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  • John and Paul: The Patagonian Giants March 26, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Antonio Pigafeta aka Antonio Lombardo (obit 1531) was a lucky man. He was one of 17 of circa 230 men to make it back from Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world. He was also a fine writer and described in his Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (1524) Magellan’s adventures, death and the mission’s return to Spain. Pigafetta is sometimes a confusing narrator – he is not always very lineal. He is also very much a medieval Christian seeing existence, even in distant and foreign lands through the lens of the Gospels and his ‘familiar’ saints. But there is no reason for thinking him particularly unreliable. Perhaps the worst that can be said of his account is that as neither his manuscript nor his diaries survive we cannot always be sure of how much came from his own pen and how much was elaboration. Unfortunately, for those who like their history boring his descriptions of the giants of Patagonia are very much his own work…

    We remained thirteen days in this country of Verzin, and, departing from it and following our course, we went as far as thirty-four degrees and a third towards the Antarctic pole; there we found, near a river, men whom they call ‘cannibals’, who eat human flesh, and one of these men, great as a giant, came to the captain’s ship to ascertain and ask if the others might come. This man had a voice like a bull, and while this man was at the ship his companions carried off all their goods which they had to a castle further off, from fear of us. Seeing that, we landed a hundred men from the ships, and went after them to try and catch some others; however they gained in running away. This kind of people did more with one step than we could do at a bound…

    This description has nothing particularly troubling. It seems as if Magellan’s crew came upon a particularly tall native. Then too impressions of dimensions are also easily distorted when meeting a completely new and unexpected culture.

    Still as Magellan’s tiny fleet moves further to the west some of Pigafetta’s accounts become a little harder to explain away.

    Departing thence as far as forty nine degrees and a half in the Antarctic heavens (as we were in the winter), we entered into a port to pass the winter, and remained there two whole months without ever seeing anybody. However, one day, without anyone expecting it, we saw a giant, who was on the shore of the sea, quite naked, and was dancing and leaping, and singing, and whilst singing he put sand and dust on his head. Our captain sent one of his men towards him, whom he charged to sing and leap like the other to reassure him, and to show him friendship. This he did, and immediately the sailor led this giant to a little island where the captain was waiting for him; and when he was before us he began to be astonished, and to be afraid, and be raised one finger on high thinking that we came from heaven. He was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist; however, he was well built.

    ‘He was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist…’ Is Pigafetta misremembering a startling encounter? Is the correcting ‘he was well built’ meant to communicate that this giant was exceptional even among his own people? If the answer to the second question is yes we are still though talking about an individual who is twelve feet high… Just to give a sense of scale, the picture above is of Robert Wadlow who was almost nine feet tall and who suffered from gigantism with abnormally long legs.

    Magellan and his men gradually build up a trusting relationship with the locals, shocking them with mirrors (‘when the giant saw his likeness in it, he was greatly terrified, leaping backwards, and made three or four of our men fall down’) and giving out trinkets – the colonial glass bead game.

    Again and again though it is the dimensions of the giants that strike our author:

    Then these men came, who carried only their bows in their hands; but their wives came after them laden like donkeys, and carried their goods. Those women are not as tall as the men, but they are sufficiently large. When we saw them we were all amazed and astonished, for they had breasts half an ell [about five feet] long, and had their faces painted, and were dressed like the men. But they wore a small skin before them to cover themselves. They brought with them four of those little beasts of which they make their clothing [llama], and they led them with a cord in the manner of dogs coupled together.

    If an ell really is about five feet long and if the women were smaller than the men and if our twelve foot giant was exceptional even in Patagonia then are we still dealing with, what, eight foot women? Of course, any number of these could be exaggerations and misremembering.

    In that distant hazy, southern winter  friendships of sorts were struck up.

    Six days after, our people on going to cut wood, saw another giant, with his face painted and clothed like the above, he had in his hand a bow and arrows, and approaching our people he made some touches on his head and then on his body, and afterwards did the same to our people. And this being done he raised both his hands to heaven. When the captain-general knew all this, he sent to fetch him with his ship’s boat, and brought him to one of the little islands which are in the port, where the ships were. In this island the captain had caused a house to be made for putting some of the ships’ things in whilst he remained there. This giant was of a still better disposition than the others, and was a gracious and amiable person, who liked to dance and leap. When he leapt he caused the earth to sink in a palm depth at the place where his feet touched.

    Once more Beachcombing’s must point to Pigafetta’s memory of the enormous size of these giants.

    He was a long time with us, and at the end we baptised him, and gave him the name of John. This giant pronounced the name of Jesus, the Pater noster, Ave Maria, and his name as clearly as we did: but he had a terribly strong and loud voice. The captain gave him a shirt and a tunic of cloth, and seaman’s breeches [to wear?], a cap, a comb, some bells, and other things, and sent him back to where he had come from. He went away very joyous and satisfied. The next day this giant returned, and brought one of those large animals before mentioned [llama], for which the captain gave him some other things, so that he should bring more. But afterwards he did not return, and it is to be presumed that the other giants killed him because he had come to us.

    In fact, relations with the locals now sour as Magellan’s men take a prisoner, alienating the rest of the tribe. Soon after the ships move on.

    The captain named this kind of people Pataghom [Patagonians, big feet], who have no houses, but have huts made of the skins of the animals with which they clothe themselves, and go hither and thither with these huts of theirs, as the gypsies do; they live on raw meat, and eat a certain sweet root, which they call Capac. These two giants that we had in the ship ate a large basketful of biscuit, and rats without skinning them, and they drank half a bucket of water at a time.

    Despite rumours circulating for centuries afterwards no people resembling these amiable giants were ever discovered: and it goes without saying that Magellan’s prisoner – baptised as Paul – did not make it to Europe. So how do we explain this concrete source describing impossibly large people? Beachcombing would appeal to memory tricks and the distortion of the senses in an exotic setting – perhaps you don’t need to draw the margins of maps to see dogheads. But still… Weird. Any other explanations or sightings of big folk: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com