Through high seas, starvation, scurvy, a mutiny, and death, Magellan arrives on the islands of the Philippines and what welcomes him? Feasts
I have yet to get a hold of Felice Prudente Sta. Maria’s new book, “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic,” published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) as our contribution to the global commemoration of the Quincentennial of the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522, but I got to talk to her and, already, as hers did while researching for the book, my imagination is at work.
I imagine it would make for a great Netflix series, even if it should focus only on what Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, his Italian diarist Antonio Pigafetta, and his crew of 235 to 280 men on the Armada de Maluco, a fleet of four carracks and one caravel, ate during the expedition that took them in search of a western route to the Moluccas, crossing an ocean, the Pacific, then unknown to European navigators.
Because refrigeration had yet to be invented in the 16th century, the food on the ships was limited. Of their provisions for two years of intrepid travel, they did have a few pigs and milk-producing cows on board, along with lots of salt and vinegar (for food preservation), casks and bottles of wine, biscuits, sugar, oil, lard, beans and lentils, dried fish, even Spanish sardines, with which to bait the fish in the unfamiliar seas. There were almonds, capers, currants, figs, and raisins, too. None of the supplies could have lasted 1,082 days at sea, much of them available only at the start of the journey. I can imagine Magellan stressing over the diminishing supplies, checking and counterchecking the inventory. If it were up to him, his men would have eaten well. At the beginning of the voyage, he served wine twice a day. As planned, they relied a lot on nature, hunting, foraging, and fishing wherever and whenever possible along the route, such as on the South American coast, where based on Felice’s research, they hunted and ate penguins and seals.
Still, hunger was extreme, a daily struggle, on Magellan’s ships, extreme enough to cause a mutiny. Drinking water was a problem, too. Many of the men died of starvation and scurvy. Some were lost, including at least one ship, before they could even cross the passage that led them to the Pacific.
On March 16, 1521, down to three ships and no more than 160 men, they dropped anchor at Suluan, east of the Leyte Gulf. The nine islanders who found them must have found them all skin and bones that, true to the hospitality Filipinos would be known for later in history, they readily shared with the starving voyagers much of their own sailing provisions— “a jar of palm wine, a fish, a variety of bananas, two coconuts,” according to Felice.
The mysteries of our past are as worthy of a grand expedition as the one Magellan embarked on in pursuit of spices and riches 500 years ago.
In 1888, Philippine national hero Jose Rizal found Pigafetta’s diaries in the British library in London, in which the Italian recounted that upon arrival on an island now known as Samar, Magellan was honored by the inhabitants and shown “their boats where they had their merchandise, which consisted of cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmegs, mace, gold, and other things; and they made us understand by gestures that such articles were to be found in the islands to which we were going.”
Indeed, arriving in what they would later name the Philippines, Magellan and his men were rewarded with feasts. Imagine the fruits, exotic and tropical like the bananas, which Pigafetta described as “figs more than a foot long.” Imagine vegetables equally exotic and unfamiliar. And fresh water from a spring, “the clearest water,” according to Pigafetta, “…we called it acquada da li buoni Segnialli (“the watering-place of good signs).”
“Our Filipino ancestors cooked fish with broth, pork with broth, roasted fish and served it with raw ginger, and roasted pork. They cooked rice in earthen pots, millet in leaf packets, and rice in leaf packets,” Felice tells me.
And maybe, if I let my imagination run wild, I can visualize—before he figured in a confrontation with the two local chieftains Humabon and Lapulapu in Cebu, which would kill him—Magellan having a moment by the fire on the sand. Lulled by the sound of faraway waves, the rustling of the leaves in the lush palm forests, the birdsong in the treetops, or the sweet anthem of his personal victory under a dome of a star-crusted night sky, he would be drinking palm wine from a coconut husk to wash down a mouthful of turtle eggs, and tell himself, “What a big, beautiful world and I found it. It’s mine.”
Underlying the first circumnavigation was an epic food story, starting out with the search for spices and culminating, for our benefit, with our ancestors feeding Magellan and his crew with our signature hospitality, in porcelain plates and, sometimes, with “pieces of gold the size of walnuts and eggs,” according to Pigafetta. Five hundred years hence, check out Panorama’s whole menu of food and food writing in commemoration of this occasion.
“Magellan Would Kill for Goats” by this writer.
“The Lockdown Is the Color of Kakanin” by Marie Buenaventura
“Lugaw Is Essential” by Jules Vivas
“Pancit Bee Hon, But Make It Zi Char” by Jules Vivas
Happy Pinoy eating!