What Magellan and his men ate—and how our food factored in the journey to the Battle of Mactan 2
A painting that imagines the arrival of the Spaniards on Philippine shores by Fernando Amorsolo, courtesy of Leon Gallery. (Right) A portrait of Ferdinand Magellan. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

What Magellan and his men ate—and how our food factored in the journey to the Battle of Mactan

If you had to feed 130 or so men daily, for five months, in a country not your own, what do you think will happen?  
Jerome Gomez | Apr 19 2021

For a trip expected to circumnavigate the globe, last for two years, and feed some 237 men daily, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew in 1519 filled five ships with provisions that included 1,293 kilos of cheese, 207 kilos of dried fish, 140 barrels of anchovies, 2,626 kilos of aged bacon, 1,547 liters of dried beans, 73 kilos of rice, “and three live pigs and six live cows for butchering on board.”

This is according to a series of Instagram posts by foremost culinary historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria. The posts give us a glimpse of the kind of exhaustive research and analysis that went into her latest book, a landmark publication that tells the story of Magellan’s ambitious journey to Maluco, or The Spice Islands, from Spain—from the perspective of what the great explorer and his men ate. 

The book is called Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic: Culinary Encounters During the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522, and to hear the author say it, it’s a tribute to the Italian explorer Antonio Pigafetta’s fastidious chronicling of what happened—and what was consumed—during their great expedition.

Here are more delectable snippets from Pigafetta’s notes via Sta. Maria. When their ships arrived in what was to be the Philippine Islands in 1521, the explorers found familiar stuff like pigs and chicken, but also stuff that might have made their hungry stomachs turn, like bat meat and turtle eggs. There was rice cooked while inside a bamboo tube, rice wrapped in leaves, and rice made into a cake that Pigafetta said was called “tinapay.” The first Filipinos they met handed them fish, coconuts, bananas, and a jar of native wine. They feasted on 35 different meats on a welcome meal in Cebu, courtesy of the Bornean sultan. 

All’s well, of course, when the voyagers’ tummies were full, but when the provisions were near running out, peaceful means turn to violence—villages were raided for supplies, sometimes burned. Which brings us to the fact that food did not only provide nourishment and pleasure for Magellan and his men but played a key role in how the expedition’s leader would meet his end, dead on the shores of Mactan on April 27, 1521. 

“It has taken 500 years for us to realize that Pigafetta’s book,” Sta. Maria tells ANCX, “is the first published narrative about Philippine food.” And now here it is made even richer and more substantial through her retelling. Below, Sta. Maria talks in detail about more of the discoveries found in the book including our antique food, and her insights in what the publication really sets out to achieve: telling the story of Magellan’s journey from a Filipino POV. 

Tell us briefly what is Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic about, and what it exactly covers of the Magellan expedition, food wise. 

Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic: Culinary Encounters During the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522 is a retelling of Ferdinand Magellan’s famous exploration that discovered for Europeans a strait from the Atlantic Ocean to the then unknown Pacific Ocean. He sailed for the King of Spain whose orders were to plot a trade route sailing westward to Moluca, also called The Spiceries and source of clove, nutmeg, black pepper, long pepper, and cinnamon so costly that they had been making kingdoms fabulously rich for centuries.

Antonio Pigafetta from the Republic of Venice was an eye-witness.  Maybe he hungered for an adventure, perhaps like his countryman Marco Polo’s. He sailed on Magellan’s flagship that was accompanied by four vessels, and was one of only 18 men from the original crew totaling from 235 to 280 voyagers who returned to Spain via the South Seas and the Indian Ocean having encircled the world.

During the Renaissance sailors needed to find fresh food, water and firewood along their route because dried, salted, and pickled provisions had a limited edibility span. Canned goods and refrigeration had not yet been invented. My retelling is based on the Armada’s constant search to stem hunger as recorded by Pigafetta.

The book tells what foods were eaten by the voyagers in the Americas, Guam, central Philippines, Mindanao and islands of Southeast Asia. The narrative includes historical vignettes about the foods. It also describes common European cooking likely eaten by Magellan and Pigafetta. Cuisines of the Christian courts of Spain and Italy at the time are compared with what pagans like the khans and emperors ate at India and China. There may be no other tome telling the circumnavigation journey from a culinary perspective.

What Magellan and his men ate—and how our food factored in the journey to the Battle of Mactan 3
Culinary historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria. Photo by Patrick Mateo

Was this an especially daunting challenge, this book? Was it exciting to do? 

The book is my personal way of showing appreciation to Antonio Pigafetta.  It has taken 500 years for us to realize that Pigafetta’s book is the first published narrative about Philippine food. It does not just give a word or two about edibles as was done in a handful of Chinese and Portuguese trade records.

Pigafetta describes that our ancestors had settled communities with a culinary culture. He is the first to record fish with broth, pork with broth, roast fish served with fresh ginger, roast pork, wine from coconut and from nipa. He describes millet cakes and rice cakes wrapped in leaves as well as pig being offered during religious rites. He provides the first list of Bisayan food words. In other words, Pigafetta begins Philippine food history in 1521.  

What were your goals for the book in the beginning? And looking at the book now, were those goals met? Were they changed along the way? 

As part of the Quincentennial, I felt the book could add to understanding the Battle of Mactan from a Filipino viewpoint. The Armada was in the Philippines from March to October 1521.  It had run out of the provisions loaded in Spain. The men had suffered extreme hunger and scurvy crossing the Pacific Ocean.

The Philippine part of the story is one of Magellan having to feed perhaps 130 to 160 men everyday and restock enough food and water for them to reach the Spiceries following a route they were still to discover on unmapped waters. In Cebu, Magellan ordered a food quota from every chief loyal to Datu Humabon. When a village refused to obey, the Spanish burned it down. The Battle of Mactan was a conflict caused by Magellan’s need for provisions coupled with a fear of hunger versus Lapulapu’s defense against food insecurity for his people.

What Magellan and his men ate—and how our food factored in the journey to the Battle of Mactan 4
A portrait of Antonio Pigafetta based on a statue in the Civic Museum of Vicenza, originally coming from St. Michael church. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Apart from perusing Pigafetta’s account, what were the important books and documents that helped you put the book together? 

Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic includes around 1,700 culinary words extracted from Diccionario Bisaya-Españolcompiled by Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, OAR and published in 1851, then again in 1885.  They were translated for the first time into English by me and offer insight into foods, beverages, ingredients as well as how food was valued. Some antique foods mentioned are agos-os, pork or other meat cooked with sweet potato an salt; bashoy, broth mixed with meat or fish; linabog, a stew of manta ray or shark complete with its liver; and sagmani, a cake of wheat flour mixed with coconut milk. Ngalo ngalo meant to eat with desire, with a good appetite. Surely that was how Magellan’s men ate when they were invited as guests upon their arrival by hospitable Cebuanos.

A very important word is nayánayá. It means to entertain, give food, serve guests and friends. It also means a happy person, one of good humor. In other words, one becomes happy by feeding others. That is very Filipino. One goal of the book is to help readers discover who the Filipino is through food history.  

[Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic: Culinary Encounters During the First Circumnavigation, 1519-1522 is published by the National Historical Commission.]