Antonio Pigafetta: Chronicler, Explorer, Anthropologist, Foodie, and Soldier

Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan-Elcano chronicler.
Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan-Elcano chronicler.

Pigafetta went far beyond chronicling the progress of Magellan’s fleet; his passion for learning about cultures and languages made him an early anthropologist of sorts.

Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) was the principal chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition that became the first to circumnavigate the globe in 1519–1522. An Italian scholar-turned explorer, Pigafetta was among the 18 crew members who survived the journey and returned to Spain aboard the nao Victoria, then led by Juan Sebastián Elcano, on Sept. 6, 1522 (at Sanlúcar de Barrameda). Approximately 270 men had set out on the voyage in five ships, sailing under the flag of Charles I, king of a newly united Spain (also Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by the time the fleet departed).

Pigafetta’s Unique Travel Journal

Pigafetta’s journal is the source of most our knowledge of the Magellan-Elcano expedition, as well as the discovery of the Strait of Magellan, that first crossing of the Pacific Ocean, and the “discovery” of the Philippines. 

What’s more, Pigafetta’s richly detailed diary stands out among travelogues and chronicles of explorers in several ways. Pigafetta went beyond recording the journey’s progress. He was somewhat of an early anthropologist, diligently studying the cultures, lifestyles, and languages of the peoples Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet encountered, including the Tupi in Brazil, the Patagonians in South America, the Chomorros in Guam, and peoples in the modern-day Philippines.

Opening Antonio Pigafetta's journal
Opening of Antonio Pigafetta's journal. (Yale University Library).

We also see from Pigafetta’s chronicle a portrait of Pigafetta himself, a man who wrote passionately about foods, eating habits, banquets, ceremonies and wines, all of which he clearly enjoyed.

A good example is Pigafetta’s reporting on the coconut, a food they discovered in the Philippines.

"Cocoanuts are the fruit of the palmtree. Just as we have bread, wine, oil, and milk, so those people get everything from that tree. They get wine in the following manner. They bore a hole into the heart of the said palm at the top called palmito [i.e., stalk], from which distils a liquor which resembles white must. That liquor is sweet but somewhat tart, and [is gathered] in canes [of bamboo] as thick as the leg and thicker.”

Pigafetta’s Vocabulary Samples

Pigafetta found a method of recording sample vocabularies of languages they encountered, from that of the Tupi people in Brazil to the Chamorros in Guam.

Pigafetta’s language samples give us the first recorded knowledge of several languages and also a window into the minds of sixteenth-century Europeans in the words Pigafetta chose. Among the words were foods; animals; parts of the body, including genitalia; and gods and demons. 

Vocabulary of the Patagonians.
Vocabulary of the Patagonians.

Writing about the Patagonians the fleet came across in South America, likely the Tehuelches, an indigenous people in the region, Pigafetta explained his method: 

“That giant whom we had in our ship told me those words; for when he, upon asking me for capac, that is to say, bread, as they call that root which they use as bread, and oli, that is to say, water, saw me write those words quickly, and afterward when I, with pen in hand, asked him for other words, he understood me. All [these] words are pronounced in the throat, for such is their method of pronunciation.”

Despite this explanation, scholars have been perplexed at Pigafetta’s ability to compile these lexicons so quickly. 

Pigafetta’s Relationship with Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan learned of the importance of chroniclers when serving with the Portuguese in Asia a decade earlier. When Vasco da Gama reached East Africa and India in 1498, the Portuguese knew nothing about the region—its geography, its peoples and cultures, or the area’s political and economic rivalries. In fact, Gama’s fleet believed the Hindus they met in India were eastern Christians just with strange ways of worshiping. And most dangerous, they failed to understand the importance of the monsoon winds and spent three deadly months returning across the Indian Ocean off-season.

Only five years later, the Portuguese had mastered the winds, they understood the religions, and viceroys Francisco de Almeida and later Afonso de Albuquerque were able to exploit regional rivalries to establish a trade empire.

This was all due to hard work by chroniclers on numerous expeditions.

During the Magellan-Elcano expedition, Pigafetta was a loyal confidante of Magellan’s and his journal is the source of most of our knowledge of the expedition.

