Pigafetta’s map of Timor
Pigafetta’s gift to the world.
Pigafetta’s memoir deserves to be classified a world heritage treasure: unique in its time, shrewd in its observations and even entertaining. Pigafetta can be regarded as the world’s first anthropologist. At a time when the Spanish empire was invading South America, trashing local culture and enslaving or murdering the natives, Pigafetta showed a genuine interest in the appearance, the customs and above all the language of the people he encountered along the way.
I am very fond of Pigafetta. I have a vision of him sitting cross-legged interviewing the alleged cannibals of Brazil or the giants of Patagonia, transcribing their words to a wax tablet. Later he would collect these words into the first lexicons of their native languages. He took a particular interest in one native of Patagonia whom he named Paul. Magellan had captured this man by trickery and clapped him in chains, planning to convert him to Christianity and take him back to Spain like a zoo specimen. Pigafetta protected him as best he could and cared for him until he eventually died of starvation or scurvy. Paul gave the first Patagonian word, Setebos to the English language via Pigafetta’s journal and Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
Upon his return to Spain Pigafetta presented a copy of his journal to the king, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. His aim was, as he said to the king, that the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time. He wrote versions of his tale for the king of Portugal and the Regent of France. His work was plagiarised by Maximilian of Transylvania, bastard son of the Cardinal Archbishop of Salzburg who had the document published and promoted throughout Europe and eventually Britain.
Returning to Italy, Pigafetta met Philippe de Villiers l’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the order of the Knights of St John. They apparently hit it off together and Pigafetta was initiated into the order. He wrote another manuscript of his story and presented it to the Grand Master. He also obtained permission from the Doge of Venice to publish his book. Over the years, a number of these manuscripts have emerged and fetch high prices at antiquarian book stores. Pigafetta’s memoir of the first circumnavigation of the world has been published several times from different sources. Many books have been based upon it but the original, illustrated with water colour sketches, is the only reliable one.
Pigafetta joined the Knights of St John in Malta and died there in 1534.