Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Antonio Pigafetta's First Voyage Around the World: A Travelogue

On September 8, 1522, the crew of the Victoria cast anchor in the waters off of Seville, Spain, having just completed the first circumnavigation of the world. On board was Antonio Pigafetta, a young Italian nobleman who had joined the expedition three years before, and served as an assistant to Ferdinand Magellan en route to the Molucca Islands. Magellan was dead. The rest of the fleet was gone: the Santiago shipwrecked, the San Antonio overtaken, the Concepcion burned and the Trinidad abandoned. Of the 237 sailors who departed from Seville, eighteen returned on the Victoria. Pigafetta had managed to survive, along with his journal—notes that detailed the discovery of the western route to the Moluccas. And along the way, new land, new peoples: on the far side of the Pacific, the fleet had stumbled across the Marianas archipelago, and some three hundred leagues further west, the Philippines.

Pigafetta’s journal became the basis for his 1525 travelogue, The First Voyage Around the World. According to scholar Theodore Cachey Jr., the travelogue represented “the literary epitome of its genre” and achieved an international reputation (Cachey, xii-xiii). One of Pigafetta’s patrons, Francesco Chiericati, called the journal “a divine thing” (xl), and Shakespeare himself seems to have been inspired by work: Setebos, a deity invoked in Pigafetta’s text by men of Patagonia, makes an appearance in The Tempest (x-xi).

First Voyage, Cachey points out, is intent on marveling at what it encounters—and therein lies much of its appeal. It is a work that is intent on wonder. On astonishment. In travel writing, one often must recreate the first moment of newness, that fresh sense of awe, on the page for the reader; Pigafetta does it again and again, by reveling in odd and odder bits of detail. We watch Pigafetta wonder at trees in Borneo whose leaves appear to walk around once shed, leaves that "have no blood, but if one touches them they run away. I kept one of them for nine days in a box. When I opened the box, that leaf went round and round it. I believe those leaves live on nothing but air.” (Pigafetta, 76). We marvel, in the Philippines, at sea snails capable of felling whales, by feeding on their hearts once ingested (48). On a stop in Brazil, we see an infinite number of parrots, monkeys that look like lions, and "swine that have their navels on their backs, and large birds with beaks like spoons and no tongues" (10).

And yet, the very newness that can give travel writing so much of its power creates problems of its own. For the travel writer there is, on the one hand, the authority of his or her observational eye, and on the other, the call for humility in confronting the unknown. Pigafetta, encountering a new people, tries to earn his authority through a barrage of detail. He attempts to reconstruct their world for us--what they look like, where they live, what they eat, what they say--he gives us pages and pages of words, from Patagonia, from Cebu, from Tidore. But there is little humility, and one can hardly expect there to be so, not early in sixteenth century, a few decades after the Pope had divided the unchartered world between Spain and Portugal,and certainly not on this expedition, where Magellan and his partners have been promised, in a contract agreement with the Spanish monarchy, the titles of Lieutenants and Governors over the lands they discover, for themselves and their heirs, in perpetuity. And cash sums. And 1/20th of the profits from those lands.

In First Voyage is great gulf between what Pigafetta sees and what Pigafetta knows. I grew up, in the Marianas, hearing about this gulf. It is part of why travel writing can be so fraught for me now. On reaching the Marianas after nearly four months at sea with no new provisions,"The captain-general wished to stop at the large island and get some fresh food, but he was unable to do so because the inhabitants of that island entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on, in such a manner that we could not defend ourselves." (27). The sailors did not understand that this was custom, that for the islanders, property was communal and visitors were expected to share what they had.

So in that first moment of contact, Magellan and his starving crew retaliated. They went ashore and burned, by Pigafetta's account, forty to fifty houses. They killed seven men. Mutual astonishment at the new and the wondrous took a dark turn:

“When we wounded any of those people with our crossbow shafts, which passed completely through their loins from one side to the other, they, looking at it, pulled on the shaft now on this and now on that side, and then drew it out, with great astonishment, and so died; others who were wounded in the breast did the same, which moved us to great compassion. [...] We saw some women in their boats who were crying out and tearing their hair, for love, I believe, of their dead.”(27)

Magellan named the archipelago Islas de los Ladrones, the Islands of Thieves. The name would stick for the next three hundred years, long after the islands were absorbed into the Spanish empire. The name, the bold, condemnatory stroke of it, has long been anchored to my past, to those old history lessons. There is no feeling in it but rage. So I was surprised to see, in Pigafetta's text, the sailors moved to compassion. They seem to understand, in that moment of astonishment, that the islanders are defenseless against the unknown.

From the Marianas, the fleet moved on to the Philippines. They linger there, exploring the land, exchanging gifts with the chiefs, observing the people. And I know what's coming for the people; I know that we're seeing, through Pigafetta, the hush of a world just before it changes, wholly and entirely. And there is Pigafetta, marveling, at the coconuts and the bananas and the naked, beautiful people. It's happening even now in the text, as the Filipino pilots are captured to direct the way to the Moluccas, the way to the spices. There is Pigafetta, roaming and cataloging and recording, caught up in the first flush of a new world, and as I read I can start to hear my father describing his country, wondering at it, my father traveling as a young man up and down Luzon, across the sea to the Visayas, across the sea to Mindanao. I can hear the ardor and the sadness and the terror and the delight. I can hear the wonder. I can feel the pulse to move.

I suppose this is what great travel writing gives us: a way to wholly enter a moment, a feeling, a body. A way to be changed. I can be my father, marveling at his country, our country, transformed by its vast expanse. I can be Pigafetta, on the deck of the Trinidad, moved to write from shock and wonder. And I can be the woman on a boat in the Marianas, crying out of love for the dead.


Pigafetta, Antonio. The First Voyage Around the World, 1519-1522: An Account of Magellan’s Expedition. Ed. Theodore J. Cachey, Jr. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Ed. Rodrigue Levesque. vol. 1: European Discovery, 1521-1560. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.

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