Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Pigafetta’s Thesauri, a Small Nautical Treasure

On their way to the Moluccas, golden land of spices, the Magellan expedition found a way to the treasure chest of mace, clove and nutmeg. Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) followed the well-established route to Brazil, but the passage to the Pacific, its crossing, and the path from the Philippines to the Moluccas were achieved without any nautical documents. Thus arose the need to create them, and they stand as a precious trove of information in the form of rutters and travel diaries written by the crew as they navigated the Strait of Magellan, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sulu, Celebes and Molucca seas.

This new “treasure map” is partly to be found in the Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo by Antonio Pigafetta (1491–1534), one of the few who survived the circumnavigation. Like a vault keeping the secrets of this transoceanic voyage, this travel diary allows us to follow the path of the unexplored route from Seville to the Moluccas and back. Typically conceived as a product from astronomical observation, this route was also created from cultural interactions between expedition members and indigenous people.

Pigafetta’s thesauri of Tupi, Tehuelche, Visaya and Malay languages give us a glimpse of new words and worlds, and illustrate how local knowledge was used in creating the route. While the Tupi words refer to trade, and so tell us that material exchanges were common in Brazil, the documented Tehuelche words show a different phase of the voyage. In Patagonia, where Magellan had no geographic or nautical information about the route to the Moluccas, the linguistic exchanges indicate his interest in navigation topics; this interest is represented by expressions like “water” (holi), “sun” (calexchen), “stars” (settere), “sea” (aro), “wind” (oni), “storm” (ohone), and “to go a long distance” (schien).

This concern intensifies in the Philippines, after a grueling crossing of the Pacific and the death of Magellan in Cebu, when the expedition is unable to reach the Moluccas, given the lack of nautical information about Southeast Asia. The Visaya words display linguistic novelty regarding spices, numbers and navigation, which shows a local maritime culture, a connection to the Moluccas, and the need for the expedition to invent the latter stage of the route. Words like “sun” (adlo), “moon” (songhot), “star” (bolan binthun), “small boat” (sampan), “large boats” (balanghai), “small boats” (boloto), “ship” (benaoa), “captain-general” (raia) illustrate this concern.

The word-gathering reaches its climax during several failed attempts to reach the Moluccas from the Philippines, when native pilots are kidnapped, maps of islands are drawn, and a comprehensive thesaurus of Malay is written, which must have helped the expedition reach Ternate and Tidore. What was of interest in this exchange of information is preserved in words like “seaport” (labuan), “galley” (gurap), “ship” (capal), “stern” (biritan), “to navigate” (belaiar), “sail” (leier), “anchor” (sau), “boat” (sapan), “wind” (anghin), “sea” (lait), “north” (iraga), “south” (salatan), “east” (timor), “west” (baratapat). A seemingly small nautical treasure, these thesauri shine some light on the process of creating a nautical route, made from science, technology and such cultural gems as these encounters.
[Joana Lima]

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