Magellan's Mirror

May 14, 2012

Illustrator: Jorge Mascarenhas

And if our Lord and the Virgin Mother had not aided us by giving good weather to refresh ourselves with provisions and other things we had died in this very great sea. And I believe that nevermore will any man undertake to make such a voyage.

— Antonio Pigafetta, 1521

The crew encountered the giant during the winter, after months of battling the waters just south of Brasilia. He belonged to an island, one of many they passed as the ships probed the horizon. He was described by the sailors as being 12 or 13 palmos tall, which is to say, over eight feet. While the men watched from the ships, this singular individual danced and sang and leaped across the sand. Over his shoulders hung the pelt of an animal. As far as they could determine, the animal had the head and ears of a mule, and a neck and body like those of a camel. On his feet, the giant wore a pair of elaborate boots, made also from the skin of an animal, which added further to his already great height.

The ships had been making good speed: 50 to 60 leagues westward each day. They may have discovered the islands of Butuan and Limasawa: Limasawa, a small outcropping; Butuan the larger, more mountainous island, its topmost peaks flashing in fading evening light, flashing like prince’s metal. Perhaps, several of the crew said, they had already passed their destination and were now approaching the fabled kingdom of India. The commander christened the ocean “The Pacific.”

It was November when the Genoese pilot of the Santa Maria found a current. It led them to a vast and peaceful ocean, an ocean whose soft, purring sighs and amber warmth held them all in its watery embrace. Suddenly, they forgot scurvy and exhaustion, forgot even the last dreadful sight of the men put ashore in Guam, the ones slain by the Chamorros, intestines ripped from their bodies and scattered on the beach even as they screamed.

That Sunday, the crew heard mass on the ships’ decks. Magellan ordered the last of their bread to be broken.

Antonio de Pigafetta, Venetian, gadabout, became the voyage’s de facto chronicler. A man hitherto untested by the crucible of a long voyage, he was on the smallest ship, the Niña.

It is Pigafetta’s account that comes down to us, centuries later. “The globe,” Pigafetta wrote. “This magnificent globe.” One imagines the Venetian having long, tapering fingers. One imagines these fingers caressing the desk box where he kept all his papers as well as his writing implements.

The ship’s log indicates that Magellan’s crew crossed the equator on the Feast of St. John of the Cross, the 14th of December. The year was 1520. The men were “so transported with delight,” Pigafetta wrote, “that we had no more rest all night.”

There are those who claim that the first giant was made to accept Magellan’s offer to board the ship at the point of a halberd against the small of his back. This story is disputed by Pigafetta, who maintains that the first giant boarded the ship willingly. (No man could have comfortably reached up to slit his throat. It had to be his back, whose surface was scarred in complicated patterns, the work of weapons both mysterious and thrilling.)

Magellan ordered the visitor to be plied with wine. “We sat with the creature till late at night,” Pigafetta wrote. Suddenly, the giant pulled from his breechcloth a dead rat, and this vermin the giant began to gnaw, using both hands, spewing small bits of fur and cartilage over the dining table. The crew watched as the giant licked his digits, delicately, and then bent down and licked the table afterwards.

Was it then that the commander ordered his men to produce a mirror? And to what purpose? The largest of the mirrors, an oval shield of burnished metal, was kept in Magellan’s cabin at all times. Smaller ones were with the goods the crew would use as barter. Over the years, the men began to attribute magical qualities to this object. The Captain’s steward claimed that, on occasion, the mirror glowed like sunstone. Now, the Captain ordered this mirror to be fetched.

When the burnished shield was set before him, the giant leaped back, grew agitated, shouted and in general exhibited all the attributes of profound terror. Not wishing to fall victim to the giant’s violence, the crew quickly scattered. In their panic, they caused the shield to fall. A long crack appeared near the bottom, a most unpropitious omen. Some of the men drew their swords, but Magellan bade them to desist. Stepping forward, the captain picked up the mirror and threw his cloak over it. Whereupon the native’s anger quickly subsided, and all were able to resume their seats at the table and continue their meal, although in absolute silence.

By the time the giant was rowed back to shore, a number of his kind had collected on the beach. They had apparently been watching from the cover of the deep jungle; they had seen their companion being rowed to the black ship, in a craft that looked like a black beetle, with many stiff arms and legs. The sailors who were in the boat taking the giant back to shore described how, the closer they came to land, more and more of these fantastical creatures emerged, so that, eventually, there were almost a score of them on the beach, all watching the boat’s approach in fear and apprehension.

