Ferdinand Magellan and me (26)

a dubious picture of magellan's chronicler


ferdinand magellan
whisky tango foxtrot

The most serious casualty of our shipwreck at Nishtun was the loss of my facsimile copy of Pigafetta’s journal. Along with several charts it had turned to sludge in the panic of trying to refloat Wathara. Pigafetta’s account of the voyage is a unique piece of world literature. It has survived the original that he presented to Don Carlos, King of Spain, with the immortal words ‘That the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time.’ And indeed Magellan’s fame has not perished and never will.
I am very fond of Pigafetta, having studied him for years although not much is known about him. He came from a well-to-do family in Vicenza, Italy and was clearly well educated. He served as part of a diplomatic mission from Pope Leo X to the court of imperial Spain under a new king, Holy Roman Emperor-elect Don Carlos, who received the first written account of the voyage from Pigafetta’s hand.
Among the audience at Pigafetta’s presentation was young Maximilian of Transylvania, bastard son of the Cardinal Archbishop of Salzberg. Maximilian wrote an alternative account of the dramatic story in Latin, which was published by his proud father the archbishop. We don’t know Pigafetta’s response to this plagiarism but he edited and expanded his diary and published a version in French, which forms the basis of every edition since. It has been translated into several languages. The facsimile in my possession reproduced Pigafetta’s water- colour illustrations of anything that struck his fancy and was accompanied by an English translation. The document is remarkable in its own right, not just as a record of one of the most important events in history. Insatiably curious, Pigafetta was the world’s first anthropologist. At a time when the militant Catholic Church saw the inhabitants of the New World as fodder for conversion and Conquistadors slaughtered them by thousands, Pigafetta took a genuine interest in native people, their customs, beliefs and especially their languages. He gathered new words as if they were butterflies and pressed them between the pages of his journal.
In Patagonia, Magellan captured three native men planning to baptise them as Christians and take them back to Spain as a present for the king. None survived but one of them lived long enough for Pigafetta to compile a modest dictionary of the language now known as Tehuelche. His technique was to touch or point to a body part such as head or arm or ear and record the native’s response. Extending the vocabulary, he recorded more abstract concepts such as Setebos, the Patagonian god or perhaps one of them. Setebos is the first Tehuelche word to enter the English language. It appears in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as the god worshipped by the witch Sycorax.
Pigafetta presented copies of his manuscript to the kings of Portugal and France. Papal business took him to Monterosi, Italy, where he met Philippe de Villiers l’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St John. The order had originally administered a hospital for Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. It was expelled after the second Crusade in 1310 and shifted headquarters to Rhodes. A couple of centuries later, Rhodes was captured by the Turks and de Villiers appealed to the Holy Roman Emperor, Don Carlos of Spain, for a sanctuary for the Knights. Don Carlos gave them Malta.
As a former papal diplomat, Pigafetta may have taken part in these negotiations but anyway he joined the order and dedicated a version of his book to the Grand Master. He died in Malta in 1534.

Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta


Author: leonidas

Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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