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Antonio Pigafetta's First Voyage Around the World: A

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,

First Voyage Around the World by

Antonio Pigafetta

Anna Ettore


Antonio Pigafetta was a key player of one of the most amazing world
exploration trips.He was born in Vicenza in 1492, and he was an Italian
seafarer and geographer.

The relevance of his own venture, fundamentally lies in the fact that he
took part to the first globe circumnavigation, between 1519 and 1522, and
he was able to accomplish it after the murder of Ferdinand Magellan,
leaving a detailed description of the journey in the Report of the first trip
around the world, a lost manuscript that was rescued later, in 1797, and
today is considered one of the most important documentary evidence
relating the geographical discoveries of the Sixteenth Century.

Antonio Pigafetta, fascinating and fleeing personality, for scholars he still

represents a partial mystery. About him too little is known to define a
satisfactory profile on the biographical side. Documents and the testimony
of contemporaneous are scarces, and his own character primarily appears
from what he wrote in his own report.

His own narration about the first world circumnavigation was one of the
greatest achievements in the history of navy exploration and discovery.
In this narration can be found descriptions of peoples, countries, goods and
even the languages that were spoken, of which the seafarer was trying to
assemble some brief glossaries.

Pigafetta tells how, being in Barcelona in 1519, he heard about Magellan’s

expedition, and being wishful to learn about the world, he asked for and
obtained the permission to join in the voyage.

Magellan’s fleet weighed anchor from Seville on August 10th of the same
year with five smaller vessels, heading towards Canary Islands and down
along the African coast, and across the Equator. From there they sailed
towards Brazil coast , where they stayed for some time, making supplies
and weaving friendly contacts with the cannibalistic natives who dwelled

Moving on, then they arrived in Patagonia, where they spent winter months
in a desolate solitude. They met local people, who looked like giants in their
eyes full of wonder, because of their robust body types.
They survived the mutiny of one of the captains and some disgruntled
sailors, and continued the exploration of the coast. One of the vessels was
drowned, but the whole crew managed to be saved.

They proceeded until the discovery of the strait, named after, Magellan
himself, on October 21st 1520, and went through, although one of the ships
deserted, sailing back to Spain.
Finally, they arrived in the Philippines, where they became acquainted with
the natives who proved hospitable and welcomed them as guests in the
king’s palace. The indigenous people, affected by the celebration of Mass
and the crucifix planted in the island, promised to convert to Christianity.

Quickly they developed commerce and trade, and the king, the queen and
other notables of Cebu were converted, until the entire population rapidly
followed them in the new religion.
Shortly after, happened the disastrous episode that changed the course of
the expedition. Magellan took part in a conflict between some local tribes
and was killed. The rest of the expedition managed to escape and retired,
preparing to leave, but a trap set by Magellan’s interpreter and the king of
Cebu, led to another massacre of the Europeans.

The surviving ships continued toward Borneo and to the city of Brunei,
where they managed to stock up, then from there, traveling southbound,
they came to the Moluccas, 27 months after the departure from Spain,
finding a warm welcome by an astrologer king who had predicted their
But at this point, despite the perspective of good business and the rich
exchanges that would lie ahead, their desire to return to Spain urged them
and pushed them to a quick return.

Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Davide Spagnoli)

