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Picture of Portguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan

September 8, 1522
Antonio Pigafetta
Pigafetta and Magellan's Voyage
by Steve King

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On this day in 1522 Captain Sebastian del Cano returned to Spain, completing Magellan's first circumnavigation of the earth. Magellan died half-way through the three-year voyage, during a fight with Philippine natives. Of the five ships and approximately 270 men who set out, only one ship and seventeen men returned. But the Victoria was full of spices and land claims, and for this del Cano received a pension, an addition to his coat of arms, and a globe with the inscription, "You were the first to encircle me" ("Primus circumdedisti me").

Among the survivors was Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian tourist destined to make a major contribution to the genre of travel literature. Little is known about Pigafetta, but he was on business at the Spanish court at the time, adventurous enough to want to tag along with Magellan, and well-connected enough to arrange it. Although snubbed by Captain del Cano upon their return, Pigafetta also presented himself to Charles V (now Holy Roman Emperor), bringing with him not "gold, silver, or any other precious thing worthy of so great a lord," but "a book written in his own hand, in which were set down the things that happened from day to day during their voyage." Now known as Magellan's Voyage. A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation, this tells a detailed tale of exploration and exotica. The worst dangers came from within: mutiny, scurvy, such starvation that they ate not just the rats but sawdust, and "certain ox hides that covered the tops of the yards to keep them from chafing the shrouds" (these they grilled, after first marinating them in sea water for five days). On land they encountered cannibals, "giants" with huge feet ("Patagonians," or "men with big feet," stuffed their shoes with straw for warmth), "strange geese" (penguins), and other wonders. But Pigafetta was not everybody's fool:
    The old pilot from the Moluccas told them, that nearby there was an island called Arucheto, on which there are men and women, who are no more than a cubit tall, having ears so big that they lie on one and cover themselves with the other, they are tonsured, and naked, they run fast, they live in caves under the ground, they eat fish, bark, and something that grows inside it like preserved coriander, which is called ambulon. They [the explorers] did not go there because of the currents, and they considered all this nonsense.
Emperor Charles was apparently not impressed, and Pigafetta received no honor beyond his wages. He took his story to the Portugese and then the French courts, where he was better received, and in Italy the Pope was impressed enough to give him residence while he prepared his manuscript for publication. Pigafetta worked on this for a time, but then lost interest to a new adventure: he met the famous Philippe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, grand master of the Order of Rhodes, became a knight-errant, and is believed to have died fighting the Turks. Captain del Cano was so beset by problems on land -- the two women with whom he had children, death threats which caused him to petitiion the King for an armed guard -- that he returned to sea. He died of scurvy in 1526, not long after piloting his boat through the Strait of Magellan a second time.

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