Author Topic: Historian's commentary on Gines de Mafra's account of the Magellan expedition  (Read 13923 times)

Joe Carillo

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Mafra’s account of the Magellan expedition
By Dr. Jorge Mojarro Romero, Ph.D

This commentary on the eyewitness accounts of Gines de Mafra and Antonio Pigafetta--they were a crewmember and the official chronicler, respectively, of the Magellanic Fleet and its landmark sojourn in the Philippine archipelago 500 years ago--came out in the Opinion section of the March 9, 2021 issue of The Manila Times. The Spanish historian Dr. Jorge Mojarro expressed the hope that this brief reminder about Gines de Mafra's eyewitness account of the Magellanic expedition will highlight the necessity to read the original sources critically and to compare the different versions of events to arrive at a more accurate and truthful reconstruction of the past.

WE must congratulate ourselves for the good luck that Antonio Pigafetta enjoyed. In an expedition with too many casualties and too few survivors, it was almost a miracle that the chronicler of the expedition was able to arrive at Seville in September 1521 after circumnavigating the world through Portuguese waters. Without his account, the reconstruction of numerous details of what happened would have been forgotten forever.

However, the fact that Pigafetta’s account is the most important source should not hide the fact that he also had his biases. Some of them are easy to trace. For example, he was a close friend of Magellan and sincerely lamented his death. Therefore, he only had praises for him. At the same time, he does not mention, even once, the name of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the captain of the Victoria, most probably because he took part in the first mutiny against Magellan before entering the Pacific Ocean. Hiding his name was a deliberate way to deny something very precious that he actually deserved for what he did later: posterity.

Likewise, the undeniable importance of Pigafetta’s account should not make us forget that there were other witnesses’ accounts and sources. Among them, the one written by a simple member of the crew, Ginés de Mafra.

He was a native of Jerez de la Frontera, but he was living in Palos de la Frontera (Huelva), a town of renowned pilots, when he joined the expedition led by Magellan. He was a member of La Trinidad, the ship led by Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa that first attempted — and failed — to cross the Pacific to go back to New Spain. Captured by the Portuguese in the Moluccas Islands, he endured imprisonment in the Banda islands, Malacca, Cochin and Lisbon until he was finally freed at the beginning of 1527 just to discover that his wife, believing he was dead, had remarried and sold all his properties.

Mafra must have loved life at sea. He joined the conqueror Pedro de Alvarado in his expedition to Guatemala in 1531 as a pilot, and later, in 1542, he joined the trans-Pacific expedition led by Ruy López de Villalobos and arrived a second time in the Philippines. An anonymous member of that expedition was writing a history of Spanish navigation in the Pacific with the help of previous survivors, who were also taking part in the Villalobos expedition. Mafra, who had written his own account of the Magellan expedition, gave his papers to this unknown chronicler, whose text is now preserved in two manuscripts: in the British Library (complete) and in the Biblioteca Nacional de España (incomplete).

Mafra’s account was edited the first time in 1920, and his remarks are absolutely striking. He provides a narration from below, from the point of view of a member of the crew, who had to suffer periods of hunger and the authoritarianism of Magellan. In fact, Mafra did not lament his death, claiming it was a consequence of his own stupidity and vanity since the expedition had nothing to win from that clash.

Several times, he mentions Magellan’s search for gold, which might reinforce a hypothesis defended by several historians: the Portuguese captain might have thought he was in Japan, an archipelago which he knew was located in an undetermined area north of the Moluccas islands.

Regarding the controversial location of Mazaua, he mentions: “The island enjoyed many provisions, and it was wealthy and populated. Magellan rested on the island [of Mazaua], and on the day that they agreed upon, the armada left for the other island. Magellan learned from this Lord of Mazaua that there was a large amount of gold in a province called Butuan, which was in the northern part of the island of Mindanao about fifteen leagues distant from Mazaua and where people came from other parts with various merchandise just to trade this [gold].” Fifteen leagues is around 84 kilometers, but let’s not forget he was writing about the events twenty years after they happened.

His opinions regarding the inhabitants of the archipelago tended to be simple: he liked the people who generously provided food and drinks — natives of Leyte — while he disliked the unsupportive or opposing ones — natives of Cebu. Unlike Pigafetta, he was not too curious about the culture of the islands he was visiting, probably because he was too concerned about his own survival.

Nevertheless, I hope this brief reminder of Mafra serves to highlight the necessity to read critically the original sources and to compare the different versions of events before carrying out a sound reconstruction of the past. The accounts of the witnesses of the events must prevail over later elaborations.

Dr. Jorge Mojarro Romero, PhD, is a Spanish historian currently engaged in editing and annotating various researches in Philippine history after taking a fellowship from 2018-2019 at the Research Center for Culture Arts and Humanities of the University of Santos Tomas in Manila. He earned his doctorate in Spanish and Latin-American Literature from the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain and has master's degrees in teaching Spanish as a foreign language and in Spanish philology from two other universities in Spain. He teaches at present as a Spanish language professor at the Instituto Cervantes de Manila.

Click this link for Dr. Mojarro's commentary on "Mafra’s account of Magellan expedition" as it appeared in The Manila Times

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« Last Edit: March 10, 2021, 12:10:33 AM by Joe Carillo »