Pigafetta and the encounter of cultures

In 1982, upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez delivered an eloquent acceptance speech before a largely European audience. I will quote from this speech at length because it begins ominously with a reference to the chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta, who was with Ferdinand Magellan in that historic voyage that took off from Spain 500 years ago in quest of a westerly route to the Spice Islands in today’s Indonesia.

The armada of five ships rounded the western coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic toward Brazil. For several months, Magellan’s fleet explored the eastern coast of South America desperately searching for a waterway that would lead them out to the Pacific Ocean. In the course of this quest, they encountered the native inhabitants of these coastal communities.

Best known for his novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” an incomparable work of magical realism, the Nobel laureate began his speech thus: “Antonio Pigafetta, a Florentine navigator who went with Magellan on the first voyage around the world, wrote, upon his passage through our southern lands of America, a strictly accurate account that nonetheless resembles a venture into fantasy….”

“Since then, the Europeans of good will — and sometimes those of bad, as well — have been struck, with ever greater force, by the unearthly tidings of Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend….”

The extraordinary events that have haunted this continent in contemporary times, Garcia Marquez goes on to say, have not ceased to happen. But, the Western world appears to view these realities as no more than a part of the exoticism that grips this unfortunate segment of humanity — a source of awe and wonder but ultimately incomprehensible. “[W]e have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

“The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary. Venerable Europe would perhaps be more perceptive if it tried to see us in its own past.” The novelist knew only too well not just what Europe went through, but also the violence and the pillaging and the slave-taking that accompanied its rise to modernity and prosperity.

“Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions?”

I was not fully aware of the depth of Garcia Marquez’s message when I first read his speech. His citation of Pigafetta’s chronicles did not prompt me to go looking for a copy of the latter’s famous account of the first voyage around the world. I guess I had only associated Pigafetta with the vivid narration of the Battle of Mactan and the first Mass to be celebrated in our country. But there is clearly more to the little book he wrote than the average Filipino reader would care to know.

Pigafetta was an ethnographer. He did not only keep a diary of the voyage; he also sought to describe in as detailed a way as possible what he was witnessing throughout the journey — the plants and the animals, the landscape, but above all the natives they encountered. He took pains to describe how they looked, how they behaved, how they reacted, and what they were trying to communicate through words and gestures. As he was keeping record for a European readership, he tried to interpret what he was seeing as a European, never doubting the superiority of this point of view.

It was an ethnocentric view. Gabriel Garcia Marquez captured this Western ethnocentrism so well: “[I]t is understandable that the rational talents on this side of the world, exalted in the contemplation of their own cultures, should have found themselves without valid means to interpret us. It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them.”

Magellan’s expedition was marred by recurrent treachery and mutiny among his men. Being Portuguese, albeit in the service of the Spanish king, he was distrusted by many of the Spanish officers who traveled with him. Though they shared the same culture, he remained wary of his own men.

These men were even more inclined to be watchful about deception when dealing with the natives they encountered. The exchange of gifts, mutual visits, and feasting usually bridged the communication gap that marked these encounters. Still, they remained on their guard, never fully trusting the quick friendships that were struck.

Though they did not come purposely to spread their faith, these harbingers of Spanish colonization were quick to baptize the natives who showed them hospitality and felt comfortable in their presence. At the same time, they didn’t seem to find anything wrong in taking as captives two trusting Patagonian “giants” they had christened and invited to their ships.

One must ask whether these early baptisms were meant to be taken seriously — as recognition of equality before God’s eyes — or they were nothing more than just another method of pacification.