Category Archives: History

No End of Charlie Johnsons

According to Erik Larsen in The Devil in the White City, visitors to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair were able to drop their children at an official daycare and retrieve them by claim check in the evening. The only child never reclaimed by his parents that summer was a boy named Charlie Johnson. Armed with Larsen’s single mention, I spent all of five minutes researching the story – just long enough to learn nothing solid and yet develop a fanciful hypothesis I’m loath to spoil by looking into it any deeper.

I would very much like to believe that the orphaned Charlie Johnson mentioned by Larsen was the illegitimate namesake son of a famous Mormon photographer and an unknown vaudeville actress.

Charles Ellis Johnson was known for his stereographs of Utah landmarks like the Saltair Pavilion and the freshly dedicated Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. He also had a sideline making boudoir portraits of burlesque dancers and actress. One of his subjects was the poet, spiritualist and sometime-actress Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whom I can’t help mentioning. Advised by Johnson that one of his coreligionists found a photograph of her distasteful, Wilcox replied: “Tell the gentleman that I am sorry he should object to a little bit of neck. He probably had a surfeit of necks in his plural wives, and it gave him a sort of physical indigestion. You see what a terrible thing polygamy is sometimes, when it unfits a man for appreciating a pretty shoulder.”

I do not suggest that Wilcox was our Charlie’s mother. Johnson photographed innumerable young women who might have been more susceptible to smooth talk and promises of free publicity: nameless dance hall lovelies wrapped in white tulle to simulate nudity, some cradling kittens to their erupting bosoms, others half-undressed and having all kinds of trouble with their stockings. One of these unknowns, by my theory, was our young Charlie’s mother. I do not know her name.

As I imagine it, she’d given birth to Charlie in 1890 or ‘91 and named the boy for his absent father, believing still that Johnson would leave his wife (a later daughter of Brigham Young) and run off with her instead. Of course he didn’t. He may have sent money from time to time, but never enough, and his erstwhile mistress and their child spent bleak winter nights eating beans and oatmeal in a cold Denver hovel, perhaps, or in Reno. Little Charlie’s mother threatened to write the Salt Lake papers and expose her former lover, but she failed to stir him.

One way or another she learned that Johnson would attend the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in company with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (It is a fact that he did so.) She used the near-last of her funds for a ticket to Chicago. Johnson had never seen his son in the flesh; perhaps, she thought, his heart would soften when he did. Underfed and without proper accommodation, the toddler and young mother loitered near the fairground entrance at Jackson Park for several days until, by sheer luck, they found themselves face to face with the whiskered photographer.

In my fantasy, Johnson gave a shutter click of recognition when he saw her, a give-away blink. He liked to say that he never forgot a subject. Then he looked down at the ragged boy, nodded once, and strode off into the swirling crowd without a single word. His heart had not softened. Charlie’s mother used the last of her money to buy tickets to the Exposition and a piece of taffy for Charles Jr. They wandered through the White City for an hour or two, holding hands, before she dropped him at the daycare, giving his name in exchange for a claim check. This, I suggest, she ate. Then she vanished too.

What became of the boy? Perhaps the Charlie Johnson abandoned at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 is the same Charley Johnson adopted by George Brown of Charlotte County, Florida some time later. There’s a photograph of him in the county archives – at ten or twelve years old – wearing a tan bowler and pinstripe suit of second quality with the sleeves cut short. Maybe, by some miracle, this Charley Johnson is also the same Charlie Johnson (born in 1891, supposedly in Philadelphia) who went on to become a well-known jazz pianist and band leader of the Paradise Ten from 1925 to 1938.

There are other options, of course. The name is by no means uncommon, and neither, unfortunately, is ophanhood. There is no end of Charlie Johnsons.

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Flora Wellman

Flora Wellman

Near Third and Brannan, a few blocks from my office in San Francisco, is an unremarkable building with a green and black stone façade and a plaque on its side indicating the spot where Jack London was born in 1876.  It’s hard to believe this was ever a residential district.  It’s a neighborhood of upscale and downscale restaurants, bars, artists’ studios, and warehouses that have, for the most part, been carved up into offices for technology companies.  But the whole area was leveled and charred in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

The day of Jack’s nativity must have been a memorable one for the neighbors.  Not so much, perhaps, for the sake of the famous author the infant would one day become, but for the scandal of his peculiar mother and her troubled pregnancy.  I often think of her when I walk up Third Street on my lunch hour and pass the site where the house once stood.

