Ferdinand Magellan and me (67)

see:A Singular Captain

Patagonian giants

As winter came on and the days grew shorter, the snow line crept down the hills. The captain general allowed the chains removed from the mutineers, not for their comfort but so they could work harder. Concepción needed major repairs and all the ships required maintenance. Riggers, carpenters, coopers and sailmakers plied their crafts. Others tanned animal hides for cloaks and shoes and salted down fish and meat. Despite the danger from cannibals, Pigafetta took long, solitary walks and became something of a naturalist describing and drawing plants, animals and trees not known in Europe. The sea abounded with fish, sea wolves, crabs, mussels and oysters. Animals like pygmy camels grazed on stunted bushes. They were easy to catch and good to eat.

Weeks passed with no sign of humans and he had almost decided there were no cannibals here when a man appeared on the shore one day, dancing, leaping and singing while throwing handfuls of dust on his head. He was very big, a veritable giant. His face was painted red with yellow around the eyes and hearts painted on his cheeks. He wore animal hides and shoes made of the same leather. The sailors on Trinidad stopped work to watch and Pigafetta went to call the captain general.

Magellan sent a boat to capture the man and bring him aboard. He ordered he be given a hawk’s bell to tinkle, a comb, a pair of sailor’s breeches and set a red cap on his head, which the cannibal whipped off and threw away. When he was shown a mirror and saw his own face in it he let out a loud cry and jumped back, knocking over three or four sailors. Magellan next gave him a set of rosary beads but had to prevent him eating them.

In following days more natives appeared, including women and children, dancing and singing and pointing a finger in the air. Pigafetta was amazed to see such people. ‘The natives stand straighter than a horse,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘and are very jealous of their wives. They wear a cord around their head to carry their arrows and when they go hunting they bind their private member to their leg because of the cold. When one of them dies, ten or twelve devils painted all over leap and dance around the corpse. The principal devil is called Setebos and the others are called Cheleule, which is like the pope and his priests.’ At a time when Europe was undergoing a religious upheaval led by Martin Luther, Pigafetta had discovered a different religion and was intrigued by the idea of Setebos as an alternative god or devil. Setebos entered the English language in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

Pigafetta can be regarded as the world’s first anthropologist, taking great interest in the native people and their customs. He reports no evidence of cannibalism among the Patagonians, however. We are fortunate to have such a chronicler.

    Patagonian giants.


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Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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