Pigafetta, Brunei's 15th Century Chronicler

My article below was published in Brunei Times on 13th June 2011:


Cavallero Antonio Pigafetta
Brunei’s 15th Century Chronicler

One of the most vivid descriptions about Brunei in the 16th century was provided by a European voyager named Pigafetta. Pigafetta was an Italian but was part of a Spanish crew exploring the Indies. On the return voyage to Spain, they travelled via the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

It was during the return trip to Pigafetta stopped in Brunei and described Brunei very clearly. It was his description that many historians quoted quite extensively. His description is very comprehensive and covered many areas including the first description the city entirely built in salt water.

Parts of his description of Brunei include the following description of Kampong Ayer:

“The city is built in the sea, the King’s palace and the houses of the principal persons excepted. It contains twenty-five thousand hearths or families. The houses are built of wood upon large piles, to keep them from the water. When the tide rises, the women, who are chief venders of necessaries, traverse the town in boats. In front of the King’s place is a large wall, built with bricks of great size, with embrazures, or rather port-holes, as in a fortress; and on the wall are mounted fifty-six bombards of brass, and fix of iron: in course of two days we passed in the city, they made several discharges from these guns.”

Pigafetta described the Sultan as:

“the King, who is a Mahometan, is called Rajah Siripada. He is very corpulent and may be about forty years of age. He is waited upon by women alone, the daughters of the chief inhabitants of the island. No one is allowed to address him otherwise than in the manner I have described, through a sarbacane. He has ten secretaries constantly employed on different matters of state, who write on a very thin epidermis of certain trees which is called chiritoles. He never leaves his palace upon any occasion other than to hunt.”

Who was Pigafetta? Pigafetta was named Cavallero Antonio Pigafetta born in 1491 and died in 1534. He was an Italian scholar and traveller from today’s Austrian city of Venice then known as the Republic of Venice. In his book, he described himself as ‘a gentleman of Vicenza, and Knight of Rhodes’.

Pigafetta himself came from a rich family and is independently wealthy. As a young man, he studied subjects related to seafaring and travel such as astronomy, cartography and geography. The voyage with Magellan was not his first. He had served on the ships of the Knights of Rhodes at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

In 1519, Pigafetta accompanied the papal nuncio, Monsignor Chieregati to Spain. It was in Seville, Spain that Antonio Pigafetta heard of Magellan’s planned expedition and he decided to join the crew. In a translation from an 1819 book entitled “A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of America: many of which are now first translated into English” by John Pinkerton, Pigafetta described,

“As there are men whose curiosity would not be satisfied with merely hearing related the marvelous things I have seen, and the difficulties I experienced in the course of the perilous expedition I am about to describe, and who are anxious to know by what means I was enabled to surmount them; and as due credit by such would not be given to the success of a similar undertaking if they were left ignorant of its most minute details, I have deemed it expedient briefly to relate what gave origin to my voyage, and the means by which I was so fortunate as to bring it to a successful termination.”

“In the year 1519, I was in Spain at the court of Charles V, King of the Romans, in company with Signor Chiericato, then apostolical prothonotary and orator of Pope Leo X of holy memory, who by his merits was raised to the dignity of Bishop and Prince of Teramo. Now, as from the books I had read, and from the conversation of the learned men who frequented the house of this prelate, I knew that by navigating the ocean wonderful things were to be seen; I determined to be convinced of them by my own eyes, that I might be enabled to give to others the narrative of my voyage, as well for their amusement, as advantage, and at the same time acquire a name which should be handed down to posterity.”

“An opportunity soon presented itself. I learnt that a squadron of five vessels was under equipment at Sevilla, destined for the discovery of the Molucca Islands, whence we derive our spices; and that Fernandez Magellan, a Portuguese gentleman, and commander of the order of St Jago de la Spata, who had already more than once traversed the ocean with great reputation, was nominated captain-general of the expedition. I therefore immediately repaired to Barcelona, to request permission of His Majesty to be one on this voyage, which permission was granted. Thence, provided with letters of recommendation, I went by sea to Malaga, and form that city over-land to Sevilla, where I waited three months before the expedition was in readiness.”

Pigafetta accepted the title of sobrasaliente or supernumerary (temporary staff) and a pay of 1,000 maravedis. It was during the expedition Pigafetta became Magellan’s assistant. He kept an accurate and meticulous journal throughout the journey. There were 240 men who set out from Seville together with Pigafetta.

They travelled around the world exploring parts of the Indies, the Americas and later arrived in Asia. It was in Mactan, Philippines that Magellan was killed by the natives there. Pigafetta himself was wounded. He recorded that Magellan was killed on 27 April 1521 and described the battle between the islanders and the Spanish. The captain was killed when “… an islander at length succeeded in thrusting the end of his lance through the bars of his helmet, and wounding the captain in the forehead … he now attempted to draw his sword, but was unable … the Indians who perceived this, pressed in crowds upon him …”

Captain Juan Sebastian Elcano took over the leadership on the death of Magella. Pigafetta managed to recover. Captain Elcano together with Pigafetta was among 18 men out of the original 240 who limped back in Spain at the port in Salucar de Barrameda, Province of Cadiz in September 1522.

Pigafetta returned to Venice. Pigafetta wrote about his experiences in his book entitled Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (Report on the First Voyage Around the World) originally published in Italian. The book was published in French when Charles Amoretti translated it into French. The manuscript was not published in its entirety until the late eighteenth century.

Pigafetta described that he wrote the book because ‘on my return to Italy, His Holiness the Sovereign Pontiff Clement VII, of whom I had the honour of an audience at Monterosi, and to whom I related the adventures of my voyage, received me with great kindness, and told me that I should much oblige him in affording a copy of the jounal of my voyage’. Pigafetta dedicated his book and the Island of Rhodes to the Grand Master of Rhodes.


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