In 1964 Mr. Edwin J. Beinecke presented Yale University with one of the most magnificent of all manuscripts connected with the early history of European overseas expansion. This beautiful document, carefully written on fine white vellum with illuminated initials and chapter headings in red and blue, is a French version of the celebrated account of Magellan’s voyage by the Italian Antonio Pigafetta. The account itself is a classic, for it offers an eyewitness narrative of man’s first circumnavigation of the globe. Four manuscripts survive, one in Italian and the remaining three in French, presumably prepared for different patrons whose certain identity remains unknown. The Beinecke-Yale manuscript, which is the most magnificent of these four, found its way, like so many other precious documents, into the famous Phillipps collection, and it was through one of the Phillipps sales that it came into Mr. Beinecke’s possession. Thanks to Mr. Beinecke’s munificence, it was not only presented to Yale, but has now been made available to a larger (although necessarily affluent) readership through a superb facsimile, together with an accompanying volume of translation and notes by Mr. R. A. Skelton.
The facsimile itself, with its pretty charts of gray-brown islands floating like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on deep blue seas with gold-crested waves, is a delight to the eye and would do credit to the most elegant of coffee-tables. Although many will wish to beg, borrow, or steal it, I am not quite clear who will actually buy it; but it should certainly become a standard Presidential gift to every returning astronaut. For it not only makes a very handsome present but also helps to induce a proper sense of humility by putting space flights into perspective. Magellan’s Victoria (one hundred tons) was the Apollo spacecraft of the sixteenth century. Its probe into terrestrial space lasted three years, from 1519 to 1522, and was conducted with terrible loss of life (including that of Magellan himself) and amid incredible hardships. But it got round the world—losing, to the astonishment of its crew, a day in the process—and it brought back a mass of new information, not only about new lands, but also, more excitingly, about new peoples.
The man whom we most have to thank for this information is a Knight of Rhodes, Antonio Pigafetta, who found himself in Spain in 1519 and, having heard “great and terrible things of the Ocean Sea,” decided to take ship with Magellan. His motives, so typical of the Renaissance Europe from which he came, were a compound of curiosity and vanity.
I determined to experience and to go to see some of the said things…that it might be told that I made the voyage and saw with my eyes the things hereafter written, and that I might win a famous name with posterity.
Mr. Skelton’s translation, it should be said, usually reads a good deal better than this. The ordinary reader will no doubt continue to use Robertson’s translation of 1906 from the Italian manuscript, conveniently (and cheaply) included in Charles E. Nowell’s little volume, Magellan’s Voyage Around the World.* But Mr. Skelton’s is the first English translation of the entire French text, which itself has certain variants from the Italian. He chose to render it into an equivalent of sixteenth-century English, and this works in practice a good deal better than might have been expected, because he has a sensitive eye and ear and never lets himself get carried away by the pleasures of pastiche for its own sake. His Pigafetta reads well, with some moments of moving drama; and if there is a certain jerkiness about the narrative, this is Pigafetta’s fault and not Mr. Skelton’s.
Pigafetta, indeed, lacked literary artifice, but it is this very deficiency which helps to make his narrative so valuable. He wrote what he saw (or sometimes, and less reliably, what he heard) without embellishment, and this gives his account the stamp of authenticity coupled with immediacy which can so easily be missing from the travel accounts of the professional humanist. Pigafetta is simply an Italian gentleman of fortune with endless curiosity, a sharp eye for detail, and a laudatory determination to record in his notebooks the highlights of his remarkable voyage. Consequently he provides us with an authentic insight into the interests, the assumptions, and the preoccupations of an alert European of the early sixteenth century.
