Magellan and the Patagonian Giants

Port St. Julian

On September 20, 1519, Captain-General Ferdinand Magellan set sail from San Lucar, Spain with a five-vessel fleet to discover a route to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). Magellan sailed southwest along the South American coastline. After departing Rio de Janeiro, they began to search for a strait which would lead them to the great sea beyond (the Pacific Ocean).

But as the weather turned bitter cold and the storms more frequent, it was decided to find a port to wait out the winter. On March 31, the fleet entered Port St. Julian, in modern Argentina, and located at 49 degrees 18’ S.

A certain Knight of Rhodes, Antonio Pigafetta recorded what transpired during their stay in Port St. Julian. He was listed as a supernumerary on the fleet roster and served directly under Magellan as his personal assistant. Pigafetta’s journal notations were very precise throughout the entire journey. His skills as a naturalist, linguist, and navigator are evident in every page of his account.  

Two months had passed, and no inhabitants were to be found on the mainland.

Pigafetta described what happened next:

“But one day (without anyone expecting it) we saw a giant who was on the shore, quite naked, and who danced, leaped, and sang, and while he sang, he threw sand and dust on his head. Our captain sent one of his men toward him, charging him to leap and sing like the other in order to reassure him and show him friendship. Which he did. Immediately the man of the ship, dancing led this giant to a small island where the captain awaited him. And when he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised his one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist. Withal he was well proportioned.”

If one assumes the tallest of the Portuguese group was 5’6”, the giant would have had to be at least 9’ tall.

Pigafetta continued his account:

“He had a very large face, painted round with red, and his eyes also were painted round with yellow, and in the middle of his cheeks he had two hearts painted. He had hardly any hairs on his head, and they were painted white. When he was brought to the captain, he was clad in the skin of a certain animal, which skin was very skillfully sewn together. And this animal has the head and ears as large as a mule’s, and a neck and body like those of a camel, a stag’s legs, and a tail like that of a horse. And there are great numbers of these animals in the said place. The giant had his feet covered with the skin of the said animal in the manner of shoes . . . The captain caused the giant to be given food and drink, then he showed him other things, among them a steel mirror. Wherein the giant seeing himself was greatly terrified, leaping back so that he threw four of our men to the ground. After that, the captain gave him two bells, a mirror, a comb, and a chaplet of paternosters, and sent him back on shore, causing him to be accompanied by four armed men.”

Afterwards, the natives made several visitations to the men of the fleet. Meanwhile, Pigafetta began to build a working vocabulary of the Indian giants. The enormous stature of the natives was so impressive that Magellan ordered his men to capture two of them to bring to Charles V (King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor). The giants were to be presented as evidence to the marvels of the New World.

The crewmen were stunned by the appetites of the giants. Pigafetta noted:

“Those two giants whom we had in the ship ate a large boxful of biscuit, and unskinned rats, and they drank a pailful of water at a time.”

Pigafetta observed their religious beliefs as follows:

“When one of them dies, ten or twelve devils appear, and dance round the dead man. And it seems they are painted. And one of those devils is taller than the others, and makes much more noise, and rejoices much more than the others. And from this the giants took the fashion of painting themselves on the face and body, as has been said. And in their language, they called the largest of these devils ‘Setebos,’ and the others ‘Cheleule.’”

Pigafetta recorded their medical practices:

“When these giants have pain in the stomach, instead of taking medicine, they put down their throat an arrow two feet or thereabout in length, then they vomit of a green color mingled with blood. And the reason why they bring up this green matter is that they often eat thistles. And when they have a headache, they make a cut across their forehead, and the same on the arms and legs, to draw blood from several parts of their body.”

Magellan named these people Patagonians. Spanish Patagón (Pata = foot or paw). (gón = ?). The second part of the word remains a mystery if taken by itself. The mystery of the etymology has been researched by many. But it seems the most likely is a reference to a Spanish novel published seven years before the armada set sail. The Primaleon (El Primaleón), also called the Second Book of Emperor Palmerín, is the continuation of the romance of chivalry novel, Palmerín de Olivia. It was published in 1512. The hero and son of the Knight Palmerín de Oliva, lands on an island inhabited by monstrous beings, with human bodies, large ears, sharp, pointed teeth, feet like a deer and the face of a dog, dressed in animal hides and living off raw meat. The hero in the novel, Primaleón, in chapter 133 faces a monster creature named Patagon. Perhaps Magellan was familiar with the story and employed the allusion for a descriptive name for the giants.

The undersecretary at the court of Charles V, Maximilian Transylvanus, interviewed Captain Elcano and two of his officers upon their return on the Victoria. He recorded their accounts summarized below:

“They were of extraordinary height, that is to say, about ten spans (7.5’), were clothed in the skins of wild beasts . . . they passed arrows a cubit and a half long (27”) down their throats to the bottom of their stomachs, and without being sick. And forthwith drawing them out again, they seemed to rejoice greatly, as having shown their bravery by this exploit.”

