August 10, 500 years ago: Pigafetta and an unresolved issue

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at Aug 17 2019 10:34 AM

First of two parts

World history’s most significant achievement in sea exploration and discovery and alongside as well, the fate and future of us -- the Philippines and the Filipinos -- was launched five hundred years ago, last Saturday.

Five hundred years ago, August 10 was a Monday. It was San Lorenzo’s Day when the 5-galleon fleet of Ferdinand Magellan set sail from the port of Seville, Spain through the river Quadalquivir, (once named Betis), double-checked travel preparations and requirements at San Lucar de Barrameda. On September 20, 1519, the expedition sailed out into the Atlantic for the unchartered beyond, with imprecise expectations but inspired by faith, heart, hope, fame and profit.

The date might as well, also, mark the countdown to our national celebration of the dawn of the Filipino’s avowed tandem of Christianity and Western civilization, which set us apart from the rest of our archipelagic vicinity. Indeed, that European discovery will always be an indispensable component in any celebration of who we have become and who we are, since.

To the largest of extent, our knowledge about this adventure and who we were comes from the travel journal of one Antonio Pigafetta. This young Venetian, then in his late 20s, from a noble family through whose connections, was able to enlist himself as chronicler of the voyage.

Anchoring in the port of Seville on September 8, 1522, an almost decrepit Victoria completed the very first circumnavigation of the globe in 1124 days, with only 18 survivors, our chronicler Antonio Pigafetta being one of them. The five galleons had a combined crew numbering anywhere from 235 to 280, depending on which archival sources researchers would cite. The traditional textbook count was 237.

Copious notes meticulously taken down by Pigafetta recorded for the first time our flora and fauna, manners and customs including sexual norms, languages and geography, never before known to the Western world. Words in Visayan were first introduced to European intelligentsia through Pigafetta’s published journal.

For the information of Philippine history buffs and aficionados, especially those who are only now getting enthused into knowing much more of our past beyond classroom textbooks as a retirement engagement and pastime, there is the principal all-time reliable Pigafetta’s “Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo” (The First Voyage Around the World) originally written in Italian which was published in Rome in 1525. Volumes XXXIII and XXXIV of the famed Blair & Robinson (B&R) 55-volume series “The Philippine Islands” (1903-09) has an English translation alongside the Italian original.

This is now available electronically aside from available reprints, which are sometimes pricey. The accompanying “Notes” in the B&R are indispensable. For example, names, nationalities and occupations/shipboard assignments of the crew distributed on a per galleon basis. As it turns out, Magellan’s crew was multinational: British, Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Black African, Basque, aside from Spanish and Portuguese. And of course we cannot omit Enrique from Malacca.

The first complete English edition of Pigafetta was published in London in 1874 for the Hakluyt Society, a British institution devoted to recording historic voyages of exploration, translated by Lord Stanley Alderly. (My copy is a “print-on-demand,” a facility now available through the internet.)

In 1969, the Yale University Press produced in high quality a 2-volume, presentation style set in book slipcase, another English translation. This time, the endeavor was based on one of the earlier single-issue editions handwritten in French. Scholars have found that there were three French translations prepared by Pigafetta for the more important of the Magellan voyage patrons. The principal and most important one was, of course, the one in Italian.

Regardless of the first person recollection by one of the 18 survivors of the Magellan expedition, the Pigafetta journal was actually not the first documentation to see print. Pigafetta’s came in 1525. There is Maximillianus Transylvanus, the son of the Archbishop of Salzburg, who interviewed Victoria’s captain, Sebastian Elcano, the pilot Francisco Albo and another survivor. The reportage by Transylvanus started out as letter to his father, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Salzburg. This was before the end of 1522, when much talk in Spain centered upon the Magellan discoveries. This letter saw its printed publication in Rome, January 1523. It was titled “De Moluccis Insulis.” An English translation appears in Volume I of Blair and Robertson.

To complete our resources, there is also the very essential “The Life of Ferdinand Magellan and the First Circumnavigation of the World” by Francis H.H. Guillemard, printed in London 1890. And lastly, in my pile, I have “So Noble a Captain …. the Life and Times of Ferdinand Magellan” by Charles Matthew Parr, New York in 1953.

As the country prepares for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first Europeans and the introduction of Christianity, the better way to participate and celebrate in this historic observation, is naturally, to know of and to understand more of Pigafetta.

Might it not be desirable then, and it is so suggested, for friendship gatherings, socials andeven tertulias over cocktails to dwell upon the events surrounding March 16 and 17, 1521 and the immediate thereafter?

Just to clear up an earlier mix-up contained in our history textbooks, March 16, 1521 (a Saturday) was only the “sighting’ of Samar, from around the isle of Suluan, where the Magellan party bivouacked afloat overnight. It is therefore not the date of “discovery.” March 17, the following day, Sunday, was actually the landing, the going ashore for the very first time. And that was in Homonhon, where the party sojourned for eight days before sailing on.

Much of the attention is naturally being devoted to the Christianity aspect of the event. Indeed much ado has been devoted to what was, once upon a not too distant past, the celebration of the “First Mass” in the Philippines. Out of this arose intellectual controversies with some counterclaims and not without elements of acrimony, either! An attempt to resolve the issue was launched.

Sometime in 1996, the National Historical Institute (NHI) attempted to “resolve a very sensitive historical issue facing our country and our people.” And after almost two years, the NHI panel concluded that “the first-ever Christian mass on Philippine soil on March 31, 1521 was celebrated in the island of Limasawa” shoring up their conclusion by claiming to have undertaken a “rigorous evaluative analysis and appraisal of primary sources” -- none other than “the most complete and reliable account of the Magellan expedition,” the chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta.

Notwithstanding, there is still an on-going debate between Southern Leyte where Limasawa is an island municipality and Butuan City which is in Agusan del Norte province with reference to the definitive venue of that Easter Sunday Mass on March 31, 1521. The historical record from Pigafetta simply says “a mass in Limasawa on that Easter Sunday.” [B&R translation] The Butuanons claim that that site was actually “Masaua” which is in Agusan.

There has been a noticeable change in the arguments, however. Respected historians have shied away from referring to that eucharistic celebration of March 31, 1521 as the “First Mass,” as we were taught in school. Now in more frequent use is the more realistic, and simply “Easter Mass.”

I have argued in the past that to solve the impasse, one has to accept that the issue ought not be anchored on geography but sensibly, upon chronology, whenever any one wishes to speak authoritatively of the “First Mass,” specifically as to venue because, indeed, there was a “First Mass” celebrated on Philippine soil. And it is neither in Butuan’s Masaua nor in Southern Leyte’s Limasawa.

Chronology will conclusively define geography of the venue of the celebration of the First Mass. Next week I will explain why.



Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.

In 1986, the then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.

During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.

After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.

He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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