Ferdinand Magellan, Pirate Merchant
The account of a circumnavigator
Pigafetta, Antonio. The First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522): An Account of Magellan's Expedition. University of Toronto Press, 2019.
Born to a noble family in Vicenza, Italy, Antonio Pigafetta was a proud Knight of Rhodes who joined Captain-General Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage and kept meticulous records at the prompting of Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the Grand Master of his order. Of the 268 men who joined the expedition, only 18 returned to Seville three years later in the Victoria.
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While it is generally considered reliable, the text includes a handful of contemporary literary tropes which appear absurd to modern eyes. For example, Pigafetta writes of the magical tree of Hierro, the sole source of water for a mythical island in the Azores, as though it was a proven and accepted fact rather than a poetic marker for the limits of the Old World. His descriptions of flora and fauna are naïve, even charming; he describes penguins as black geese. Other observations are clearly exaggerated, for example when he describes the “giants” of South America. Pigafetta fails to mention some important events in the mutiny of jealous captains during the westbound South Atlantic voyage, and his heroic narrative of Magellan’s leadership admits no human imperfection at all. His interest in the nudity of native peoples in tropical climates becomes prurient when he unabashedly expounds on their sexual habits. For modern readers aware of the history between then and now, the accounts of mass religious conversion can seem far less sincere than Pigafetta presents them.
Nevertheless, his account tells us a great deal about the mindset and behavior of these earliest European explorers, the dangers of oceanic travel in the early 16th Century, the countervailing, lucrative attraction of oceanic trade, and the endemic violence of the sea in the early modern era. Magellan’s first problem was keeping his little fleet together. From the outset, he had his captains sail behind his flagship at night and used a signaling system of torches to maintain contact and pass orders.
However, venturing into the unknown and unfamiliar was a challenge all by itself. “In that latitude, during the summer season, there is no night, or if there is any night it is but short, and so in the winter with the day,” Pigafetta writes. “In order that your most illustrious Lordship may believe it, when we were in that strait [of Magellan], the nights were only three hours long, and it was then the month of October.” Even the stars were different. There is no Antarctic pole star, for example, and the Southern Cross was the only helpful constellation. Complicating navigation even further, the expedition found their compass needles did not work as expected, for they had encountered the problematic gap between magnetic and true north:
Our loadstone, although it moved here and there, always pointed toward its own Arctic Pole, although it did not have so much strength as on its own side, and on that account when we were in that open expanse, the captain-general asked all the pilots: ‘Are you still sailing forward in the course that we laid down on the maps?’ All replied: ‘By your course exactly as laid down.’ He answered them that they were pointing wrongly, which was a fact, and that it would be fitting to adjust the compass, for it was not receiving so much force from its side.
Upon reaching the Pacific, the expedition stuck to latitude sailing before the easterly winds, making “runs of fifty, sixty, or seventy leagues” a day, a speed of as much as 7.5 knots. Their caravels proved to be much faster than the native boats they encountered in the Philippines: junks and outrigger canoes with lateen sails made of palm leaves sewn together. When the king of Mazaua tried to accompany them to their next destination island, his prau “could not keep up with us,” and “he was greatly astonished at the rapidity with which we sailed.”
Despite this speed, the expedition had to cross the largest body of water on the planet, suffering malnutrition before they made landfall. “We were three months and twenty days without taking on any food or water,” Pigafetta says, and nineteen sailors died of scurvy. His description of the food supply is a revolting, but revealing mess:
We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but [had been reduced to] fistfuls of powder swarming with worms, for they had eaten the better part (it stank strongly of rat urine); and we drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days, and we also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the main yard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain, and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on top of the embers, and thus we ate them; and often we ate sawdust from boards … Rats were sold for one-half ducat apiece, if only one could get them.
“In truth I believe no such voyage will ever be repeated,” Pigafetta opines. The ships suffered with the men. The Santiago ran aground and was wrecked while exploring the Santa Cruz River on the Argentine coast. After further casualties incurred from human interactions (see below), “we burned … the ship Concepción, for too few of us remained to man it.” Another ship, the Trinidad, had to be abandoned after they were unable to find and repair a bad leak at Molucca.
Of course, the danger was not over. “In order that we might double the Cape of Good Hope, we descended to forty-two degrees on the side of the Antarctic Pole,” Pigafetta writes. An ordeal ensued:
We were nine weeks near that cape with our sails hauled down because we had the west and northwest winds on our bow quarter and because of a most furious storm … Finally, by God’s help, we doubled that cape on 6 May at a distance of five leagues: had we not approached so closely, we could never have doubled it …Then we sailed north-west for two months continually, with- out taking on any fresh food or water. Twenty-one men died during that short time … Had not God given us good weather we would all have starved to death.