We learn from Pigafetta that some of these curious onlookers were women. These had teats, Pigafetta reported in some amazement, “half a cubit long.” Furthermore, Pigafetta observed that while the men carried only their weapons, which consisted of long wooden spears, the women were burdened “like she-asses” with all manner of goods: pots, animal skins, beads and feathered headdresses.

When the giant had been reunited with his companions, another very tall man came forward and offered the sailors food. Pigafetta has little to say about these offerings. In his journals, he said generally that they were “good.” Bueno is the word he used. In an aside, he also mentions that this man went by the name Casiburauen, and that he “was very ugly.” Feo, Pigafetta wrote. Muy feo.

The crew named the first giant Enrique. Subsequently, they became hard-put to give names to all the tribesmen who made their acquaintance. They began to give them names that were variations of Enrique, so that some were Enri, others were Que and some were Riq. Later still, the sailors would add “the Girl” to the giant with the thinnest legs, “the Strong” to the one with the broadest shoulders, “the Bad Smell” to the one whose teeth were rotting in his mouth and “Big Hands” to the giant with the longest digits. In this way, by naming them, the giants began to penetrate the soldiers’ understanding.

Relations between the sailors and the tribe of giants continued cordially for some weeks. Every day, a dozen or more of the giants would appear on the beach, and the men would laugh and toss them trinkets, lowly items that were not worth pinchbeck. At length, the men grew bold. A handful of them, led by a man known only as Clubfoot, ventured onshore to forage for food.

Clubfoot had been born on the Feast Day of San Felipe the Apostle, but no one ever referred to him by his real name. He had survived cholera, typhus, even the plague. The sailors ascribed to him magical powers.

Clubfoot led the men to a stream at the base of a low hill. Because poison was constantly on their minds, he was the first to taste the water. The men remained by this stream for several hours; the captain grew impatient and sent another party of men to try and locate the first group.

Pride is the worst of the seven deadly sins. In everyday life, which is to say the life that did not involve dreams of water, the men were simple spirits. Stone, earth, tile, crucifix, soil were the markers of their landscape.

They found Clubfoot first. Then Bartolomeo, son of Tomas, the ship’s pilot. Then the fair-haired twins from Segovia. Then, one by one, the others, all lying at a short distance from the stream. The attack must have caught them completely unawares: Their cutlasses were still in their belts, a few were lying uselessly by the banks of the stream.

The men held a hurried discussion. Two runners were sent back to the ships. The others pushed on. But although the searchers scoured the island, all the way to the foot of the steep mountains, they did not find so much as a single dwelling. As the day waned and the paths through the jungle became more difficult to traverse, the men retreated to the shore.

From then on, the men kept to their boats. The beach was silent, the sand undisturbed. When the giants next appeared on the beach, offering inducements to the men to disembark, the sailors implored Magellan to cast off. The commander, however, was firm in his refusal: Winter was approaching, and the lands they were traversing were strange and new. They would winter here, he had already decided. The men muttered about the commander’s stubborn blindness.

Now the beach stared at them, empty and inscrutable, as it had been on the first day, before the crew had sighted Enrique. The sky turned a deeper blue, smudged here and there with great, billowing clouds. Now the men began to remember the homes they had left behind. Their arms ached for their wives; the boys were put to good use, night and day. The lads bore their sufferings bravely. It was all the same to them, all the same void of nights and days, all pain. In their memories, the towers of Jaen and Valladolid. In the few precious moments of rest, just before dawn. The men began to refer to this or that boy by their wives’ names. “Ho, come, Bernarda! Come, Salvacion!”


One night, five shadows left the boat. They crept across the white sand undetected. They did not find any native women. They crashed around in the forest, like blind beasts. They returned to the boats just before dawn.

When Magellan discovered their trespass (not for nothing was he called, by his men, the All-Seeing) his punishment was swift and decisive: He had all five hauled, cursing, across the deck and clamped into the stocks, where they remained for three days without food or water. Their lips split open, their foreheads grew black. If dying was the only way to escape, then let them die. All five wished most fervently for an end to pain, fever, hunger, cold, anxiety, fear. Quick death: Yes, that was the best, the most desired.

