He was Italian, but the voyage he embarked on with a Portuguese-born explorer who owed his fealty to Spain would make him world-famous. But as diarist, chronicler, map-maker, linguist, and amanuensis of Ferdinand Magellan, Pigafetta made this part of the world famous, too.
Unimaginable how history could’ve been written without Pigafetta’s notes. (In one throwaway line from his book, Over the Edge of the World, Laurence Bergreen describes Pigafetta’s account of the expedition from Spain and across the Pacific as “an occasionally X-rated journal”.) Among many enduring achievements, Pigafetta compiled a dictionary of Cebuano words, including man – lac; woman – perampuan; youth – benibeni; married woman – babai; chin – silan; spine – licud; navel – pussud; gold – boloan; silver – pilla; pepper – malissa; cloves – chiande; cinnamon – manna; ship – banca; king – raia.
“Going by the Occident we have returned by the Orient,” Pigafetta wrote of the harrowing journey undertaken by five ships that took three years and at a cost of 240 lives, four of those ships, and extreme hardship. The voyage “finally gave the Spanish a water route to the Spice Islands,” an achievement, said Laurence Bergreen, “that was the Renaissance equivalent of winning the space race.”
In Pigafetta’s words, “We sailed 14,460 leagues (60,000 miles) and furthermore completed the circumnavigation of the world.” Seven thousand miles were added to the globe’s circumference, noted Bergreen, ”15 times longer than Columbus’ first voyage to the New World.”
Victoria, the only surviving ship, arrived in Seville three years later without the body of Magellan (who was killed on April 27, 1521, by Lapu-Lapu’s warriors). Victoria’s crew of 20 – sick, shell-shocked, in bare feet and rags – “returned as penitents rather than conquerors.”
Pigafetta returned to Venice “and caused a stir,” but before he did, he gave the king of Spain his book, “written by hand, concerning all the matters that had occurred day to day during our voyage,” with the aim of clearing Magellan’s name.
Over the Edge of the World includes six pages of acknowledgements and NASA up-to-date satellite images of Magellan’s route. Pigafetta’s manuscript is in the possession of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, Yale University. In his preface, Laurence Bergreen said he would’ve wanted to visit the Philippines as part of his research.