Ferdinand Magellan, the man who is famous for being the first to circumnavigate the Earth, actually never achieved the feat. His ships and some of his crew did, but Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines in 1521. Many of those early intrepid circumnavigators never returned. If, in the 16th or 17th century, you boarded a vessel that was going to sail around the world, the chances of returning alive were pretty slim.
Joyce Chaplin, a Harvard professor who is the author of an insightful book about Benjamin Franklin, has now tackled a much broader subject. Round About the Earth is a survey of 500 years of circumnavigation up until the space race. She divides her story into three parts: ‘Fear’, ‘Confidence’ and ‘Doubt’. The first covers those swashbuckling and audacious (as well as land and wealth grabbing) adventurers such as Magellan and Francis Drake. It’s a world of danger, conquest and death, a world of ships sailing into the great unknown but also of emerging empires that ruthlessly subjugated other people. It’s an era of fear, because so many men died. According to Chaplin this ends when scurvy, the main killer, is defeated – not by James Cook, as is most commonly assumed, but by John Byron, the ‘first tender-hearted leader’ who, in the 1760s, made sure that his men changed into dry clothes, wore cork life jackets and ate well.