Fires were lit on the beach. Gigantic figures walked to and fro. At the close of the third day, Magellan ordered the five malefactors to be carried below deck, to have their piteously blistered skin tended to by the ship’s doctor. Three of the men were saved but the fourth, Fonseca, nephew of the captain of the Santiago, died a few days later.

The crew had endured in a state of anxiety and apprehension for close to a month when a new and ugly rumor began to spread among the ships. Magellan, it was whispered, had made a pact with the King: to return only when the ships’ holds were full of either gold or spice. The ships creaked anxiously at their berths.

The crew mended the ships’ sails. They collected shrimp and boiled them in iron kettles. They counted the number of shooting stars in the night sky. They pointed at the giant sea turtles making ponderous circuits around the ship. At night, one or the other of the men would begin a sullen, low whistling. The tune would wind its way among the sleeping bodies. In these black, fearful nights, Magellan slept with his sword not far from his side. He had strange dreams. In one, he saw again the traitor Hermenegildo, heard him saying, in a voice that was clear and cold as ice, “The fool is leading us all to destruction.”

In the middle of the fourth week, four of the giants suddenly reappeared, gesticulating from the shore. The sailors shook their heads. The natives importuned them with tragic gestures. Finally, the tribesmen took out a canoe and began paddling toward the Trinidad. Magellan ordered his men to welcome them warmly. The Castilians offered the visitors their fill of wine. Just as the men were sleepily dozing off, they were set upon by the sailors. By the time the natives realized what was happening, the ships had weighed anchor. Despite the cutlasses pressed against their chests, the giants made wild lunges at the crew, pulling with all their might against the shackles bolted to the deck, pulling so hard that the flesh of their legs soon became raw and bloody and, according to Pigafetta, “blowing and foaming at the mouth like bulls.” At last, however, they succumbed to exhaustion, and sank to the deck. Gradually, the true enormity of their fate seemed to impress itself upon them; their eyes glazed over with a kind of blank horror. As a group, they set up a piteous moaning that continued without cease for three full days.

This was the sole instance in which Pigafetta dared to confess that he found something less than honorable in the actions of his commander. He who had watched, impassive, when Magellan had ordered the mutinous Castilian captain, Hermenegildo Hilario, to be strangled in full view of all the men, who had dispassionately described the punishment meted to an officer caught sodomizing a cabin boy (the officer was drawn and quartered, with his own entrails set alight before his horrified, dying eyes), now referred, in his journal, to Magellan’s “cunning deceit.”

The sailors gnawed sullenly on the hardtack. Everywhere, they saw portents: in the black bird that alighted one morning on the top of the forecastle, its red eyes blinking fiercely; in the dreams of the youngest sailor, who for a succession of nights dreamt of a huge animal, deerlike, crashing through undergrowth.

On the third day, following the capture of the giants, a great storm arose. The Concepcion was tossed to her side as wave after wave washed over her deck. The men clung to the masts and beseeched Saint Nicholas for aid. The seas quieted, but for how long, no one knew.

One day, the captives suddenly ceased their lamentation. The cause for their silence was apparently this: They had not eaten in some days and had observed how the crew regularly discovered and tossed overboard a great variety of rats, which were creatures considered a terrible nuisance on all ships, for it was impossible to be rid of them, and in the meantime, they pilfered the ships’ rations and consumed all that they could, leaving to the sailors only the hated hardtack. One of the captives had managed to seize a rat and promptly devoured it whole. His fellow captives were seized with envy and from then on outdid one another in competing to determine who among them showed the greatest skill and dexterity in trapping the rodents.

Observing how easily the natives’ energies had been diverted, and how gleefully they laughed while holding the hissing rats up in the air, the crew surmised that the giants were no more than children, and from then on treated them accordingly.

For some weeks, the remaining four ships continued southward without incident. They passed lovely, verdant islands, some no larger than a few meters across. The beaches were white and empty, the islands seemingly uninhabited. Perhaps out of boredom, Pigafetta set himself the task of understanding the captives’ language. To this end, he began to create a dictionary, which at first consisted of the most elemental words: water, food. Gradually, however, he moved from the naming of objects to the naming of concepts, such as hunger, desire, love. For hours, he would sit with the giants, making notes and asking them to repeat certain words over and over. The word for nose, he ascertained, was the same as the word for ear. There was more than one word that stood for happiness. The word for mouth was the short, forceful siam. In his journal, Pigafetta wrote: “Their tongue is apparently monosyllabic; it seems to derive from the same Malay root as do the other Indo-Pacific languages.” Pigafetta wrote diligently; the giants stared at him placidly, with little understanding.

