The cultural diversity of the first circumnavigation of the globe

Fernando Sáez Lara

Director, National Anthropology Museum

The 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the globe seems to us an excellent and urgent opportunity to ask ourselves what has become, five hundred years later, of the communities with which the members of the expedition came into contact. I speak of those whom, in his way, but always in a very meaningful manner, moved by the perplexity caused by such diversity, Pigafetta describes to us throughout his chronicle of each day’s run, one of the great treasures left to us by this voyage, thanks to the fact that Antonio miraculously survived all the adversities. Have they also survived the processes of colonisation and alienation that have taken place over these five centuries? How have they adapted? Have their members mixed with other peoples and other cultures, by force or voluntarily, giving rise to new identities? Those who inhabit the regions today, are they or do they feel like descendants of those societies? And especially, what does it represent in their own history, what mark has it left on their collective memory, the fact that several ships carrying real bearded ‘aliens’ weighed anchor for a few days off their coasts at some point between 1519 and 1522?

In fact, the logical thing to do would be to refer this question to those communities, for it to be them who state their opinion directly, without mediation or determining factors, with greater or less political correctness, using whatever media or expressions they prefer, and in order to do so, virtually repeat that exceptional voyage.

First putting in at Rio de Janeiro and its Favela Museum to listen to the voices of the most radical element of that mestiza society, unequal yet fascinating, that is Brazil today. In addition to mourning the very recent and tragic loss of one of the most important ‘banks’ of its collective memory, the National Museum in Rio.

Then sailing along the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to engage in conversation with the people of the most varied origins who now inhabit them, as a result of late but highly traumatic colonisation processes, sheltered by distance from the confines of the world.

Next crossing the enormous ocean the explorers themselves christened the ‘Pacific’. And while on it we might perhaps run aground on a territory then non-existent, the island of plastic – another fruit of poorly understood and even more poorly managed ‘progress’ – which, had it existed, would not have provided any aid to the desperate sailors, quite the contrary.

Finally weighing anchor in Guam, which is not an island of thieves, as it is unjustly described in the chronicle, but today the place where a Chamorro culture flourishes, with a keen awareness of its own history and its identity, marked by the relationship with remote domineering cultures over the past few centuries.

Continuing our voyage to Cebu and Mactan to hear a very different version to what we know of the ‘incident’ that cost Magalhães his life and why Lapulapu is considered a hero and the members of the 1521 expedition intruders who, as such, it was necessary to expel.

And carrying on to make the return voyage via Brunei, Sulawesi, Cape Town and Cape Verde with the same intention, stopovers where we want to create invitations to establish an
ongoing intercultural dialogue. This will allow us to reread the past in many voices, but also build a future based on mutual respect and acceptance of the viewpoint of others as being as valid and legitimate as our own.

Because we also believe that this is an overdue but fortunate occasion to gauge the pulse of the cultural and social panorama of the world in which we live, at the dawn of the third
millennium, with its inherited or present conflicts and its future opportunities. And that this should start with the voices and testimony of the people who inhabit a few corners of the
planet, in as random yet meaningfully cross-cutting a manner as may be permitted by following the steps of another handful of people, those who 500 years ago sailed round that
world for the first time.

Image by José Manuel Núñez de la Fuente