Magellan’s Voyage

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The Nancy-Libri-Phillipps-Beinecke-Yale manuscript of Pigafetta’s narrative is being published at this time by the Yale University Press, under the title Magellan’s Voyage , in two volumes at $75 the boxed set. One volume is a facsimile of the manuscript, with initial illuminations and maps in full color. The other consists of a fully annotated English translation by R. A. Skelton, former Keeper of Maps in the British Museum, and an introduction, also by Mr. Skelton, from which the above excerpt is taken. —The Editors

The first circumnavigation of the globe by a sailing ship was an event much more astonishing to the minds of men in 1522 than, to the modern mind, the first orbiting of the earth by a man-made satellite in 1957. But when the Portuguese captain Ferdinand Magellan sailed with his Spanish fleet of five small ships—the Santo Antonio , the Trinidad , the Concepción , the Victoria , and the Santiago —from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in September, 1519, he had not conceived a voyage round the world. By a westward navigation he expected to reach the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, which the Portuguese had attained from the Indian Ocean while he was still in their service. Not for the first or last time in the history of discovery, it was the discrepancy between what the venturer expected and what he found that greatly enriched human experience and knowledge.

To the world map Magellan added the Pacific Ocean, which occupies one third of the earth’s surface, with an area exceeding that of all the land areas of the globe. Although the westward passage that he pioneered through the strait named for him was not to become a regular trade route, he discovered the wind systems that controlled navigation in the South Pacific. The reports on the island peoples of the ocean and its archipelagos carried home by the survivors of the expedition opened to the eyes of Europeans a window on a new and strange cultural world. The Portuguese monopoly of information on the eastern seas and on operations there was broken, and a new factor in the geopolitical rivalry of Spain and Portugal emerged.

Considered in the light of its influence on the course of history, the most precious cargo brought back in the Victoria —the only ship of Magellan’s little fleet to complete the circumnavigation and return home—was not the load of cloves in her hold but the information carried in the memories or notebooks of the eighteen European survivors. The longest and most valuable narrative of the voyage was written not by a professional seaman but by a young Italian, Antonio Pigafetta, who joined the expedition as a volunteer in the flagship Trinidad when she sailed and was aboard the Victoria when she berthed in 1522. To his task of recording he brought a capacity for keen observation, sympathetic interpretation, and expressive communication of experience that enabled him to produce one of the most remarkable documents in the history of discovery.

Pigafetta was a scion of a noble family of Vicenza who claimed Venetian citizenship. As a member of the military order of Saint John of Jerusalem, commonly called the Knights of Rhodes, who owed allegiance only to the Pope, Pigafetta was liable to diplomatic or similar duties in the papal service. It may have been thus that at the end of 1518 he accompanied Leo X’s ambassador to the young King Charles V of Spain. There he heard much talk of the Magellan enterprise and (as he says), prompted by a craving for experience and glory, volunteered for the voyage.

His duties on board ship doubtless left him leisure for writing a daily journal and gathering information ashore on the lands and islands visited by the expedition, where his success in dealing with indigenous peoples made him useful to the commanders in ceremonial visits, negotiation, or trade relations. Sometimes he used signs or (we must suppose) direct if halting conversation. For much of the voyage he had as interpreter Magellan’s Sumatran slave, Enrique (“Henrich”) of Malacca, who was to play a dark role in determining the fate of the expedition. And finally, he picked up some of the native dialects as he went along. His lively interest in people, supported by his linguistic aptitude, enabled him to absorb like a sponge an altogether remarkable quantity of information.

Pigafetta probably completed his “Relation,” in the form transmitted by the surviving manuscripts, by April, 1524. Of the four extant manuscripts, one is in Italian and the other three in French. The Italian manuscript is in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan. Two of the French manuscripts are in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the third, known as the Nancy-Libri-Phillipps-Beinecke-Yale codex, was purchased by Mr. Edwin J. Beinecke and presented to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, in 1964. It is this manuscript that is excerpted here. It is the most complete of the three French manuscripts and the best organized and most beautiful of all four.