Sometimes the chronicler drew a cross on his paper and, pointing to it again and again, attempted to impart the concept of “God.” The natives thought that he wanted them to repeat the word. “Deee,” they said. “Deeee! Deeee!” Eventually, they would tire of the game. They would drop their gazes and one of them even had the temerity to snatch Pigafetta’s paper from his hands and stuff it into his mouth before any of the men standing nearby could stop him. The crew merely laughed at Pigafetta’s dismay. “Why bother teaching savages?” one said. “They are beyond redemption. They will never be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

During the fourth week of their captivity, the guards relaxed their vigilance. One morning, the crew awoke and made the discovery that one of the giants was missing. The iron bolt that had held his shackles had been pulled clean out of the deck. Since the nearest island was several leagues away, it was understood that the giant must have drowned. All that day and the next, the sailors felt becalmed; each man became lost in his own private thoughts.

Each imagined a different fate for the giant: Some said he had harnessed himself to the back of a giant sea turtle (since such creatures had been seen, miles from the nearest land) and had found his way home. Others said he had sunk like a stone to the bottom of the ocean, since the chains that bound his ankles together would have hampered his ability to swim. Others maintained that the captive had a magical ability to assume the form of another creature and was even now circling the ship in the form of a leaping dolphin.

The remaining three captives chattered and gesticulated wildly. Sometimes what they said sounded like, “Oogh, oogh, oogh!” Other times, it sounded like, “Bak, bak, bak!” Still other times it sounded like, “Wa-see, wa-see, wa-see.” Their hand movements, up and down in the air like the flapping wings of strange birds, seemed to bode ill. One by one, the crew of the Trinidad were felled by a strange sickness that left them giggling weakly, like silly children.

The giants were never alone, now. The men feared that they would turn, in the night, into tigers. In the end, Magellan had no choice. A madness was infecting the entire fleet.

He had never shrunk from making the hard decisions. When the conspiracy of Juan de Cartagena and the priest, Pero Sanchez de la Reina, had been exposed, he had ordered them put ashore on a tiny island, just off the coast of Brazil. He had left them no stores of food, no weapons, no means of protecting themselves from the harsh winter that was to come. The two had implored his forgiveness. They had fallen to their knees on the sand and wept. They had invoked his mother and the King, all the angels and saints in heaven. Magellan had ordered the ships to cast off. He had never looked back.

One night, the order was given to toss the three remaining captives overboard. Because of their iron fetters, they sank quickly. What the crew remembered most clearly was the complete and utter silence with which the captives entered the sea. Long after the giants had disappeared in the waves, the men of the Trinidad remained looking out at the dark water. They listened with an ache in their hearts to the sighing of the wind in the sails, the creaking of the rigging and the wave sounds of the great ocean, which had never seemed so feminine as it did that night. It seemed almost as if a heart was beating down there, miles below them.

None felt the loss of the captives more keenly than Pigafetta. Brooding in his cabin a few days after the captives had been thrown overboard, he wrote in his journal: “The sea is our mother. And, like a mother, she remembers everything and forgives all. Dios vos salve, señor capitan-general.”


Months later, as Magellan lay dying in the surf off Cebu, he would remember the first giant. He would remember the way the man appeared, dancing and laughing on the beach. He would remember, as well, the expression in the eyes of the four captives, an expression he had interpreted to mean sadness, but which he now knew had been something else entirely.

The beach he stood on, fringed with coconut trees, stretched widely in every direction. Behind the trees lay a profound and mysterious silence.

The island was somewhat larger than the others and had a backbone of rugged mountains. The weary sailors had cast anchor only a few days before. They had spent their time searching the interior for potable water but found none and had been forced to slake their thirst with the juice of fallen coconuts.

At daybreak one morning, the lookout spotted lazy tendrils of smoke rising from the lower slopes of the mountain. Magellan ordered the men to gather together coins, rosary beads and a few other nearly worthless trinkets.

He and several men then pushed off in a long boat. The crew watched anxiously as they berthed on the sand and entered the immense silence of the forest. In each of the watching sailors’ minds was the one question, only the one. The island was implacable and unmoved. Nothing stirred, not even a shadow, in the green density.