Flora Wellman was a native of Ohio who had run away from her well-to-do family and fled west.  She wound up a boarder in the house of Henry Yesler, mayor of Seattle in the Washington Territory, and it was there that she met William Chaney, a freethinker and charlatan astrologer who was, by all accounts but his own, Jack’s father.  It’s unclear if the two were ever legally married, but they relocated to bohemian San Francisco, where they went into business together and contributed to the publication of Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas.  Flora Wellman was a music teacher by training, but also, like Chaney, a spiritualist, and subject to bouts of possession by the ghost of a long-dead Indian chief.  She had been an especially attractive child, it was said, but had suffered a strange fever at an early age that put a halt to her growth at well under five feet and left her mostly bald: she wore a wig the rest of her life.  Even in the San Francisco of the day, famous for odd characters, she must have made an impression: a dwarfish, baby-faced lady necromancer, humming as she stomped down the street, her belly more and more notably swollen.

On discovering that Flora was pregnant, Chaney insisted she get rid of the inconvenience by whatever means necessary.  She seems to have made a half-hearted attempt at suicide in response, shooting herself with a pistol, but not fatally and with no very serious long-term effects.  Chaney publicly abandoned her and disowned the child.  Then, by all accounts, Flora Wellman lost her mind.  When she found it again, several months later, she discovered that she was a mother.  She and the baby would not live near the corner of Third and Brannan for long, however.  Within a year, Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London, whose last name was given to her boy as well, and the little family made the first of many changes of address.


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Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton

One hundred and fifty years ago today Joshua Abraham Norton donned the purple robe of empire. I keep a portrait of him on the wall of my cubicle, near Cervantes, who despite the lapse of years might have been an appropriate godfather to him.

He had two mutt dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who followed him about. When Bummer died in 1865, Mark Twain wrote the dog’s obituary.

“In what other city,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor … been so fostered and encouraged?”

The Chronicle commemorates his reign today.  Wikipedia article here.

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Carmel: A Study in Contrasting Californias

Mission Carmel

The family and I made a day trip this past weekend to Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, one of the loveliest remnants of Spanish imperial influence left in California.  It was founded in 1770 by Junipero Serra as the second of the Alta California missions, after San Diego de Alcala four hundred miles to the south.  Serra made it his base of operations and his home, and died here in 1784.

If I had the proper architectural vocabulary, I would explain why the lines of the barrel vaulted ceiling in the church are so pleasing – and the old bell tower dome, and the walled-in gardens, and the mixed arcades that frame a courtyard planted with flowers and succulents, oaks and palms and a magnificent Monterey cypress.  The sensory appeal reaches even to the nose: flush with odors of warm earth, incense, sap and pollen, of polished wood and leather and old stone.  In and around the church (technically a basilica) and its adjoining chapels and shrines, one finds a rich collection of Catholic religious art and devotional objects: icons and statuary, dioramas, mosaics and bas-relief, and an impressive cenotaph of the Mission’s sainted founder, who lies buried beneath the red flags of the sanctuary floor. 

After an hour at the Mission, the town of Carmel itself is such a sickly, sallow thing – full of pretense and needless show: multi-million dollar ‘cottages,’ double-parked German automobiles, blocks of superfluous would-be art galleries and price-gouging boutiques, each dedicated to a different fashion accessory.  We made a drive along the shoreline where some of Carmel’s most impressively indulgent homes overlook a white sand beach and rocky promontory that necks its way into the Pacific.  Crowded in here among the worst offenders is Robinson Jeffers’ old home, Tor House, with its adjoining tower, hand-built by Jeffers after he bought what in 1914 was a wild and somewhat isolated strip of property at the northernmost edge of the Big Sur coast.
Jeffers was the poet and chronicler of what I consider a ‘middle’ California, one placed somewhere between Serra’s California and today’s.  As a child I sometimes glimpsed that middle California in the older downtowns and orchard corners of the countryside, and in the remembrances and manners of my maternal grandparents.  It was a place recognizably home but no longer fully present: temperate and fruitful in more than climate, expansive and welcoming, but ultimately untamed and prone to temblors of unsettled identity.  It was a place apart: American, but fingering still the short-lived Bear Flag with sufficient sense of its own mythical otherness to be not quite, not fully, a piece of America.

