In September Portuguese Explorer Ferdinand Magellan Starts a Voyage of His Life

“When Magellan sailed with his fleet of five small ships from the Spanish port of San Lucar de Barrameda in September 1519 he had not conceived a voyage round the world,” writes R.A. Skelton in the introduction of the book “Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation”. What turned out to become a mind-blowing achievement – the first circumnavigation of the globe by sailing a ship, – started as a mission to find a westward way to Moluccas or Spice Islands.

Fernando Magellan discovered what is now known as the Strait of Magellan and became the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean. After circumnavigating the whole planet, his fleet (or what was left of it) returned to Spain three years later (also in September) but without Magellan himself, who died en route. He had been killed by local warriors on an island in the Philippines in 1521 with a bamboo spear into his head.

“Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation” is written by Antonio Pigafetta. Text is translated and edited by R.A.Skelton and published in this edition in 1969. Photo by Beach Books.

“The only surviving nautical documents written on the voyage or from memory are handful of pilot’s logs,” writes R. A. Skelton. “But the longest and most valuable narrative of the voyage was written by a young Italian who was neither a professional seaman nor a humanist.”

It was Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of just eighteen men (out of 237) who returned and whose “keen observation, sympathetic interpretation, and expressive communication of experience enabled him to produce one of the most remarkable documents in the history of geographical and ethnological discovery.” You can read it today in a book “Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation”, translated and edited by R. A. Skelton from the original manuscript.

“Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation” is written by Antonio Pigafetta. Text is translated and edited by R.A.Skelton and published in this edition in 1969. Photo by Beach Books.

In 2020 or five-hundred-and-one September later since the day these words were written in a notebook of a young man I read:

“Tuesday the twentieth of September of the said [1519] year, we departed from San Lucar, laying course by the southwest wind, otherwise called labeiche. And on the sixteenth [twenty-sixth] of the said month we arrived at an island of the Grand Canary named Tenerife, in twenty-eight degrees of latitude, where we remained three and a half days to take in provisions and other things which were needed. Then we departed thence and came to a port called Monterose, where we remained two days to furnish ourselves in pitch, which is a thing very necessary for ships. Know that among the other islands which belong to the said Grand Canary, there is one where no drop of water coming from spring or river is found, save that once a day at the hour of noon there descends from heaven a cloud which encompasses a great tree in the said island, then all its leaves fall from it, and from the leaves is distilled great abundance of water, so that at the foot of the tree there is so great a quantity of water that it seems a living fountain. And from this water the inhabitants of the said place are satisfied, and the animals both domestic and wild.”

Antonio Pigafetta “Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation”, translated and edited by R.A.Skelton in 1969
“Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation” is written by Antonio Pigafetta. Text is translated and edited by R.A.Skelton and published in this edition in 1969. Photo by Beach Books.

You can follow the voyage through Pigafetta’s words. The last page of it is written in September three years later, when the fleet had sailed around the world and arrived back in Spain:

“On Saturday the sixth of September, one thousand five hundred and twenty-two, we entered the Bay of San Lucar, and we were only eighteen men, the most part sick, of the sixty remaining who had left Molucca, some of whom died of hunger, others deserted at the island of Timor, and others had been put to death for their crimes. From the time when we departed from that Bay until the present day we had sailed fourteen thousand four hundred and sixty leagues, and completed the circuit of the world from east to west.

On Monday the eight of September we cast anchor near the Mole of Seville, and there we discharged all the artillery. And on Tuesday we all went, in our shirts and barefoot, and each with a torch in his hand, to visit the shrine of Santa Maria de la Victoria and that of Santa Maria de Antigua.”

Antonio Pigafetta “Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation”, translated and edited by R.A. Skelton in 1969

I discovered “Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Navigation” through another book, as it often happens, – “Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific” by Christina Thompson. May I suggest you to borrow both from the Sea Library and set off on your own reader’s voyage.

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