you left them (time-wise, that is). But few airports could handle them and their thirst for gasoline was the stuff of legend. And they could only accommodate 80 people a flight. After the show we were permitted to ascend the steep flight of stairs into the plane. Never in my life had I seen a plane standing so high off the ground. At rest, the long nose dropped like a mosquito’s proboscis; in flight, it straightened out. Inside, it felt like we were in a rocket instead of a plane—very little headroom, and dark. Thanks to the sound and light effects, we really felt like we were flying in it. The blue-lighted cockpit seemed the stuff of sci-fi or dreams. They even gave us a facsimile ticket just as though we’d paid full price. Tiny windows, because of the extra pressure exerted by mach 2 speed. Though the Concorde never became cost-effective, before the last flight took place, it had changed aviation forever.

Concorde's blue cockpitEd in the aisle of the Concorde

Anything after that was anticlimactic, but we did enjoy our tour through the rest of the island. Our guide also told us that Barbados is the place where rum (distilled from sugar cane and molasses) was first concocted in the 1600s. From here, rum spread around the world; but even today, the island is one of the world’s leading processors of it.

Then it was back to Bridgetown, shopping, and reboarding our ship.

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Next week, it’s on to Grenada.