How little patience Jeffers would have had for present-day Carmel’s open orgy of cultivated excess and spotlighted consumption.  How little patience he would have for the appointed keepers of his memory: those who manage the Tor House museum and hand out pamphlets printed with unicorns and his most saccharine off-hand quotations; and those who would make him into a patron saint of American environmentalism.  Jeffers had little use for people, and even less for what men and women might do banded together in organized political movements.  His pessimism for human value and endeavor was boundless.  “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he wrote.  For all that mankind might temporarily achieve or temporarily destroy, man for Jeffers was finally an object of indifference, nothing but a sport, a fad a nature and of Nature’s hard God, “who is,” he said, “very beautiful, but hardly a friend of humanity.”

Jeffers was hugely popular in the 1920s and ‘30s but isn’t much read today, which is a shame.  At his worst he was a plain misanthrope, caught helplessly in the knot of his upbringing: the heretic son of a Presbyterian minister, forever rebelling against a predestinating God while lusting all the same after a parallel vision of naturalistic determinism.  But at his best – in a number of his shorter pieces and a few of his epic California coastal narratives like Tamar and Cawdor – Jeffers was capable of epigrammatic potency and a taut, almost Sophoclean intensity of emotional expression rare in American poetry. 

His fame brought famous visitors to Tor House – people like D.H Lawrence, Charles Lindbergh and J. Krishnamurti – and Jeffers was featured on the cover of Time magazine in April 1932.  After the war, which Jeffers bitterly opposed, most of his readers and admirers abandoned him.  Jeffers’ work largely vanished from print after his death in 1962.  (It’s recently been reissued by Stanford University Press).  The town of Carmel eventually wrapped itself around Tor House, filling in the woods that separated it from Junipero Serra’s Mission a mile inland and obscuring its view of the Pacific.  Jeffers’ legacy and his home, I think, make a nicely illustrative chapter in the competing narratives of California, a place he loved and dreaded, and one he thought marked by its geography and impassive beauty for a special tragic destiny.

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Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth,
And who most cautious? for I would be more cautious,
And who has been happiest? O, I think it is I – I think no one was ever happier than I,
And who has lavish’d all? for I lavish constantly the best I have,
And who proudest? for I think I have reason to be the proudest son alive – for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city,
And who has been bold and true? for I would be the boldest and truest being of the universe,
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest,
And who has receiv’d the love of the most friends? for I know what it is to receive the passionate love of many friends,
And who possesses a perfect and enamour’d body? for I do not believe anyone possesses a more perfect or enamour’d body than mine,
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? for I would surround those thoughts,
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth.

~ Walt Whitman

This is in so many different ways, for so many different people, a very powerful moment in America.  I’m under no illusions.  If politics is the art of the possible, history has a way of showing us how limited are our possibilities, how our best ideals and intentions are often turned awry, and how the contradictions inherent in persons and nations have always a way of claiming their pound of flesh.  But no matter our lesser allegiances, we hold our breath today.

Photo credit: Steve Rhodes, creative commons license

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Silent Skies

We participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look.

~ Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

In the late fall of 1994, during my last year at college, I was riding in the back of a small car through the Phinney Ridge district of Seattle when our vehicle was hit by a speeding pizza deliveryman.  I was knocked unconscious.  I came to before I was able to open my eyes.  I remember sitting several moments in darkness, confused, feeling sick, vaguely aware of the sound of a person moaning.  After being strapped to a backboard and trundled into an ambulance, a police officer asked me a series of what I thought were hypothetical questions concerning an auto accident. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I wasn’t badly hurt. There was some mild internal bleeding (I pissed blood for a day) but nothing of real concern.  Everyone involved in the accident was fine or on the way to fine.  We were all sent home after several hours in the emergency room.

The next day it snowed and I skipped class.  I hurt everywhere: my back, my neck, my arms and legs.  But I couldn’t care less.  There was welling up in me a peculiar sensation, like nothing I’d ever felt before.  The warmth inside the apartment, the presence of friends, the crisp air outside and the snow, a bird on the porch surprised by the change of weather – it was all an incredible, delicious joy to me that day.  I was intensely conscious of the fact that I was alive and that to be alive was astounding.  This euphoria lasted almost a week.