Finally reaching a Portuguese outpost at Santiago in the Cape Verde islands, Pigafetta was astonished to encounter yet another quirk of circumnavigation: they had lost a whole day, somewhere. “It was Thursday for the Portuguese: we were greatly surprised for it was Wednesday for us, and we could not see how we had made a mistake,” he says. Only later did the survivors understand that “as the voyage had been made continually toward the west and we had returned to the same place as does the sun, we had made that gain of twenty-four hours.” Today, an international date line in the middle of the Pacific serves to separate Wednesday from Thursday.
The voyage had taken a grim toll. Magellan was dead, only eighteen sailors returned, “and the majority of them sick. All the rest, of the sixty men who left Molucca, had died of hunger, had deserted at the island of Timor, or had been put to death for crimes.” Yet the expedition had succeeded in locating the Spice Islands, avoided the Portuguese ships sent to stop them, dispelled Portuguese disinformation about the Moluccas, and returned a ship laden with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and other spices.
To establish trade in the Pacific, European powers depended on pre-existing native trade networks between “India Major” (India), “India Minor” (the Indonesian and Malaysian archipelagoes), China, Vietnam, and Siam. Thus Pigafetta describes the latter three locations in some detail even though he never visited them. He details the cultivation of the coconut, noting how the various parts of the coconut are used, including the hairy fiber of the outer shell that is spun into cordage for seagoing. “For rudders,” the outrigger canoe sailors “use a certain blade like a baker’s peel that has a piece of wood at the end,” allowing them to maintain a course and navigate the islands. He identifies different craft used for seas and rivers. All of this was hardly changed from the trade networks that had brought spices to the Old World in ancient times. The difference now was that Spain could access these markets directly rather than depending on Portugal, or some other third party, to bring them around the Cape of Good Hope at a premium; they could undersell their Old World competitors and still make tremendous profits.
Pigafetta records every barter transaction. Presumably, this is information that the Spanish court would want for future trade mission planning. In Brazil,
For one fishhook or one knife, those people gave five or six chickens; for one comb, a pair of geese; for one mirror or one pair of scissors, as many fish as would be sufficient for ten men; for a bell or a lace, one basketful of potatoes … for a king of diamonds, which is a playing card, they gave me six fowls and thought that they had even cheated me.
Sadly, human trafficking was already established in the New World. “For one hatchet or a large knife, they gave us one or two of their young daughters as slaves, but they would not give us their wives in exchange for anything at all,” Pigafetta writes. The vast distance between Old and New worlds was matched by a distance in values and experiences. As Magellan entertained one “giant” living on the coast of South America, “among other things that were shown to him was a large steel mirror. When he saw his reflection, he was greatly terrified and jumped back, throwing three or four of our men to the ground.”
Food was the most common thing received in trade. On the other hand, Magellan refused to let some barter transactions take place, “so that the natives should learn at the very beginning that we prized our merchandise more than their gold.” Sometimes Magellan relied on gifting to build trust with wary natives. At the island of Limasawa in the Philippines, for example, “when the captain saw that they would not trust us, he threw them a red cap and other things tied to a bit of wood. They received them very gladly, and went away quickly to advise their king.” Every island had its Big Man, or “king” in Pigafetta’s terminology, and success lay in building a personal relationship with him.
At Cebu, shortly before his death, Magellan “had the king told … that he desired to be casi casi with him, that is to say, brother. The king replied that he wished to be the same to him.” Although precise details of this ‘blood-brother’ ritual varied, it was common to many of the Pacific islands that the expedition visited.
Trading customs varied and had to be learned on the fly. The Sultan of Brunei could only be addressed through intermediaries at the other end of a speaking tube. After one casi casi ceremony, “the king told him that all the captains who came to that place were used to giving presents to one another, and he asked whether our captain or he ought to begin. The interpreter told the king that since he desired to maintain the custom, he should begin. And so he began.”
Magellan tried to overawe the natives he encountered. Everywhere they went, the expedition fired off their shipboard cannons in salute, scattering people from the beaches and summoning representatives of the local Big Man out in a small boat to establish contact. Indeed, the crew seemed to take positive delight in firing off their guns, taking any excuse to do so. Hosting a king on his ship, Magellan ordered one man to wear armor so that his fellow sailors could strike him with blades, “at which the king was almost beside himself with wonder.” Magellan then lied about his numbers in a clear effort to impress his interlocutor:
The king told him through the slave that one of those armed men was worth one hundred of his own men. The captain-general answered that that was a fact, and that he brought with him two hundred men in each ship that were armed in that manner … Then he led the king to the deck of the ship, which is located above at the stern, and had his sea chart and compass brought, and he told the king through the interpreter how he had found the strait in order to come there to him, and how many moons had passed without seeing land, at which the king was astonished.”
