As part of the global celebration of the Quincentennial of the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522, the National Historical Commission launches ‘Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic’ by Felice Sta. Maria
“The Battle of Mactan has an underlying food story.”
So says food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria when I ask her about what she found most surprising while researching for her just-released book “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic,” published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).
How to feed 280 angry men
“Pigafetta mentioned that goats were part of a food quota demanded by Magellan of chiefs loyal to Humabon,” she explains. “He also recorded that one village refusing to cooperate was burned by the Spanish. For a long time, I had a hunch that food played a bigger role in the death of Magellan. While re-reading Pigafetta’s book, Danilo Geronimo released his biography of Magellan. It was the first time I read an enumeration of the food quota. And it demanded more than a few goats!”
“Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic” has been pegged as the Philippine contribution to the global celebration of the Quincentennial of the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522, but slim as it is with just a little over 150 pages, the book is of much weight, drawn as it is from Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta’s “Primo viaggio intorno al mondo (First Voyage Around the World),” which Felice considers as the earliest published account on Philippine food. “I call it the ‘baseline book’ of Philippine food history not having found anything earlier all these years of researching,” she says. “The very few written antecedents are a word or two briefly cited in Chinese trade reports of the 13th century and one Portuguese citation from 1515. Pigafetta, by the way, substantiated their findings. The study of pre-colonial cuisine is therefore a combination of archaeological findings and Pigafetta’s story. The Lapulapu encounter, I now explain, can be interpreted as the Spanish terrorizing to get enough food to reach the spiceries and the islanders defending their food security.”
We know, of course, that the Spanish expedition led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, on which he was accompanied by his diarist Pigafetta, was no picnic. With supplies for only two years of travel, they set out to sail in search of a western route to the East Indies from San Lucar de Barrameda in southern Spain on a fleet of four carracks and one caravel manned by 235 to 280 men. Needless to say, food on the voyage was a logistical nightmare.
“Because preserved food—by drying, salting, brining, pickling, packing in syrup—had limited lifespans during the Renaissance, all expeditions foraged, hunted, and fished along their routes,” said Felice. “In theory when the Armada de Maluco reached its 12th month, July 1520, it should have sailed back to Spain. Or they should have been given provisions for 10 more months. But the intrepid Magellan believed they could avoid hunger. After all, the leg along the South American coast offered plentiful fresh food. Some of the hunted fish were odd, but no one complained about what turned out to be penguins and seals. There were no cows yet on the continent. They would be introduced from Spain later. So anta was hunted. It was likely the pig-like tapir and surely strange to the Europeans.”
Coconut wine and turtle eggs
It was an odyssey beset with constant challenges. The Pacific Ocean crossing was a journey into the vast unknown. The ocean was nonexistent to European navigators before Magellan crossed it. Its indestructible forces, however, the high winds and squalls of blinding rain, were nothing compared to the daily struggle to feed the men. “Magellan dealt with mutiny caused by the threat of hunger. One boat even sailed back to Spain after what is now the Magellan Strait was identified in October of 1521,” says Felice.
By the time Magellan and Pigafetta arrived in Philippine waters, the expedition was down to three ships and around 150 to 160 men. Felice imagines they would have been skin and bones, so that nine men from Suluan Island, the first of our Filipino ancestors to have found the circumnavigating Europeans, shared from whatever they had on board their boat. “A jar of palm wine, a fish, a variety of bananas, two coconuts,” adds Felice. “That shows our concern for those in need, the desire to feed even strangers who could be enemies, and an idea of what islanders carried as their sailing provisions.”
‘The study of pre-colonial cuisine is a combination of archaeological findings and Pigafetta’s story.’
This is, in fact, the subject of Felice’s new work, “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic,” which she has painstakingly extracted from every food-related account in a variety of historical documents, such as the 55-volume “The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898” by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson and “Coleccion de los viages y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los Españoles desde fines del Siglo XV” by Martin Fernandez de Navarrete, on top of the transcriptions and translations of Pigafetta’s “First Voyage Around the World.”
“It’s full of stories about food in 1521. The picnic is for the reader to discover,” says Felice of “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic,” citing that among the things the reader, whether Filipino or foreigner, may glean from the book is that “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.” Poring over Pigafetta’s accounts, she found that the pre-colonial Filipinos made vinegar from coconut, from which, as well as from nipa, they also produced wines, which they drank accompanied by something solid such as turtle eggs or roast pork.
Felice also found that, even then, as Pigafetta noted in his diaries, food to the Filipinos “was a means to make friends, temper negotiators, and celebrate. It was also a link to the divine.” Arriving on the islands they claimed to have discovered, Magellan et al were welcomed by pre-colonial communities whose culinary culture revealed a sophisticated understanding of their natural surroundings.
Hunger and feasting
How much of Felice’s imagination had been engaged in the writing of the book? “Clearly, extreme hunger and scurvy were real threats to the circumnavigation sailors,” she says. “The hidden fictionist in me felt there was a food story not being given importance. But my imagination needed to be tempered by historical data. The narrative, I felt, should be anchored on Pigafetta’s story. It is a re-telling of his journey but with a framework established by all the mentions he made about provisions, hunger, and feasting.”
It’s been 500 years, but there’s a lot more to be discovered about Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines and, more important, what we were like in 1521, let alone before it. Even Felice has many questions still begging for answers. “One mystery is that Pigafetta did not write about Magellan ever eating with Humabon. Why?” she asks. “And no one to my knowledge has looked at the full story as one of having to feed daily from 235 to almost 280 men who set out on five ships.”
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. Consider “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic” your ticket to a great journey toward self-discovery.
Felice would not have been able to write the book without the work of some young people—book project managers and senior history researchers Christine Dulnuan and Ian Christopher Alfonso, book designer Relly Coquia, and copy editor Suzy Ann Taparan. “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic” is available at P200 at the National Historical Commission, T.M. Kalaw Street, Ermita, Manila | 5335-1202 loc. 143 | [email protected]