Pigafetta displayed great admiration for Magellan, a tough, secretive captain-general that many of the fleet’s officers despised. Pigafetta, along with Magellan’s slave-interpreter Enrique of Malacca, was among a handful of men who fought beside Magellan to the end at the Battle of Mactan (modern-day Philippines) on April 27, 1521, where Magellan was killed. After Magellan succumbed to blows from spears, the two managed to escape, though both of them wounded.

Pigafetta’s Relationship with Enrique of Malacca

It is curious that Pigafetta mentions Enrique [1] only a few times in his journal. Enrique had been taken as Magellan’s slave in Malacca a decade earlier and apparently spoke several languages and dialects. Enrique’s knowledge of languages and cultures should have intrigued the Italian scholar. The two crewmates also sailed together aboard the flagship Trinidad and over a year and a half had uncountable hours of downtime when there was little to do beyond gambling or gazing at the stars. It's surprising Pigafetta wrote little about Enrique.

In fact, Pigafetta first mentions Enrique of Malacca only when the fleet reaches Limasawa (Philippines), a historic encounter where Enrique is suddenly able to converse with the local people, probably in a Malay dialect used among merchants in the Asian trade network. This was the moment they knew the fleet had reached Asia, had done what Columbus and others had failed to do. It was also the first time, after a year and a half, that Enrique was able to earn his keep as an interpreter.

Still, throughout his journal, Pigafetta refers to Enrique just as a “slave” or “interpreter.” Contrast that to his using Christian names they gave to Patagonian giants John and Paulo

It’s worth noting here that Enrique of Malacca is listed on the flagship Trinidad’s roster as an interpreter with a salary of 1,500 maravedis, a figure 50 percent higher than Pigafetta’s pay of 1,000 maravedis and equal to the pay of Duarte Barbosa, Magellan’s brother-in-law.

Pigafetta likely developed an animosity for Enrique at Cebu; he blamed Enrique for the massacre at Cebu on May 1, 1521. Of 24 men who went ashore ostensibly for a banquet that day, all but two were reported killed in an ambush heard from the ships in the bay, including Duarte Barbosa and Juan Serrano, who had been elected co-commanders after Magellan’s death. Enrique had been spared. 

The fleet left immediately, fleeing for their lives, so no investigation was carried out. Thus it’s uncertain whether Enrique played a role in the ambush (though he certainly had motive).

Pigafetta After the First Circumnavigation

When the Victoria returned to Spain in September 1522, Charles V invited Juan Sebastián Elcano, the fleet’s remaining captain, to bring to court the two crew most knowledgeable about the journey. Elcano snubbed Pigafetta and invited others. 

Pigafetta did not give up, however; he had a story to tell. He went to Valladolid on his own to meet with Charles, but was again treated poorly.

So instead, Pigafetta went to Portugal and told his story to King João III and then to France where he met with the queen mother Marie Louise of Savoy. And while Pigafetta was preparing his journal for publication, he was invited to Rome to report on the expedition to Pope Clement VII, and he wound up working at the Vatican briefly.

Pigafetta After Magellan and Vice Versa

It was partially due to Pigafetta’s efforts to tell his story that the world came to credit Magellan as the driving force behind the first circumnavigation. Magellan overcame tremendous obstacles including sabotage and fears of assassination just to get the Armada de Molucca launched, and in the worst of circumstances after, refused to give up. Pigafetta offered detailed accounts of all this, if sometimes exaggerated.

Antonio Pigafetta statue at Cebu City.
Antonio Pigafetta statue at Cebu City.

Pigafetta’s colorful life didn’t end with Magellan. Pigafetta later gave up his day job in Rome to join the Order of Rhodes, a military-religious order, as a knight. Though he fades from history about that time, it is generally believed that Antonio Pigafetta died fighting the Turks.

By John Sailors

Enrique's Voyage


1. Enrique of Malacca was the first person to circumnavigate the globe linguistically. He had traveled so far in one direction that he came to a land where his own language was spoken, Limasawa in the modern-day Philippines. At that point of the Magellan-Elcano expedition, both Enrique and Ferdinand Magellan had come within 2,600 kilometers of fully circling the globe, with Malacca as the starting point. It's possible Enrique traveled on to Malacca or nearby, and some scholar believe Enrique may have been from the Visayan Islands and had already completed a circle.