First Voyage Around the World

by Antonio Pigafetta
That land of Verzin is wealthier and larger than Spagnia, Fransa, and Italia,
put together, and belongs to the king of Portugalo. The people of that land
are not Christians, and have no manner of worship.
They live according to the dictates of nature, and reach an age of one
hundred and twenty-five and one hundred and forty years. They go naked,
both men and women. They live in certain long houses which they call boii
and sleep in cotton hammocks called amache, which are fastened in those
houses by each end to large beams. A fire is
built on the ground under those hammocks. In each one of those boii, there
are one hundred men with their wives and children, and they make a great
racket. They have boats called canoes made of one single huge tree,
hollowed out by the use of stone hatchets. Those people employ stones as
we do iron, as they have no iron. Thirty or forty men occupy one of those
boats. They paddle with blades like the shovels of a furnace, and thus,
black, naked, and shaven, they resemble, when paddling, the inhabitants of
the Stygian marsh. Men and women are as well proportioned as we. They
eat the human flesh of their enemies, not because it is good, but because it
is a certain established custom.
That custom, which is mutual, was begun by an old woman, who had but
one son who was killed by his enemies. In return some days later, that old
woman’s friends captured one of the company who had killed her son, and
brought him to the place of her abode. She seeing him, and remembering
her son, ran upon him like an infuriated bitch, and bit him on one shoulder.
Shortly afterward he escaped to his own people, whom he told that they
had tried to eat him, showing them [in proof] the marks on his shoulder.
Whomever the latter captured afterward at any time from the former they
ate, and the former did the same to the latter, so that such a custom has
sprung up in this way. They do not eat the bodies all at once, but every one
cuts off a piece, and carries it to his house, where he smokes it. Then every
week, he cuts off a small bit, which he eats thus smoked with his other food
to remind him of his enemies. The above was told me by the pilot, Johane
Carnagio, who came with us, and who had lived in that land for four years.
Those people paint the whole body and the face in a wonderful manner with
fire in various fashions, as do the women also.
The men are [are: doublet in original manuscript] smooth shaven and have
no beard, for they pull it out. They clothe themselves in a dress made of
parrot feathers, with large round arrangements at their buttocks made from
the largest feathers, and it is a ridiculous sight.
Almost all the people, except the women and children, have three holes
pierced in the lower lip, where they carry round stones, one finger or
thereabouts in length and hanging down outside. Those people are not
entirely black, but of a dark brown color. They keep the privies uncovered,
and the body is without hair, while both men and women always go naked.
Their king is called cacich [i.e., cacique].
They have an infinite number of parrots, and gave us 8 or 10 for one
mirror: and little monkeys that look like lions, only [they are] yellow, and
very beautiful. They make round white [loaves of] bread from the marrowy
substance of trees, which is not very good, and is found between the wood
and the bark and resembles buttermilk curds.
They have swine which have their navels [lombelico] on their backs, and
large birds with beaks like spoons and no tongues.
The men gave us one or two of their young daughters as slaves for one
hatchet or one large knife, but they would not give us their wives in
exchange for anything at all. The women will not shame their husbands
under any considerations whatever, and as was told us, refuse to consent to
their husbands by day, but only by night. The women cultivate the fields,
and carry all their food from the mountains in panniers or baskets on the
head or fastened to the head. But they are always accompanied by their
husbands, who are armed only with a bow of brazil-wood or of black palm-
wood, and a bundle of cane arrows,
doing this because they are jealous [of their wives]. The women carry their
children hanging in a cotton net from their necks. I omit other particulars,
in order not to be tedious. Mass was said twice on shore, during which
those people remained on their knees with so great contrition and with
clasped hands raised aloft, that it was an exceeding great pleasure to
behold them. They built us a house as they thought that we were going to
stay with them for some time, and at our departure they cut a great
quantity of brazil-wood [verzin] to give us. It had been about two months
since it had rained in that land, and when we reached that port, it happened
to rain, whereupon they said that we came from the sky and that we had
brought the rain with us.
Those people could be converted easily to the faith of Jesus Christ.

At first those people thought that the small boats were the children of the
ships, and that the latter gave birth to them when they were lowered into
the sea from the ships, and when they were lying so alongside the ships (as
is the custom), they believed that the ships were nursing them. One day a
beautiful young woman came to the flagship, where I was, for no other
purpose than to seek what chance might offer. While there and waiting, she
cast her eyes upon the master’s room, and saw a nail longer than one’s
finger. Picking it
up very delightedly and neatly, she thrust it through the lips of her vagina
[natura], and bending down low immediately departed, the captain-general
and I having seen that action.

Translation by James Alexander Robertson (Blaire & Robertson, 1906)

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