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Saturday, July 11, 2009


Just re-read Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen, a retelling of Antonio Pigafetta's chronicles on the first circumnavigation of the globe. Pigafetta was the official chronicler and supernumerary on Magellan's expedition and was one of 18 remaining survivors out of more than 200 from that expedition. The book is culled primarily from Pigafetta's diaries and official accounts, but the author, Bergreen pieces these together like a top-rate thriller. The book has the pace and suspense of a Crichton masterpiece. Here's an excerpt, Pigafetta's first encounter with the local king:

"He made a regal spectacle, 'very grandly decked out.' and 'the finest looking man that we saw among those people.' His hair 'exceedingly black,' hung to his shoulders, and he wore two large golden earrings. 'He wore a cotton cloth all embroidered with silk, which covered him from the waist to the knees. At his right side hung a dagger, the haft of which was somewhat long and all of gold, and its scabbard of carved wood. He had three spots of gold on every tooth, and his teeth appeared as if bound with gold.' Tattoos covered every inch of his glistening, perfumed body. The women, Pigafetta noticed, 'are clad in tree cloth from their waist down, and their hair is black and reaches to the ground. They have holes pierced in their ears which are filled with gold.' Gold was everywhere, in jewelry, goblets, and dishes; it was evident throughout the king's dwelling. The precious metal, Pigafetta learned, was readily mined on the islands in 'pieces as large as walnuts and eggs.'

(after some days after their first encounter with the locals) ...'The Captain General, seeing that the native cared for nothing but a knife, called him to look at other things. He put his hand in his purse and wished to give him one real.' The native refused the valuable coin. 'The Captain General showed him a ducado, but he would not accept that either.' Magellan kept offering coins of increasing value, but met with same reactions; the native 'would take nothing but a knife.' Finally, Magellan relented and gave it to him. Later, when a crew member went ashore to fetch water, he was offered a large crown made of gold in exchange for 'six strings of glass beads,' but Magellan blocked the trade, 'so that the natives should learn that at the very beginning that we prized our merchandise more than their gold.' The gold was far more valuable than the glass beads, but Magellan did not want the islanders to know how precious the Europeans considered gold. He instructed his men to treat it as just another metal. The ruse worked, and the armada, trading iron for gold, pound for pound, acquired vast riches. The gold they had acquired so easily would be worth a fortune in Spain, but the spices Magellan expected to find were even more valuable than the gold."


Pigafetta was wrong in thinking that those locals mined their own gold. I believe they were traded with the Chinese, (the Chinese engaged in mining in their homeland) as was expounded in the previous chapters. For if indeed the locals had mined for gold, they would've learned to process other less valuable metals as well, including iron and therefore would've been able to make their own metal weapons and not greedily trade some with Magellan and his crew.

Now Laurence Bergreen does not pass judgement on Magellan and his motives for the expedition. Neither does he chide Spain and the Catholic Empire then for their greed. He instead dwells on the sheer remarkableness of the feat. The very act of it changing the course of history and mankind in the centuries to come.

I can't help but reflect now: In the 1500s it was all about gold and spices. In the last century up to today it is all about oil.

Tomorrow -- water?

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