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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Ferdinand Magellan and me(35)

Pigafetta's map of Timor

Pigafetta’s map of Timor

Pigafetta’s gift to the world.

click for Ferdinand Magellan

The most serious casualty of our shipwreck at Nishtun was my facsimile edition of Antonio Pigafetta’s journal of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage. It had turned to sludge along with several charts in the panic of trying to refloat Wathara.

Pigafetta’s memoir deserves to be classified a world heritage treasure: unique in its time, shrewd in its observations and even entertaining. Pigafetta can be regarded as the world’s first anthropologist. At a time when the Spanish empire was invading South America, trashing local culture and enslaving or murdering the natives, Pigafetta showed a genuine interest in the appearance, the customs and above all the language of the people he encountered along the way.

I am very fond of Pigafetta. I have a vision of him sitting cross-legged interviewing the alleged cannibals of Brazil or the giants of Patagonia, transcribing their words to a wax tablet. Later he would collect these words into the first lexicons of their native languages. He took a particular interest in one native of Patagonia whom he named Paul. Magellan had captured this man by trickery and clapped him in chains, planning to convert him to Christianity and take him back to Spain like a zoo specimen. Pigafetta protected him as best he could and cared for him until he eventually died of starvation or scurvy. Paul gave the first Patagonian word, Setebos to the English language via Pigafetta’s journal and Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Upon his return to Spain Pigafetta presented a copy of his journal to the king, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. His aim was, as he said to the king, that the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time. He wrote versions of his tale for the king of Portugal and the Regent of France. His work was plagiarised by Maximilian of Transylvania, bastard son of the Cardinal Archbishop of Salzburg who had the document published and promoted throughout Europe and eventually Britain.

Returning to Italy, Pigafetta met Philippe de Villiers l’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the order of the Knights of St John. They apparently hit it off together and Pigafetta was initiated into the order. He wrote another manuscript of his story and presented it to the Grand Master. He also obtained permission from the Doge of Venice to publish his book. Over the years, a number of these manuscripts have emerged and fetch high prices at antiquarian book stores. Pigafetta’s memoir of the first circumnavigation of the world has been published several times from different sources. Many books have been based upon it but the original, illustrated with water colour sketches, is the only reliable one.

Pigafetta joined the Knights of St John in Malta and died there in 1534.




Pigafetta’s journal of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage






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