When the sun was almost at its zenith, the watch gave a shout. The men were returning. The sailors rushed to the deck and saw first one man, then another and another.

The night previous, Magellan had dreamt that he and the Venetian were speaking to one another from the forecastle. The water about the boat seemed strangely agitated, roiled from the depths by unseen creatures. Dawn was about to break: Magellan could see a strip of light at the horizon. In his dream, Magellan asked Pigafetta, “What do you see?”

He had found Pigafetta’s response exceeding strange: “I see,” Pigafetta had replied, “that tonight we shall eat well.”

Still not satisfied, in the dream Magellan had asked, “Shall I kill today? What shall I kill?”

“You will find it on the beach,” Pigafetta had replied. “It will have a powerful magic. Kill it there! Whatever happens, it must die on the sand.”

Magellan cried out, “For God — !” His mind was open. His heart, bursting with gratitude at this knowledge, which he recognized instinctively as a gift, began a strange new rhythm in his chest. He flung out his arms and dared his enemy to smite him. “Come closer!” he cried to the man.

This one had markings on his face and chest and rings around his ears. How terrible was this native, Magellan thought. How beautiful.

The man who stood before him, his cutlass upraised, took no notice of Magellan’s strange utterance and drove his blade home.

Lapu-Lapu lunged. The great, turtlelike man staggered. The chief felt his blade slice through something soft and unresisting. He had found a joint that yielded to his thrust. His blood-thirst rose. He drew his blade back halfway and then pushed forward once more. There was so much force in the second thrust that Lapu-Lapu found himself losing his balance.

There they knelt, chest to chest in an awkward embrace. The smell of the strange white man repulsed Lapu-Lapu. With a great yell, he leaped to his feet, pulling the blade back, slick with the other’s blood. He lowered it to the surf and watched the water lapping over it. The blood spun away in trickles, in whorls. The white stranger fell heavily forward. Lapu-Lapu turned his back. Had the stranger been alive, he would have avenged this insult. But Lapu-Lapu sensed that he was dead.

Now the rest crowded closely round. All that the horrified sailors on the ships could see now was the furious thrusting of the natives’ wooden spears, and the darkness eddying in the water around their calves.

In spite of their armor, their carapaces of metal, which glinted so astonishingly in the sun, the strangers looked cowed and diminished. Two had managed to fight their way to the longboat. A man who appeared to be the pilot, Pedro Elcano, had even managed to get one leg over the side. But it was too late. Though the men on the ships shouted, desperately urging their companions on, not one of the landing party managed to escape.
From the deck of the Trinidad, Pigafetta witnessed all. Perhaps late that night or the next, he retrieved his journal from its leather case and delivered, in painstaking detail, a description of the tragedy. The effort exhausted him utterly.
His account closes with the words:

That was how they slew our mirror, our light, our comfort and our true guide. In the Year of Our Lord, April 1521.

These words were the last Pigafetta ever wrote during the journey.
He lived out his last years in Venice. When he passed, he was only a few years past 40 — even for the age, it was not old.
The morning before his death, he was seated by a window, feeling the tangy sea wind against his face. Somewhere in the room behind him, a servant strummed on a lute. He heard his wife’s gentle voice, wafting up from the kitchen garden. She was giving instructions to the new servant girl, the one with the large dark eyes and extremely pale face, who had arrived from Florence only a few days previous. His wife was saying, “Take two carrots, pare them, cut them about half an inch long, and with an apple corer cut them out …”
Suddenly, Pigafetta saw, for the first time in many years: the island, the beach, the forest, the sky, the waves. He saw blood eddying on the foam at land’s end. He remembered, in particular, the giants.
Grief pressed down hard, like a mighty stone, on his heart. The pen fell from his hand and blotted the parchment he was holding.
“Forgive,” he whispered. “Forgive …”
Fifty years later, Juan Lopez de Legaspi arrived to burn the giants’ villages. He came with his grandson, the 17-year-old Juan de Salcedo. The boy marched up and down the archipelago and with cold fury, laid waste. The One True Cross extended its arms over the hills and mountains. It could not be dislodged, not by human valor or fire or magic. It remained in the Islands, long after the last of the giants passed on.


Marianne Villanueva is the author of three short story collections. Her first novella, Marife, is being published in 2012 by Vagabondage Press.

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