Just off Shark Bay in Western Australia in 1803, a group of terrified French sailors returned to their ship. They had met a group of locals – but not – as we might expect – Australian Aborigines. Instead, the sailors claimed to have seen a “race of formidable giants”!
As historian Shino Konishi tells the story, it seems that these enlightened, scientific European explorers had been conditioned by centuries of enlightened, scientific myth to believe that Giants inhabited the Antipodes. And when they got there – sure enough – they saw some Giants. Konishi writes:
Giants, along with other fabulous beings and marvels, played a significant role in evolving western conceptions of this continent, from its beginnings as the unknown terra australis incognita, or Great South Land, to the modern nation, Australia, it has become. This is because stories of giants have permeated the West since antiquity, represented in the Old Testament, medieval folklore, and Renaissance mappae mundi
The French sailors reported that they had encountered “extraordinarily big, strong men” who “prevented their going ashore”. Their story was recorded by the ship’s zoologist and chronicler François Péron: “These giants (there were a hundred or more) carried great shields and enormous spears; long, black beards grew down to the middle of their chests; they ran like furies along the beach, brandishing their weapons; they uttered great, long cries and threatened [the] fishermen, who fled precipitately toward the ship.” Péron himself recalled that “the most ancient chronicles that we possess concerning this part of New Holland [or “Australia” as we tend to call it these days] portray it as inhabited by a race of formidable giants”. You’ll note how classical and mediaeval literary allusions (furies, ancient chronicles) frame and colour what the sailors saw on the beach.
Konishi makes the comment that:
this incident challenges the assumption that post-Enlightenment explorers were thoroughly modern, rational, sceptical men of science, who eschewed their pre-modern predecessors’ fabulous imaginings. Many hagiographers of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century explorers overemphasise their scientific and secular achievements, and pay less attention to their journals’ discursive qualities, including their roots in pre-modern thought
The rest of Shino Konishi’s article is a most interesting read for any gigantologist: “‘Inhabited by a race of formidable giants’: French Explorers, Aborigines, and the Endurance of the Fantastic in the Great South Land, 1803”, Australian Humanities Review 44 (March 2008).
On a related note, here is some traditional Australian Aboriginal music: