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

May 28, 014



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.



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.


                                                                              BLOG #29, SERIES #3
July 18, 2012

Every year at this time the Tour de France dominates our lives.  Not that we are unique in this respect, for in France over 15,000,000 people line 2,100 miles of roads, mainly in France but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain; and then there are the millions who watch it on television around the world.  Without question it is the greatest bicycle race on earth.

But keeping it so is anything but an easy task given that riders from every bicycle-loving-nation on earth try to make it into the ranks of one of the competing teams.  Together, all these fiercely competing teams make up what they call the peloton.  Each year my wife and I become more fascinated by this strange animal with its core engine of riders and its constant breakaway of riders determined to find fame outside the riders who are content with whatever glory comes to their individual teams.

Because so much is riding on winning something—be it being first to crest a hill, first to race across a finish line during a day’s stage (if not first, at least second or third), and most desirable of all: first to cross the line in Paris as the winner of the Yellow Jersey (or second or third)—there is almost unbelievable pressure on race officials to keep a lid on things, on the testosterone-driven 180-some riders who each harbors an agenda.

And then there are the inevitable crashes.  In this year’s Tour, far more than normal.  When the peloton is in motion with all those cyclists weaving in and out, moving forward and dropping back, all in the confines of narrow roads, crashes occur without a moment’s notice.  When they do, given their speed (20 to almost 60 mph), and paved road surface, the injuries are often bloody and serious, resulting in continual reductions of riders in the peloton.

With the peloton is a host of race officials, team leaders, media personnel (complete with helicopters overhead), and general support personnel, all further clogging up roads bordered by spectators.  It is a veritable zoo.

Each year’s peloton is a world unto itself, a miniature republic.  The ruler of that peloton is forced to prove his right to wear the coveted Yellow Jersey.  The winners early on are a different breed from the kings of the sport who lie low until the mountains.  Thus the winners of the relatively flat stages know that their reigns are likely to be brief.  The entire peloton knows this thus the early day-to-day winners have little power over their unruly cyclists.  But cyclists feverishly compete for momentary glory anyway, even knowing how ephemeral it is likely to be.

Always in the back of their minds are the dreaded time trials.  Dreaded because in them there is no longer any possibility that they can hide their true abilities from the peloton or the world, for each rider’s race time is individual.  At every stage of the time trials, speed so far will be measured against all the other finishers.  Almost inevitably, the leading time trialists will also excel in the mountains and fight it out for the podium in Paris.

And then there loom the mountains, with their serpentine roads and grades up to 20% on which the true separation between the titans and the lesser-mortals is graphically made evident.  But no matter how powerful a cyclist may be, unless he has an equally powerful team supporting him, his winning chances are nil.  Here it is that the smoothly operating phalanxes of superb and tireless mountain men come into their own, each man giving his physical all at leading out at the head of the peleton, with the others getting to coast behind in his slipstream.  Inevitably, however, the time will come when the future king of the race is forced to leave the slipstream and race for the top with the other would-be-kings.  These moments literally define each year’s Tour, and can be tremendously exciting to watch.

Now it is that the entire focus of the Tour is on these gladiators: who is it that has the greatness and staying power to dominate the mountains and rule over the rest of the race?  Sometimes the outcome remains in doubt until the very last day.  But then, be the margin between the leader and the closest competitor ten minutes or ten seconds, during the triumphal ride to Paris it is an unspoken rule that it would be unsportsmanlike to challenge the Yellow Jersey for supremacy in Paris.  Yet, even then a crash or accident of some sort could dethrone the ruler as could his failure to keep up with the peloton.

* * *

Next week, after the last week of this year’s tour, we’ll discuss more in depth the issue of what it takes to maintain a level playing field for all, as well as what real power may reside in those who wear the yellow jersey during the last half of each year’s Tour.

A Trembling World, Part Two

 Part Two


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.


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.


We’ve just returned from our third cruise to America’s last frontier.  Each time we go there, the realization that we’ve but touched the fringes of it sinks deeper.

For it is so vast that travel writers exhaust superlatives in vain attempts to describe it.  After all, it encompasses 580,000 square miles (as large as England, Italy, Spain, and France combined).  It has more shoreline than all the rest of our states combined.  It is blessed with 150,000,000 acres of national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and other designated preserves; 38 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, and 3,000,000 lakes. Of its 15 national parks, only 5 can be accessed by road.  Much of it is barely charted, let alone touched by the human foot.  Indeed, of the 670,000 people who live there (about the number who live in Fort Worth, Texas), almost half of them live in only one city, Anchorage.

And it changes dramatically with the seasons.  That reality became evident during this our first spring visit to Alaska. Especially was it evident in towns such as Juneau and Skagway, that we’d experienced previously only during summer or fall; during those seasons, they seemed to be rather typical semi-frontier coastal towns, but now, in the spring, against the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, it felt like we’d suddenly been transported into the Swiss Alps!  It was a magical experience.

But why so few people?  Part of the answer to that question came to me in my research for “A Thousand Miles to Nome” (the fascinating epic story of the Great Serum Run of 1925, when dog-teams alone represented the difference between life and death in that northwesternmost Alaskan town, in the midst of a deadly diphtheria epidemic).  It was in the dead of winter, and ice had cut off all access to the town by sea until May—only by dog-sled teams could the life-saving serum make it through in time.  Of the ten lectures I gave to the SAGE group on board Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, this was the only lecture open to the entire ship.  In that lecture, I noted that, during winter months, added to the bitter cold and frequent blizzards, it was dark 20 out of every 24 hours—only the hardiest and bravest could stand it.  Offsetting this, of course, in the summer 20 hours of light each day made it difficult to sleep.

Not surprisingly, given our fascination with Alaska, our seventh story anthology of The Good Lord Made Them All series will feature Animals of the North.  It will most likely be released by Pacific Press in January of 2011.