Christian conversion clearly fits within this process of overawing the native peoples they encountered. For all the tears of joy that Pigafetta recounts in these episodes, however, it is notable that the most complete conversion seemed to have taken place on Cebu, the island where everything went wrong.
Violence was a part of the mission plan from the beginning and everyone they met was already wary of pale-skinned strangers. At the Rio de la Plata, a whole village ran into the forest as they conversed with the one man who had come out to greet them. Magellan tricked two Guaraní men into trying on pairs of manacles. Slaves were bought or seized to take home to Spain as prizes for the king and queen, though most of them died on the voyage.
The level of violence increased as they crossed the Pacific Ocean. At one island, locals stole the small boat tied to the stern, whereupon Magellan “in wrath went ashore with forty armed men, and they burned some forty or fifty houses together with many boats, killed seven men, and recovered” it. Yet the battle which ended his life began as an effort to win favor with the king of Cebu by taking on his enemies, a proposition he had made to previous kings. This was a common European strategy for building a local base of support with just the small numbers of men that could be brought by sea.
Although Europeans usually dominated such encounters, this one was a disaster due to poor reconnaissance. Shallow water full of rocks extended “for more than two cross-bow flights” from the shore, forcing the men to wade towards their native enemies without the support of shipboard guns. Worse, their legs were “naked” in order to wade in the sea, and seeing this, the island residents aimed their spears and stones at the exposed flesh instead of the metal armor on their upper bodies. Wooden spear shafts also float, so the islanders would retrieve their spent ammunition and re-use it “four or six times.”
Crossbows and muskets were not enough to overcome superior numbers surrounding them in the water. Pigafetta writes that Magellan fought alone to cover the escape of his men, many of whom were wounded. When he fell face-first, “immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.” Claiming his body as “memorial,” they refused to return it in exchange for any ransom.
Following this disaster, the survivors of the expedition returned to Cebu only to realize that they were now in great danger from their putative ally. Terrified that they might be captured to please the Portuguese, or just robbed of their wares and killed, the sailors panicked when scores of small outrigger boats approached one Monday morning:
Upon catching sight of them, imagining that there was some trickery afoot, we hoisted our sails as quickly as possible, slipping an anchor in our haste. We were especially concerned that we might be caught in between certain junks that had anchored behind us on the preceding day. We immediately turned upon the latter, capturing four of them and killing many persons.
Leaderless, reduced in number, and as far from home as they could be, the men of the expedition now turned to violence as first resort. Encountering the governor of Palawan traveling in a junk, they ordered him to haul in his sails and captured the vessel when he refused. Desperate for food now,
[We told] the governor [that] if [he] wished his freedom, he was to give us, inside of seven days, four hundred measures of rice, twenty swine, twenty goats, and 150 fowls. Then he presented us with coconuts, figs, sugar canes, jars full of palm wine, and other things. Seeing his liberality, we returned some of his daggers and harquebuses to him. Then we gave him a flag, a yellow damask robe, and fifteen cubits of cloth; to his son, a cloak of blue cloth; to a brother of the governor, a robe of green cloth and other things … We parted from the governor as friends.”
Later, “we bartered two large knives that we had taken from the governor of Palawan for seventeen pounds [of cinnamon].” Upon reaching the Spice Islands, “many of those things [that we traded] were from those junks we had captured” at Cebu. In addition to this ‘forced trading’ the crew had to kidnapping locals to help them navigate. Being unfamiliar with the area, they captured native pilots to find Molucca.
To be fair, the expedition was operating by a universal ruleset. Before leaving Molucca loaded to the gunwales with spices, a group of “women captured some of our men and it was necessary to give them some little trifle in order to regain their freedom.” Yet their violence does seem excessive. As they continued searching for Molucca, they attacked another local vessel and killed seven of the 18 men aboard. On another occasion, the crew of the last remaining expedition vessel seized a chief and his son, whereupon “he, for fear lest we kill him, immediately gave us six buffaloes, five goats, and two swine, and to complete the number of ten swine and ten goats [which we had demanded], they gave us one [additional] buffalo, for thus we had placed the condition [of their ransom] … Then we sent them ashore very well pleased with linen, Indian cloth of silk and cotton, hatchets, Indian knives, scissors, mirrors, and knives.”
Although the Magellan expedition had the fastest, strongest ships in the world, it was almost not enough. They had the most advanced navigational equipment available and still wandered the Indonesian archipelago until they found the place they were looking for. Their weapons were superior to anything that anyone might bring against them, yet Magellan and many of his sailors still died of violence. In fact, they were simply the cutting edge of a human seafaring tradition that extends into the mists of time, that has always been about exploration, discovery, trade, and power. More like the peoples they met than they might care to admit, and closer technologically than they could comprehend as we do now, Magellan and his sailors were the same combination of pirate and merchant that has always plied the seas in search of advantage.
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