The book The Voyage of Magellan: The Journal of Antonia Pigafetta, translated by Paula Spurlin Paige, is the first-hand account of an observer who sailed with Magellan's ships on their famous circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan's expedition. from 11519-1522, was the first time this feat had been accomplished. The expedition demonstrated conclusively not only that the Earth was a sphere, but that it could be extensively explored using the best technology of the day: sailing ships. Occurring as it did during the Renaissance, Pigafetta's accounts of the voyage were widely read. His book fueled the growing interest in learning as much as could be learned about virtually everything that could be studied.
In this expedition, Paige reports, Magellan managed to do what Columbus had tried to do but failed (p. vi). Dramatic shifts happened in multiple fields. Just as Ptolemaic thinking had been overturned in astronomy, now it had been proven wrong for the study of geography as well (p. vi). Such developments encouraged new ways of thinking, looking forward via exploration and experimentation rather than to the past to answer important questions about the world.
The voyage also gave Spain a world presence. The honor could have been Portugal's except that after Magellan was injured fighting for Portugal, he believed his honor had been impugned (p. vii) and he renounced his Portuguese citizenship in favor of Spain.
In reading this book, the reader has to keep the times in which it was written in view. This is demonstrated early in the book. On page 4, he reports that they saw birds with no anuses. He recounted how the females lay their eggs on the back of the male as he floats on the water, and that these birds have no legs. The footnote indicates that Pigafetta was talking about storm petrels, who although they spend long times at sea, most definitely have both anuses and legs, and who nest on islands to raise their young. This indicates that Pigafetta did what all people tend to do -- he interpreted what he saw through his own established worldview. What he wrote about the petrels was widely believed at the time but could not have been confirmed by his observations, because it wasn't true. However, he believed it to be true and reported it as fact.
One of the most interesting parts of the book may be the introduction, where Paige describes the difficulties faced in deciding which manuscript to translate. The author reports how rare the original manuscripts are, and how the manuscript was produced in several forms, as well as how she finally settled on the manuscript she chose to use as her source. This discussion highlights the difficulties historians face as they evaluate primary sources.
Many of the growing interests of the Renaissance are covered in Pigafetta's account. Religion is interwoven throughout Pigafetta's account of this expedition, as the explorers believed that spreading Christianity was an important task when they encountered new cultures. Pigafetta's reports of conversions of native populations are particularly interesting because he describes native customs, particularly those that clashed with Christianity. For instance, he reports many conversions in the port of Zubu on a Pacific island. However, the natives' first approach was to combine Christianity with their other beliefs, so the explorers found one day that although the natives had been baptized, they were praying to their old idols to try to help a sick man heal. This kind of cultural interaction is described in detail and gives detailed insight regarding what it was like when Western culture met these natives for the first time.
Pigafetta showed great interest in many of the cultural variances he saw. He described cultural practices in great detail, describing how the various groups prepared their food and how they dressed. Ceremonies involving the death of individuals were described in details.
Pigafetta also described in detail how initial good contacts with one group of natives turned sour. On the island of Mattan, one chief was prepared to go along with rules to obey the king of Spain, but another was not. In addition, the leaders had added the requirements that the natives must convert to Christianity. The beliefs of the time that Western cultural beliefs and Western Christianity were superior surely played a part in Magellan's determination to force Spain's views on these people. It is remarkable from today's perspective, because before this anecdote, Pigafetta had described the rituals and practices of these people in great detail, and his narrative shows a people with a rich culture and history. It is not reasonable by today's understanding to expect that they would give all those traditions up for allegiance to a foreign king and a hitherto unknown religion.
Magellan displayed a belief approaching hubris at this point regarding his technology's superiority. He sent 49 men to fight against approximately 1,500 natives, believing that his guns would easily handle them. However, the natives' shields were quite hard and deflected the muskets' bullets. The Europeans were forced back to the sea, but the ship's guns were too far off shore to be of any help.
Pigafetta tells the story with vivid detail, providing a rich source of information from historians. In particular he documents the terrible risks men took when they went on such expeditions. Of the entire expedition, only 35 men survived to return to Spain. Many died of disease or accidents, and others were killed in skirmishes with natives. Pigafetta himself nearly died twice, once when he fell overboard and only barely managed to grab on to something so the ship would not sail away from him before he could rescued, and another time when he was hit by a native's poisoned arrow.
Although we would still know that Magellan had circumnavigated the globe, little would be known about the details of the trip. It is hard to imagine how much Pigafetta's reports stimulate interest in world exploration, but the effect on commerce must be considered. Pigafetta's account lists the many riches they found along the way. Even though Zubu was clearly a dangerous place where natives could be friendly or aggressive, the riches found there must have been alluring to merchants and rulers of the time, including exotic fruits, spices and gold. Much of the middle of the book is a chronicle of the many islands they encountered as they sailed the Pacific.
When the Victoria, the only surviving ship from the expedition, finally returned to Spain, its cargo covered the expenses for the entire expedition (p. xi), demonstrating the economic feasibility of exploration for commercial purposes. Those commercial interests fueled much of the exploration of the New World and the Far East that followed, resulting in the massive influence Western Europe had on these places because of colonialism. Without Pigafetta's accounts, merchants may not have realized the implications for them from Magellan's voyage. The natives also used good strategy, recognizing Magellan, targeting him, and eventually killing him.
The success of Magellan's expedition was profound. It might be akin to our triumph of putting a man on the moon in the 20th century. Just as our space successes empowered us to explore the universe, Magellan's expedition opened up the entire world to Western Europe for exploration. Pigafetta's report of new races, new languages, new foods, differing sexual practices and the astounding number of new plants and animals came at a time when intellectual thought was making a mental shift from the past to the future. Rather than rely on what people had believed to be true about the physical world, intellectuals were experimenting with experiments in physics and chemistry. Educated people saw the value of traveling to other countries and learning other languages. Shakespeare's plays, which recounted tales from other countries and even fantasy, gripped the imagination of those…