Neither of the two captured giants made it back to Spain. One giant had died of the heat on board the San Antonio. The second giant died of sickness shortly after passing the Magellan Straits while on board the Trinidad.

Pigafetta noted the death of the latter:

“Another time I made the sign of the cross, and kissed the cross, showing it to him. But at once he cried out ‘Setebos,’ and he made signs to me that, if I made the sign of the cross again, it would enter my stomach and cause me to burst. When the giant was sick, he asked for the cross, and embraced and kissed it often. And he wished to become a Christian before his death. And we named him Paul.”

Subsequent Testimonials of Giants in Patagonia


Since the time of Magellan’s voyage to southern Argentina and Chile, there have been numerous other explorers who have given corroboration to the existence of giants in the region.

Edward Wood, in his book Giants and Dwarfs, published at London in 1868, recounted several examples:

“By Sir Tomas Cavendish’s voyage, they were discovered to be very wild and rude creatures, and of a gigantic race; the measure of the foot of one of them being eighteen inches in length, which, reckoning by the usual proportion, would give about seven feet and a half for their stature.”

“Turner the naturalist, states that he saw near the river Plata, on the Brazil coast, a race of very gigantic naked savages, one of whom measured twelve feet in height.”

“Andres Thevet, cosmographer to Henry III., King of France and Portugal, who in his ‘Descriptions of America,’ published at Paris in 1575, tells us that he was shown by a Spanish merchant the skeleton of a South American men, then not many years dead, which he measured, and found to be eleven feet five inches in length; the skull was three feet one inch in circumference, and the leg bones were three feet four inches long. The subject died in 1559.”

Knivet says that at Port Desire (exit of the Magellan Strait) he measured several dead bodies which had been buried there, and which were from 14 to 16 spans in height (10.5’ to 12’) . . . He also frequently saw at Brazil a Patagonian youth who was 13 spans in height (9.75’).”

“Oliver van Noort, a Dutchman, who visited Patagonia between 1598 and 1601, describes the inhabitants as tall portly men; but a native boy, whom Van Noort captured and brought away in his ship, described some of his countrymen as being ten or twelve feet high.”

“Sebald de Weet, another Dutch traveller, who touched at the Straits of Magellan in 1598, says the savages there were ten or eleven feet in height, and could easily tear up by the roots trees which were a span in diameter.”

“A commissary on board Jacob le Maire’s fleet in 1615 affirmed that he had measured the bones of men in some sepulchres in South America, and that they were between ten and eleven feet long.”

“In 1704 Captain Harrington and Carmen, who commanded French vessels, saw giants in Possession Bay (entrance to Magellan Strait) several times. Frezier says he was told on the coast of Chili that the Indians living inland were nine feet high.”

“P. Joseph Tarrubia, by his ‘Gianthologia,’ published at Madrid in 1761, endeavored to prove the existence of giants in Patagonia, not only from the concurrent testimony of all antiquity in the world, but also from Indian antiquities discovered in the new world. The monstrous stature of several of the South American idols, which are affirmed to have been no bigger than life, and several utensils that from their size could have been used only by giants, are adduced as evidence in confirmation of the stories of the huge height of the people. The author states that he had conversed with several Spaniards who had seen monstrous men as they happened to stray from their wild retreats verging towards the Straits of Magellan; and they were described as being nine or ten feet high, strong in proportion to their size, and surprisingly active. It is also related that the South Americans had a body of soldiers, consisting of about four hundered men, the shortest of whom was not under nine feet high, and the tallest was about eleven feet.”

Commodore Byron (grandfather to the poet Lord Byron) had reported a chief to have been about seven feet in height.

A certain midshipman named Charles Clerke, who would later serve as an officer on Captain Cook’s fleet, gave a detailed account of the circumnavigation voyage of 1764-66. It was recorded in, Journal of a Voyage round the World: In his Majesty’s Ship – The Dolphin, Commanded by the Honourable Commodore Byron.

Clerke writes:

“They are of a copper colour, with long black hair; and some of them are certainly nine feet, if they do not exceed it. The commodore, who is very near six feet, could but just reach the top of one of their heads, which he attempted on tip-toe; and there were several taller than he on whom the experiment was tried. They are prodigious, stout, and as well and proportionably made as ever I saw people in my life . . . there was hardly a man there less than eight feet, most of them considerably more; the woman, I believe, run from seven and a half to eight.”

Conclusion

This may have been the last sighting of giants in the Patagonian region. What happened to the giants remains a mystery. Perhaps they became extinct due to famine, plague, hunted down, or some other calamity.

Sources:

John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament, vol. 4, (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1989), 754.

Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s Voyage (Dover Publications: New York, 1994)

Letter of Maximilian Transylvanus, Magellan (Viartis: England, 2008), 390.

Edward J. Wood, Giants and Dwarfs (London, 1868), 74-77.

Charles Clerke, Journal of a Voyage round the World: In His Majesty’s Ship – The Dolphin, Commanded by the Honourable Commodore Byron (London).

Stephen Quayle, Genesis 6 Giants (End Time Thunder Publishers: Bozeman, 2008).

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