I experienced the same sensation again in the days immediately following September 11, 2001.  I might be faulted for it.  After all, I hadn’t been in Manhattan.  I hadn’t been at the Pentagon.  I hadn’t suffered personally at all.  No one I knew had died that morning.  How could I justify a euphoria which I knew belonged only to survivors?

Somehow we were all New Yorkers that day seven years ago.  Those that suffered and those that died – they became, somehow, us and our loved ones.  The faces that emerged from the mountainous clouds of debris, fleeing the collapse and the volcanic flow of rubble, faces full of horror and desperation – they were our own faces.

We learned then that tears are the common property of humanity.  We held their broken bones, broken hearts, pain and anger in our hands and, as much as we were able, bore them.  We learned – if only for a moment – what it means to truly identify with another person, to know that your neighbor’s life is your own.

In the days that followed 9/11 we walked around like children, searching the skies.  My wife and I were living in Seattle under a busy flyway. Jetliners typically passed every few minutes; we’d grown accustomed to it.  But now we gazed up at the sky for the planes that weren’t there.  Nothing came out of the sky anymore but birds and falling leaves, and an unembarrassed, exulting silence.  Despite the horror of all that had passed, there was a beautiful, potent joy in that silence.  It fell down on us in those days like the snow or September leaves, like a strange sort of grace.

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Dragon Trees of California

There is a craze all over the state about the eucalyptus or Australian blue gum tree…  Eucalyptus will frighten away fevers and murder malaria.  Its leaves cure asthma.  Its roots knock out ague as cold as jelly.  Its bark improves that of a dog.  A dead body buried in a coffin made from the wood of the blue gum will enjoy immunity from the exploring mole and the penetrating worm… [T]his absurd vegetable is now growing all over the State.  One cannot get out of its sight… It defaces every landscape with botches of blue and embitters every breeze with suggestions of an old woman’s medicine chest.  Let us have no more of it.

~ The Argonaut (San Francisco), April 22, 1877

The Englishman William Dampier was a professional pirate and an amateur naturalist. He was also the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times.  After a stint in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Dampier turned buccaneer and spent most of the 1670s and ‘80s harassing Spanish trade routes in the Caribbean and Pacific, with occasional overland raids through Peru and the isthmus of Darien.  In 1688 Dampier was employed aboard a ship called the Cygnet which had careened for repairs on the coast of New Holland – what we know today as Australia. While the Cygnet’s bottom was being scraped, Dampier took the opportunity to explore the area and take notes on the native flora.  He described one unusual species which he named the “dragon tree” (after similar trees he’d seen in the Madeira and Canary Islands).  These dragon trees, he wrote, produced a gum that “distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of the trees.” 

Dampier was describing the eucalyptus.  There are over seven hundred varieties of eucalyptus in Australia.  The story of how the tree came to fly its isolated homeland and within the space of a hundred years colonize the Indian subcontinent, Africa, parts of Britain, China, the Middle East and the Americas is a curious one.  Here in California, as in certain corners of Uruguay and South Africa, the eucalyptus once threatened to dominate the entire landscape.  Even today, long after the 19th-century eucalyptus craze ended, coastal California is thick with eucalyptus groves.  Many Californians simply assume the trees have always been here.  Any other tree of a size comparable to a full-grown eucalyptus would necessarily pre-date Spanish and American settlement.

Exactly how the eucalyptus came to California is a point of some debate.  It seems likely that it first arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush.  That year nearly 3000 Australians left for California.  The passage from Sydney to San Francisco, across the full immensity of the Pacific, was in those days shorter than the passage from New York to San Francisco, since the latter required rounding Cape Horn.  (The transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal were achievements of later generations.)  The Australians, in ships built of aromatic “blue gum” eucalyptus, were some of the very first to arrive for the California Gold Rush.  Somewhere aboard one of those vessels was probably stowed a bag of seeds.

The eucalyptus was soon celebrated as a “wonder tree” – and it really is a wonder.  It grows extremely fast.  Some varieties reach 40-feet in five years, or over 150-feet in 25 years.  Planted in California’s sparsely wooded central and southern coastal pale, it offered a quick return in firewood and lumber, and made a fast-growing wind-brake.  And though it will thrive in arid climates, eucalyptus roots can drain great quantities of water from the soil.  It was planted in many of California’s wetlands to open them up for farming and deny the mosquito a breeding ground in the standing water.  The eucalyptus is largely responsible for putting an end to the endemic malaria that plagued California through the 19th century.  It promised other health benefits too.  Oil distilled from eucalyptus leaves, for example, could be used to produce cleaning products or medicinals like decongestants and cough drops.