What, then, most interested Pigafetta about the strange lands which he visited? On the whole, he proves to be very weak on landscape. Scenic descriptions are confined to the most generalized and inescapable facts, such as “very great and high mountains covered with snow.” As might be expected of a man from the mercantile world of the Mediterranean, he is, however, very interested in local produce, which he lists as efficiently as any sixteenth-century merchant: “In this island are poultry, goats, coconuts and wax. There is also found long pepper….” He describes exotic plants and fruits in some detail, and is especially interested in cloves and how they grow. Strange objects, like oriental junks or porcelain jars, fascinate him, but his major interest is clearly people. He tells his readers about the expedition’s experiences with the Patagonian “giants” and with the natives of the Philippines and the Moluccas; and always he comes back to the same themes—whether the people went naked or clothed; their way of living; their ceremonial practices and sexual habits; and, especially, their language.
Pigafetta turns out to be an indefatigable compiler of vocabularies. There is something rather comic, but also rather touching, about this sixteenth-century Italian gentleman, with his notebook at the ready, carefully ascertaining from some patient Patagonian or Javanese the name for each part of the body. “The mouth, the lips, the teeth, the cheeks, the tongue, the palate, the chin, the beard, the mustache,…” and so on, down to the most intimate regions. It is hardly surprising that
…when the king and the others saw me writing, and I told them their way of speaking, all were astonished.
Pigafetta’s relation, then, as well as being a gripping narrative of a heroic voyage, is also a fascinating anthropological inquiry. As such, it is an early, and primitive, precursor of those infinitely more sophisticated questionaires prepared by Spanish friars in the Americas which make the sixteenth century such an important age for the early history of anthropology. Renaissance Europeans, as Pigafetta shows, were good observers. They possessed real curiosity about the customs and manner of life of other peoples of the world, and they were not yet so firmly convinced of the European’s innate superiority as to condemn or mock out of hand. Only twice, I think, does Pigafetta describe some native practice as “ridiculous.” On the whole, he is prepared to accept and describe things as they are, without either disparaging them for being different from European practice or succumbing to the temptation of overdramatizing the exotic.
Pigafetta is a faithful reporter because he can still see the world with the eyes of innocence. It was, after all, a world still largely unknown, and it was not until the Victoria put a girdle round the earth that man first took its measure. Once that had happened, things would never be quite the same again. The voyage of the Victoria, as a number of contemporaries began to realize, had at least two consequences of enormous significance for Europe and the world.
According to the Spanish humanist López de Gómara, “It revealed the ignorance of wise Antiquity.” In other words, it exposed yet one more point of fallibility in the learning of the Ancients, and so helped to strengthen the hand of those Europeans who believed that personal experience was a more reliable guide than traditional authority. While the exploit of the Victoria displayed the superiority of sixteenth-century Europeans, at least in certain respects, to their own Greek and Roman ancestors, it also displayed their superiority to the other races of mankind. It was Europeans who had first circled the globe and shown themselves the masters of the seas. The pride of accomplishment was great in those early years of discovery. It would soon become insufferable.
Pigafetta belonged to that all too brief age of innocence, which proved no more than a prelude to what has been called “the age of Latin arrogance.” And arrogance is, of course, one of the worst enemies of perception. But even amid the worst excesses of the age of arrogance, there were always a few who had their hesitations and their doubts—Las Casas, Montaigne, and even La Popelinière, a French Huguenot advocate of colonization who found himself wondering how the Europeans of his own century had dared risk their lives, their riches, their honor, and their conscience
…to trouble the ease of those who, as our brethren in this great house of the world, asked only to live the rest of their days in peace and contentment.
Why did they do it? This was the question which, as Professor Boxer tells us in his admirable new survey of the Portuguese empire, was asked of the first man of Vasco da Gama’s crew to arrive in Calicut. “We have come,” he replied, “to seek Christians and spices.” Christianity and trade—these were the two great motors behind Europe’s overseas expansion of the sixteenth century, and not least of those indomitable pioneers of expansion, the Portuguese. Pigafetta’s narrative is a living witness to the dual obsession with cloves and conversion, and Professor Boxer chronicles in impressive detail the history and the organization of an empire which was created in order to satisfy it. It was an empire which he describes as “a military and maritime enterprise cast in an ecclesiastical mould,” and he never allows us to forget the competing religious and mercantile strains which, when filtered through the Portuguese temperament and the realities of life in the tropics, gave to this apparently indestructible empire an identity all its own.
