Antonio Pigafetta

It is commonly thought that Ferdinand Magellan, that stouthearted Portuguese navigator, sailing in the name of the Spanish Crown, was the first man to circumnavigate the Earth. The truth is that Magellan died in the Philippines in 1521 and never made it back to Europe. Instead, it was a single ship (from an original fleet of five) and a handful of survivors (from an original crew of 250) that limped back to Spain in 1522, three years after they had left. But Magellan's leadership skills and relentless drive kept his near-mutinous crew together and had much to do with the eventual success of the expedition to sail west from Europe to reach the Spice Islands.

Details of Magellan's expedition are largely lost; Magellan, and his successor Juan Sebastian de Elcano likely kept logs, but no one knows what became of them. So historians are lucky that an otherwise obscure Italian nobleman, one of history's first tourists, was aboard Magellan's flagship Trinidad. Antonio Pigafetta was his name, and his obsessive record-keeping gives scholars the chance to sail along with Ferdinand Magellan and hear all manner of shipboard gossip, without all the boring, official clutter that fills logbooks, such as course and wind direction and so forth.

Pigafetta was born sometime around 1491 in the Italian town of Vicenza, and could claim to be a citizen of the powerful city-state Venice, which controlled Vicenza. Little is known of his youth, though by 1515, Pigafetta was a member of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, a group of knights based out of the island of Rhodes, in the Mediterranean. It is likely that, as a soldier in this organization, he saw some service aboard ships fighting against the Turks. This would account for his ability to take quickly to life at sea with Magellan; although he seemed ignorant of how to sail a vessel, it is likely that his time on a Mediterranean galley was as a soldier, rather than a sailor.

In 1518, Pigafetta was sent to Spain (the Knights of St. John took their orders from the Pope in Rome) to meet with the new Spanish king, Charles. All of Barcelona was abuzz at the time, as Magellan's fleet was preparing to sail west in search of spices in the Orient (much as Columbus had planned to do twenty-six years previously), and Pigafetta found himself fascinated with talk of the riches of the East. Gaining permission from King Charles and the Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Pigafetta was attached to the expedition, although his position there was something of a mystery. In the muster rolls (which lists the crew and their duties), Pigafetta is sometimes listed as a soldier, sometimes as one of Magellan's aids and often simply as a supernumerary (a member of the ship's company with no assigned duties, often regarded by working sailors as little more than dead weight). Since he was not needed to work the sails, swab the decks or watch the cargo, Pigafetta had plenty of free time to keep a journal of the voyage.

Setting sail in September 1519, Magellan's fleet was comprised of five ships: Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Santiago and Victoria. All were in less-than-desirable shape, and his ships' officers contained some undesirable anti-Portuguese sentiment. The captain of one ship, San Antonio's Juan de Cartagena, tried to start a mutiny against Magellan, but the wily Portuguese explorer stopped the muttering before it spread. After reaching the coast of South America, the Santiago wrecked in shallow water and the new captain of the San Antonio decided (without consulting Magellan) to return to Spain. Down to just three vessels, Magellan's shrinking fleet fought their way into the Pacific Ocean (named by Magellan; until then, the Spanish had been referring to it as the South Sea) and slowly sailed their way across it.

The voyage, as recorded by Pigafetta in his journal, was wracked by scurvy, hunger and the crew's lack of confidence in Magellan. At their lowest point, in January 1521, Magellan supposedly cast his maps overboard, declaring that he was unable to find the Moluccas (the group of islands the Europeans called the Spice Islands) and the maps were useless. The men slowly island-hopped their way across the ocean, until they finally reached the Philippines in late spring.

Magellan made the mistake of interfering in a local feud between two rival Filipino chieftains, and offered to use superior European weaponry against one of the chieftain's enemies. Pigafetta and the other men suited up in the armor available (the expedition was extremely well-armed) and trudged out against the warriors of Filipino king Lapu Lapu, who put up a stiff resistance and killed Magellan and twelve of his men. The Europeans quickly retreated to their ship, heartbroken at the loss of Magellan. Pigafetta heaps praise upon his fallen commander, noting that "no other had so much natural wit, boldness, or knowledge to sail once 'round the world, as he had undertaken."

Leadership of the expedition passed to a Portuguese mariner named João Carvalho (actually it passed first to João Serrão and Duarte Barbosa, both of whom managed to die quickly after being appointed commander), who saw to it that the voyage would still turn a profit. He ordered the Concepción burned because there were not enough men to sail three ships and because it was rotting. Sailing to the island of Borneo, the crew decided that perhaps Basque mariner Juan Sebastian de Elcano was a better fit for expedition leader and voted Carvalho out. Elcano guided the Victoria and the Trinidad to the Moluccas by late fall 1521, where the ships were loaded up with as many spices as they could carry. The Trinidad's captain and crew decided to stay in the Indies to repair their ship, while Elcano in the Victoria elected to head for home. After briefly being interned by the jealous Portuguese, who suspected that the Spanish-flagged Victoria was up to no good, the vessel (and 22 survivors) limped into the Bay of San Lúcar in Spain on September 6, 1522.

Europe had no idea what had befallen Magellan and his men after they set sail in 1519. It was up to Pigafetta to tell the story, which his journal was more than capable of doing. He drew up a copy of his notes (polished up, complete with illustrations of various islands they had encountered) and had them published in a French version in 1523. Pigafetta, with an easy manner and an eye for the unusual, produced a very readable account of the first successful circumnavigation and gave readers a glimpse into the manners and customs of the native people encountered, as well as information on local flora and fauna. He also compiled glossaries of native words, giving their European equivalent, lists which seemingly were drawn up by having Pigafetta point to an object and asking his hosts "What is this called?"

No one is sure what finally became of Antonio Pigafetta. He disappears from the records around 1535, when he is identified as fighting the Turks, again with the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. But his writings on Magellan's voyage ensure that his name will be remembered by students of the Age of Exploration, even if he only signed on to become one of history's most famous tourists.