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Literature / The First Voyage Around The World

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The First Voyage Around The World, also known as Magellan's Voyage Around The World in the English language, is a written account of the three-year (1519-1522) expedition around the world of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer and his fleet the “Armada de Molucca”, with his expedition sponsored and approved by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also known as the Charles I, King of Spain. But not exactly as Magellan doesn’t even reach Spain back as he loses his life on one of the islands of Philippines through a conflict with a certain group of natives in which the first national hero of the Philippines, Datu Lapu-Lapu, belonged to. His body never returned to Spain as well. Hence the journey is also called the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation as Spanish navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano led the return trip to Spain.

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Before it was published by an Italian historian, geographer and travel writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio between 1550 and 1559, Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar, chronicler and one of the few lucky crew members to return from the expedition, wrote about the tales and experiences of their western circumnavigation of the world in the “Report on the First Voyage Around the World” (Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo) in Italian between 1524-1525 and his accounts were distributed to European monarchs in handwritten form. Unfortunately, the original document was not preserved.

This travel narrative is very well known for history enthusiasts that while it has somewhat fantastical accounts like the fleet encountering giants in Patagonia, it has earned a reputation for its remarkably accurate ethnographic and geographical account of the circumnavigation and for one the early contacts of the Europeans to the Pacific Islands and East Indies, more widely known today as the Southeast Asia and their interaction with some the natives of the pre-colonial Philippines (please do note that Philippines as a country didn't exist yet, and friggin' smartasses will mention this).

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A product of its time, there may be some things said in the book that wouldn’t fly well in the current 21st century as there are some descriptions that questions the morality of the fleet because of certain acts and also knowing that this was a Spanish fleet at the time of the Age of Exploration, also downplaying, softly speaking, the cultures they encountered along the way.

Interestingly, this account became the main source for, of all things, a children's animated movie: the 2019 Spanish 3D animation Elcano & Magellan: The First Voyage Around the World, which takes great liberties with the events of the expedition and was controversial in the Philippines for portraying natives in an inaccurate and stereotypical light.

Tropes in The First Voyage Around The World include:

  • Badass Grandpa: Contrary to popular perception, Lapu-lapu was not a young, ripped warrior at the battle of Mactan. As the chief, he was actually described as an old man, possibly pudgy too, and likely didn't fight directly, instead leading and marshalling his barangay (village) to fight Magellan's men.
  • Bold Explorer: Ferdinand Magellan was one of the iconic figures of the Age of Exploration.
  • Dwindling Party: Of the original 270 people of the fleet, only 18 people came back from the expedition; Magellan, the captain-general of the fleet, and his fellow captains doesn't make it back to Sevilla and of the five ships of the fleet, Victoria is the only one to return by circumnavigating the world completely while the others were destroyed by different circumstances (Trinidad, Concepción and Santiago) or returns before even completing the circumnavigation (San Antonio).
  • East Indies: The expedition makes its way through maritime Southeast Asia, including its transit through what later Spanish conquistadores would name the Philippines and claim for the Spanish crown. As yet uncolonised by Spain, the Philippine cultures featured here exist on a cultural continuum with the rest of maritime Southeast Asia, which boasts a mixture of indigenous-Austronesian, Indian and (most recently) Islamic influences.
  • Evil Colonialist: Of course, the expedition would not see itself as this, but Pigafetta does record how Magellan tried to force the precolonial Filipino natives to convert to Catholicism and recognise (i.e. submit to) the Spanish sovereign, with predictably disastrous results. Prior to this he was also known to have torched native settlements on Guam because he thought they were stealing the ship's goods when in fact it had started as a trade misunderstanding.
  • Killed Off for Real: Ferdinand Magellan, the captain-general of the fleet, dies before even making it back to Spain.
  • The Renaissance: The time period this takes place in, during the early 1500s.
  • Tropical Island Adventure: A lot of the voyage naturally consists of sojourns on tropical islands: Guam, present-day Philippines and Indonesia, etc. Subverted, in a sense, however, in that it's not an adventure by any stretch of the imagination for most of the native populations on the receiving end of Magellan's men's abuses. Even for Magellan himself it ends up not being an adventure, killed as he was off the island of Cebu by Visayan chief Lapu-lapu's forces.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: It's a voyage at the start of the Age of Sail, so naturally the expedition crew have to be hardened sailors or the expedition will destroy them via disease, serious injury, bad weather, battles with angry natives, etc.—the tiny minority of 18 that survived out of the vast crew of 270, and the one ship out of five that completed the circumnavigation, very much attest to this.
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