• Top, Antonio Pigafetta: original author is unknown (ancient drawing). See [3], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Notes: This portrait (Marasca Collection, Biblioteca Bertoliana of Vicenza) is traditionally believed to represent Antonio Pigafetta. The ancient drawing was based on a statue in the Civic Museum of Vicenza, originally coming from St. Michael church (were the Pigafettas had a family tomb). It really represents another Pigafetta, Gio. Alberto of Gerolamo (d. 1562, 29 years old).

• Images of Pigafetta's journal: Yale University Library. Note: Pigafetta's original manuscript did not survive, but four copies have, three in French and one in Italian. The manuscript at Yale University Library is in French.

• Pigafetta statue at Cebu City: By Defenestrated Juan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 

(C) 2022, by John Sailors.

Review and Discussion Questions

For classroom review or self-study. After reading the article try first to answer these questions off the top of your head, then look back to answer any that you are unsure about.

1. Who was Antonio Pigafetta?

2. What did Antonio Pigafetta do?

3. Did Antonio Pigafetta circumnavigate the globe?

4. Did Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigate the globe?

5. Who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe?

6. Who was Enrique of Malacca?

7. Was Enrique of Malacca the first person to circumnavigate the globe?

8. What did Antonio Pigafetta write?

9. Who was Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler?

10. Who wrote about Ferdinand Magellan during the first circumnavigation?

11. What was Enrique of Malacca’s job? Was Enrique of Malacca a slave?

12. What peoples did the Magellan-Elcano expedition encounter along the journey?

Enrique's Voyage Profiles

On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his language was spoken. Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he became a slave of Ferdinand Magellan. Read more.

Pigafetta went far beyond chronicling the progress of Magellan’s fleet; his passion for learning about cultures and languages made him an early anthropologist of sorts. Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) was the principal chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition that became the first to circumnavigate the globe in 1519–1522. An Italian scholar-turned explorer, Pigafetta was among the 18 crew members who survived the journey and returned to Spain aboard the nao Victoria …  Read more.

Magellan's Real Circumnavigation, Enrique of Malacca Taken as Slave (Magellan, Part 1)

Schoolchildren around the world are taught the name Ferdinand Magellan[1]—“the first person to circumnavigate the globe”—many in grade school and again high school. But few people know Magellan's story, that he was killed in the Philippines halfway through that circumnavigation, and moreover, that he still came within 2,600 kilometers of fully circling the earth. Read more.

For Ferdinand Magellan, life moved swiftly from tropical amphibious combat in Southeast Asia to land war on horseback in North Africa. Magellan returned to Lisbon in 1512 or 1513, bringing with him Enrique, the slave he claimed at Malacca. Unfortunately, the Malay teenager was about all the fortune Magellan collected in seven years’ service in India. Magellan invested the riches he collected in a trade deal that went sour, a slap in the face he learned of on return to Lisbon … Read more.

Spain's King Charles named Magellan captain-general of the Armada de Molucca, but from the start he had to enforce his authority with an iron hand. In Asia a decade earlier Magellan had been more soldier than sailor. Now as commander of a naval fleet, Magellan relied on his military fleet background to maintain control of his own armada. Read more.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V Backs Magellan's Armada

Ferdinand Magellan’s Armada de Molucca was financed by Carlos I (1500–1558), the newly crowned king of a unified Castile and Aragon. Carlos was an eighteen-year-old Habsburg from Flanders who barely spoke Spanish. Between the time he agreed to back Magellan's expedition and its departure, he became Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, and archduke of Austria.   Read More.

Juan de Cartagena Leads Mutiny Against Magellan

Juan de Cartagena, a native of Burgos, was the original captain of the San Antonio and one of the human obstacles Ferdinand Magellan had to overcome on the expedition. History labels Magellan and Columbus and other ship captains as “explorers” and “navigators.” Cartagena is identified as “an accountant and a ship captain” [1], not quite the swashbuckling image that inspires fifth graders in history class.   Read more.

(C) 2022 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.