By the 1870s, as the Gold Rush petered out, a “Gum Rush” took hold.  Tens of thousands of acres were planted on any available open land.  Lumber mills dedicated solely to the eucalyptus were built.   Professional naturalists and amateur enthusiasts toured the state preaching the benefits of the eucalyptus and advocating its broader cultivation.  Ellwood Cooper was one such gum tree evangelist.  As president of Santa Barbara College, Cooper planted hundreds of acres.  His lush groves of eucalyptus were renowned through all California.  In a lecture delivered in 1875, Cooper praised the eucalyptus as a sort of universal remedy for health complaints and meteorological inclemency.  Plant more gum trees, he said, and the winds will calm, the summer heats moderate, and human health and social well being will improve all around.

But just as the Gold Rush had come and gone, the Gum Rush fizzled out.  The wood couldn’t be properly seasoned to fulfill all the uses for which it had been intended.  The pharmacists lost interest.  A hardwood shortage that contributed to the fevered planting of eucalyptus was instead resolved by increased use of other building materials such as steel, bricks and cement.  And just as the Gold Rush had left behind a landscape transfigured, the short-lived enthusiasm over the Australian gum tree utterly changed California.  The trees were everywhere – and not everyone was happy about it.  The editorialist in San Francisco’s Argonaut newspaper, quoted above, spoke for not a few of his fellow citizens.

Today, botanists and environmental purists in California consider the eucalyptus a “weed,” an invasive, non-native pest.  They style eucalyptus groves “infestations” and call for its total elimination from the landscape.  But there are still others, like yours truly, who recall fondly the blue gum ships that sailed into the Golden Gate in 1849, and who honor the tree that cured malaria.  There are still those who love the cool stillness of a eucalyptus grove in mid-summer, the bark that peels in long crisp sheets, and the clean antiseptic smell of the blue and green dragon scale leaves.


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On the Right Hand of the Indies

California existed in the imagination before it existed on the map.  Some would say it’s still a fantasy, a figment, more a state of mind than a state of the Union.  But this has always been so.  Tucked snugly into their beds at night, the children of Europe were dreaming of California years before they ever set eyes on its shores.

The earliest possible reference to California –as “Califerne”- appears in the 11th-century Song of Roland, verse CCIX. Following the death of his nephew, Charlemagne cries out:

Roland, my friend, fair youth that bar’st the bell,
When I arrive at Aix, in my Chapelle,
Men coming there will ask what news I tell;
I’ll say to them: `Marvellous news and fell.
My nephew’s dead, who won for me such realms!’
Against me then the Saxon will rebel,
Hungar, Bulgar, and many hostile men,
Romain, Puillain, all those are in Palerne,
And in Affrike, and those in Califerne…

Though the other peoples and places mentioned in these lines are generally familiar, “Califerne” has never been identified.  This ambiguity provided a literary opening for others to exploit.

Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (d.1504) was the true inventor of “California.”  Its name first graced the page in his chivalric romance, The Exploits of Esplandian. This was Montalvo’s sequel to Amadis of Gaul which, you may recall, was a sort of second Holy Writ for a well-beloved knight of La Mancha.

Know that on the right hand of the Indies is an island called California, very close to the terrestrial paradise

wrote Montalvo. He described a land of magnificent natural defenses, rich in gold and inhabited solely by a tribe of beautiful, deadly Amazon warriors, with not a male in sight.  Most beautiful and deadly of them all was the Queen, Califia. In the Exploits, Montalvo’s hero, Esplandian, joins the defense of Constantinople against the Turks when the pagan Queen Califia rather decisively comes to the aid of the infidel with her lady-warriors and an army of griffins.

In the 16th century, Montalvo’s tales of Amadis and Esplandian held such sway over the imagination that conquistadors by their evening campfires on the Sea of Cortez convinced themselves the mysterious island to the west (Baja California) was none other than Queen Califia’s territory, just bursting with Amazon women and mountains of gold.  The martial Spaniards had been fed on the story since childhood and apparently couldn’t accept that it was a fiction.

