Saturday, 5 December 2015

Pigafetta on the Cannons of 'Burne'

        Antonio Pigafetta visited Borneo in July 1521 during the first circumnavigation of the world, immediately after Magellan's fatal encounter with the Filipino chieftain Lapu-Lapu at Mactan in the Visayas (where Mactan-Cebu International Airport now stands). Given that Pigafetta was one of the first Europeans to document the islands of Indonesia in real detail (at least those parts of them that he visited), as opposed to the rather vague hints found in other European texts and the martial orientation of Afonso de Albuquerque, his is one of the more vital and illuminating European pieces for understanding Indonesia on the cusp of serious European influence. Pigafetta's manuscript was finished in 1525; there are three extant versions in French and one in Italian, Pigafetta's native language. I'll mostly be using the Italian one, because that's the one I've got.
Borneo - a map by Pigafetta. 'Burne' is clearly labelled in the north, although this is a vague and inaccurate map. Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that the white houses are intended to be depictions of houses on piles along the river? That would certainly be typical of Borneo architecture.
       I'll be dealing with bits and pieces from Pigafetta over time, but first I'll start with a brief point about cannons, following on from the earlier post on artillery in Melaka. Describing the city of Burne, presumably identifiable with Brunei (and certainly in northern Borneo), Pigafetta says (Italian version):
Dinnanzi la casa del re è uno muro de quadrelli grosso, con barbacani a modo de fortezza, nel quale erano cinquantasei bombarde de metallo e sei de ferro. In li due giorni che stessemo ivi, ne scaricarono molte.
      Robert Nicholl translated it like this: 'In front of the king's house there is a wall made of great bricks, with barbicans like forts, upon which were fifty-six bombards of metal, and six of iron. They fired many shots from them during the two days that we passed in the city.' You can find this translation in Victor King (ed., 1992), The Best of Borneo Travel, OUP.

      Clearly, again, gunpowder was not unknown - it seems to have been plentiful. Metal cannons (most presumably bronze) were found even in Borneo, hardly at the centre of the Malay world, and while they were almost certainly the small cannons known as lela or rentaka in Malay, as at the battle of Melaka in 1511, they seem to have functioned as both practical military tools and status symbols for local potentates.

      If Albuquerque is to be believed, these cannons were cast in local foundries by experts as good as any in Europe. Remember that this was the early sixteenth century and before serious European involvement in this part of the world - another reminder that island Southeast Asia was not and is not on the periphery of our world.

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