Professor Boxer, who is now Professor of the History of the Expansion of Europe Overseas at Yale University, tells us that his book is “…the product of over forty years’ reading, research, reflection and publication.” No man knows more about the Portuguese overseas, or has done more to make them known to others. His knowledge is staggering, but he wears his erudition lightly. The need for a general survey of the history of Portuguese imperialism has long been felt, and Professor Boxer was not only the obvious man to meet it, but perhaps the only man capable of doing so. His book takes its place at once as a distinguished volume in a distinguished series, and if at the end I set it down with a faint feeling of disappointment, this was perhaps because Professor Boxer’s scholarship and his mastery of his subject raise expectations which even he cannot quite fulfill. While grudging Professor Boxer none of his telling detail and vivid description, I should have liked a little more analysis. Some chapters seem to me insufficiently integrated into the general structure of the book, and therefore lose some of the impact which they should properly possess; and the history of Portugal itself is too lightly sketched in, so that one misses the inner dynamic of the fluctuating relationship between metropolis and empire.
Yet it would be ungrateful to cavil when we are given so much. Professor Boxer’s great achievement, here as in so many other of his works, is to bring to life Magellan’s countrymen—the soldiers, the merchants, and the priests who struggled to carve out a niche for themselves in an alien environment, thousands of miles from home. We are made aware of their unending, and generally losing, struggle against heat and disease, and against the insidious resistance of ancient oriental civilizations which closed in on themselves and kept the intruders at arm’s length. Professor Boxer writes with equal candor of the victories and defeats of the Portuguese, of their achievements and their failings. This candor is all the more refreshing, and all the more necessary, in the treatment of so emotionally loaded a subject as Portuguese imperialism.
In particular, Professor Boxer’s cool and dispassionate studies have effectively demolished the long cherished and carefully fostered myth that the Portuguese were somehow miraculously immune from the original sin of racial prejudice. His chapter on “purity of blood and contaminated races” remorselessly reveals the way in which the Portuguese treated Jews, Negroes, and mulattoes, and all those with an admixture of African blood as inferior beings. Pigafetta’s narrative contains a revealing passage in which Magellan tells the inhabitants of one of the Philippine Islands that
…if they did not become Christians, we should show them no displeasure. But that those who became Christians would be more regarded and better treated than the others.
Christianity was, regrettably, one of the root causes of the Europeans’ sense of superiority, blinding them all too often to the qualities and the achievements of the non-Christian peoples of the earth. One consequence of the superior status of the Christian was that conversion proved to be one of the few devices by which non-Europeans could at least obtain the key to entry into the Europeans’ club. But whether they ever got inside the door was another matter. Professor Boxer reports the successes along with the failures. He tells, for instance, of that unique multi-racial institution, the Seminary of the Holy Faith in Goa, but he also describes the disappointments and the difficulties that attended the creation of a native Christian clergy.
Professor Boxer’s general conclusion on the question of color and status is all the more telling for being so moderately expressed:
Modern Portuguese and Brazilian writers who claim that their ancestors never had any feeling of color prejudice or discrimination against the African Negro unaccountably ignore the obvious fact that one race cannot systematically enslave members of another on a large scale for over 300 years without acquiring in the process a conscious or unconscious feeling of racial superiority.
The cool and dispassionate description which supports this conclusion reveals Professor Boxer at his best. His book vividly documents the courage, the guile, and the misery which made Europeans the masters of the world—a process whose beginning can already be glimpsed in Pigafetta’s artless narrative. Fortunate Yale, to have such a historian—and such a manuscript.
September 24, 1970