Cortes himself was not immune.  In a 1524 letter to the King of Spain, Cortes mentions reports from mainland natives that the westward isle (“rich in pearls and gold”) is, in fact, governed and inhabited by women of a remarkably fierce disposition. Cortes mounts an expedition and becomes the first European to set foot in California. But he encounters no Queen Califia, discovers no gold, and finds the place largely inhospitable. His attempt to plant a colony along the desert shore near La Paz fails miserably.

In 1539, Cortes commissioned Francisco de Ulloa to more extensively explore the coast in pursuit of another fiction of history and geography, the Straits of Anian.  A variation on the Northwest Passage, the Straits of Anian were supposed to connect the Pacific to Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence or Hudson’s Bay. In the process of his doomed reconnaissance, Ulloa discovered that (Baja) California is not an island at all, but a peninsula. Despite this, California continues to appear as an island on maps well into the 17th century.

Building on the knowledge gained by Ulloa, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo –who as a young man soldiered for Cortes in the conquest of Mexico- made a 1542 voyage up the coast.  We don’t know what sort of place he imagined it to be, but in addition to unmasking California Cabrillo also hoped to discover the Straits of Anian or, alternately, a short-cut to China.

Cabrillo soon passed Ulloa’s northernmost point on the western shore of Baja and moved into the uncharted waters off Alta California (today’s American state). He was the first to explore what is now San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina Island, and Santa Monica Bay.  Farther north, he set anchor in Monterey Bay and continued past the Golden Gate, possibly reaching as far north as the Russian River before autumn storms forced him south again. Cabrillo had set anchor at Santa Catalina for the winter when some of his crew were ambushed by natives, who, as it happened, were not Amazon warriors. Cabrillo came ashore on a relief mission, stumbled on some jagged rocks and badly injured his legs. The wounds became gangrenous and he died ingloriously in January 1543.

Cabrillo’s dispirited crew returned to Navidad (Acapulco) in the spring. They were sure they had come “very near” to China.  But they had failed to locate the Straits of Anian, had lost their captain, and had learned that whatever California was, it wasn’t the demi-paradise Montalvo described. If Queen Califia had ever reigned there, she was long gone.  After Cabrillo’s misadventure, serious Spanish exploration and settlement of California would be put on hold for over two-hundred years.

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In Regio Gigantum

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.

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The other day I was reading to my son about Roland and the Battle of Roncesvalles from our old copy of The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends.  I grew up with this book.  It gave me my first taste of the Greek myths, the tales the Niebelungs, of Beowulf, and the Arthurian sub-plot of Tristram and Iseult.  The angular, stylized illustrations of dueling heroes and rabid monsters made fuel for fantasy and nightmare alike.  My son refuses to look at the picture of the Minotaur.

Of all the heroes and kings mentioned in the Golden Treasury, Charlemagne is, of course, the most solidly historical.  My son took a special interest in him, specifically in his name.  It has a magnificent ring to it, which is perhaps why we’ve never permanently anglicized it.  He is ‘Charlemagne’ to us just as he is to the French.  ‘Charles the Great’ isn’t saying enough.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Between the Woods and the Water gives perhaps the best short description of the mytho-poetical-historical space that Charlemagne still holds in the western imagination:

Fireside mutterings, legends, centuries of bards and the lays of minnesingers have set him afloat somewhere between Alexander and King Arthur, where he looms, mural-crowned, enormous, voluminously-bearded, overgrown with ivy and mistletoe, announced by eagles and ravens, dogged by wolfhounds, accompanied by angels and oriflammes and escorted by a host of prelates and monks and paladins; confused with Odin and, like Adonis, akin to the seasons, he is ushered on his way by earthquakes and eclipses of the sun and the moon and celebrated by falling stars and lightning; horns and harps waft him across the plains; they carry him through canyons and forests and up to steep mountain-tops until his halo is caught up in the seven stars of his Wain.

Fermor also tells briefly of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abulahaz (“Son of the Mighty”), a gift from Harun al-Rashid, who was sent from Persia to Aix in 801 or 802 and spent most of his days tramping through the emperor’s wooded hunting grounds.  He was probably the only member of his species on the continent and must have been a lonely creature.  Or perhaps he was as fascinated by his fate as I am.  Abulahaz died ten years later in one of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Danes.  You can be sure the anonymous Viking who gave him his death-blow had a story to tell.

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