While rummaging through the stacks at my local library, I uncovered one of those handsome old volumes that only catch your eye when you’re in a hurry and looking for something else. It was a folio facsimile edition (with parallel translation) of Antionio Pigafetta’s Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo. Pigafetta was an Italian aristocrat who paid a sum of money to ride as passenger on Ferdinand Magellan’s famed circumnavigation of the globe, and the Relazione is his personal account of the trip. The subject matter and heft of book itself were so impressive I abandoned whatever it was I was looking for and took home Pigafetta instead.
Pigafetta was an intellectually curious fellow, a student of astronomy, geography, and cartography. He had served at sea with the Knights of St John, and on land as a member of the diplomatic corps of the apostolic nuncio in Spain, Monsignor Chieregati. Despite some personal frictions with Magellan, he volunteered to serve as the expedition’s cartographer.
In fact, Magellan wasn’t interested in making the first-ever circumnavigation. He was looking for a quick route to the Moluccas. And Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines at the Battle of Mactan, so he only personally made it half way. It’s hardly proper, then, to call it “Magellan’s” circumnavigation; it might just as well have been Pigafetta’s, since he was the only one of the few survivors to write about the journey. But Pigafetta is an unfortunate name, and Magellan a grand sounding name, and one suspects sometimes that’s just how history works.
Through most in the Relazione, Pigafetta tempers his obvious taste for the fantastic with an eye for plausible detail, and so he builds a sort of trust in the reader. When one comes to the expedition’s adventures with the native Patagonians, however, Pigafetta begins to sound less reliable. The native Patagones, he says, are a race of giants (the region itself, according to one myth of etymology, was named by Magellan to commemorate the great size of the natives’ feet). In a passage that would exercise the European imagination for centuries afterward, Pigafetta describes the initial encounter with the Patagones like this:
One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist…
“Only to his waist….” Consider this for a moment. Pigafetta is not reporting something at second or third-hand but he was himself present at this encounter. Allowing that Europeans may have been somewhat shorter in the early 16th century than they are today, and that the Patagones may well have been remarkably tall by comparison, how much room do we allow for innocent hyperbole? If we take Pigafetta’s account at face value, even if no one on board Magellan’s ship was taller than, say, five feet, that would still put the Patagones at something nearer ten feet – which would make them more than tall, it would make them downright brobdingnagian.
In a second curiously influential passage, Pigafetta describes how, when in distress, the Patagones invoked a god by the name of Setebos, who also happened to be taller than your average deity. Of Patagonian funeral rites he says:
When one of those people die, ten or twelve demons all painted appear to them and dance very joyfully about the corpse. They notice that one of those demons is much taller than the others, and he cries out and rejoices more. They paint themselves exactly in the same manner as the demon appears to them painted. They call the larger demon Setebos, and the others Cheleulle. That giant also told us by signs that he had seen the demons with two horns on their heads, and long hair which hung to the feet belching forth fire from mouth and buttocks.
To judge by this description of Setebos, Pigafetta must have been a great admirer of Dante: complete with fire-belching buttocks, Setebos sounds as if he were lifted directly from one of the more unintentionally comic passages of the Inferno. It’s tempting to suggest that either Pigafetta was borrowing details for the sake of adding interest to the story, or else he was a remarkably quick study in Patagonian sign language. One can only wonder how he was able to gain such detailed ethnographic information from his colossal interlocutor when their conversation was carried on, according to him, entirely “by signs.”
Pigafetta’s book was one of the first best-sellers in the history of moveable type. After its initial publication in 1525, it was almost immediately translated into English and several other languages. Practically overnight, maps of the region were denoted “Regio Gigantum,” – as charming a descriptor as other famous cartographic cop-outs like “Hic Sunt Dracones” and “Terra Incognita.”
As European exploration of South America continued, tales of Patagonian giants kept pace. Anthony Knivet’s account of his mid-16th century travels through the southern hemisphere include reference to them (he claims to have seen corpses measuring twelve feet head to toe), as does an account of Drake’s 1578 voyage through the Straits, published a half century later by his nephew. There were doubters, to be sure, but, amazingly, the debate continued well into the Age of Reason. In a 1756 account, the Frenchman Charles de Brosses claimed to have seen an adolescent giant in Brazillian captivity. John Byron (grandfather to the poet and owner of the heroic maritime sobriquet “Foul Weather Jack”) published a pseudonymous account of contact with the Patagonian giants in the 1766 book, Voyage Round the World in His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin. It was a final flourish, however, and increased exposure to Europeans seems to have infected the Patagones with a sort of shrinking disease that eventually reduced them, by general consensus, to a relatively short six feet on average.
Setebos was also made a fixture of the popular imagination, appearing in popular chivalric romances, nursery tales, and children’s nightmares even as his worship began to vanish from the howling extremities of his homeland. Setebos gets a nod in Robert Browning’s Caliban upon Setebos, Or, Natural Theology in the Island; which, in turn, points back to Setebos’s most famous appearance, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Caliban, the misbegotten child of the witch Sycorax, invokes the demon (“O Setebos, these be brave spirits indeed!”) and, in a passage lamenting his enforced service to Prospero, describes Setebos as the god of his mother:
I must obey: his art is of such power,
It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,
And make a vassal of him.
It makes a fun piece of Shakespeare trivia to say, then, that Sycorax and Caliban were Patagonian exiles.
Pigafetta’s end is interesting, too. Of the five ships and nearly 300 men that set out under Magellan’s command in 1519, only one ship and 18 men returned in 1522. After three years at sea, through encounters with giants, storm, disease, mutiny, bloody battle, a late arrival in the Spice Islands and the long return across the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope, Pigafetta was one of the lucky few to return to Spain in one piece.
In Italy, while working on his book, Pigafetta was summoned for Papal service in Rome. There he met Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam, grand master of the Order of the Knights of St John, the order he had once shipped with as a younger man. Pigafetta was initiated into the order by Villiers himself in 1524. The Knights Hospitallers, as they were also known, had been expelled from the Holy Land by Muslim forces and since 1310 had been based on the Isle of Rhodes. Now Rhodes had fallen to the Turks and Villiers was in Rome looking for a new sanctuary. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V eventually granted him the island of Malta, and of course we know them today as the Knights of Malta.
Antonio Pigafetta completed his book in Venice. It was published in 1525, and dedicated to Villiers. Pigafetta then retired into a semi-monastic life and the man who had circled the globe, visited (or invented) the antipodal Regio Gigantum, and pickled the demon Setebos for Old World consumption, died as a Knight of St John on the island of Malta in 1536.