Editor's Pick

The Battle of Mactan Was A Food War


What does one need to prepare for a historic expedition, apart from men, weaponry, and big ships? Fruits and vegetables.

Story by
Ana Amistad
Art by
Chel Cue
Read Time
Location Tag

Man, as it is repeatedly said, does not live by bread alone. But food is a prerequisite for survival; more than half a day’s worth of energy is needed to maintain essential body functions like breathing, heart rate, and homeostasis. On a decent diet, man can produce about one horsepower-hour of work on the daily, before needing to replenish his famished body.

With what is left over, he is free to undertake a grand adventure. And that’s exactly what the men of the Magellan-Elcano expedition did when they set out to achieve something unprecedented: the first circumnavigation around the world.


When we look back at humankind’s greatest historical achievements, we usually think about the grand moments: Edmund Hillary defying gravity to reach the summit of Mount Everest, or Neil Armstrong taking his first footsteps on the moon. I always pictured Magellan’s fleet, the Armada de Maluco, with hundreds of men on board, excited to venture into uncharted waters, feasting on food they’ve gathered from stopovers. I thought that, with all the wine sloshing through their veins, they were generally in a happy disposition throughout the voyage.

Stefan Zweig’s book “Magellan,” however, paints another picture—one of practicality, of ships stocking up on provisions for a long journey, of how hunger stalks a trip, and of a Captain demanding more food for his journey back, which would prove fatal.

In the end, dreams are undertaken by men who need to eat. Here is the tale, retold and shortened.

What could you possibly need to feed 265 stomachs on a voyage that—fingers crossed—would go on for two years?

Fame, glory, and money—no one in their right mind would set sail on a trip to the unknown without these goals in mind. In the 16th century, spices were the epicenter of the global economy; owning spices instantly turned a beggar into a rich man. Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese in reality, but not in loyalty) theorized that one could reach Maluco, the Spice Islands of Indonesia, via a westward navigation route that would belong to the Spanish dominion. Take note: at this point, no one knew or had proven that the world was round.

He pitched this idea to the Spanish monarch, who named him Captain of the fleet’s five ships: San Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria, Santiago, and the flagship Trinidad. Magellan made sure that he knew these ships like the back of his hand, meticulously checking the inventories and freights before departure. An item forgotten is one they could never go back for.  

Now, what could you possibly need to feed 265 stomachs on a voyage that—fingers crossed—would go on for two years? And considering an unknown set of challenges that could be added into the equation? This is definitely one of those times where you would want to overpack, and I doubt that even the most experienced traveler has an answer on what to bring on a trip that was to be the first of its kind.

In pre-refrigerator days, they could only stick to known conservation techniques like sun drying, smoking, salting, and preserving in honey or syrup. The base of the sailors’ diet were cereals, oil, and wine. Biscuits were a staple for long marine adventures. Initially, each man was allotted nine quintales and 17 libras of vizcocho (roughly 905.78 kilos of hardtack), a double-baked and long-lasting hard sea biscuit. This usually went along with cheese, and the pairing—rich in protein and fat—would be their only source of sustenance in the absence of cooking fires. Fish was also essential on board, so they carried sardines to be used as bait for larger fish species like tuna, swordfish, and sharks.

Magellan wanted his men to eat well, and even included some extras on the list:

<li-bullet>(Accounts of the food acquired for the expedition. 1519.)<li-bullet></li-bullet></li-bullet>

<li-bullet> 905.78 kilos of sea biscuit per person; 3,220 liters of vinegar; 207 kilos of dried fish; 140 barrels of anchovies; 2,625.94 kilos of aged bacon; 1,547 liters dried beans; 2,886.4 liters of chickpeas; 218.16 liters of lentils; 5 pipes of 381 kilograms each of flour; 73 kilograms of rice; 250 ristras (a strung measure) of garlic; salt in unspecified numbers of cahices (one cahiz = 437 liters); capers; mustard; olive oil (32.3 liters per person); honey; sugar; almonds; sun-dried raisins; dried prunes; dried figs; quince as preserve; wine; water; three live pigs and six live cows for butchering<li-bullet></li-bullet></li-bullet>

<li-bullet>Pigafetta's Philippine Picnic by Felice Prudente Sta. Maria<li-bullet></li-bullet></li-bullet>

I asked nutritionist, Dr. Dex Macalintal, about his initial thoughts on the crew’s diet and provisions. At first glance, it was good: calcium; some forms of Vitamin D; carbs and fats here and there; raisins and prunes rich in antioxidants; and a whole lot of iron. However, the amounts were clearly not enough to suffice the itinerary. The biggest problem? There were barely any fruits and vegetables to provide the proper vitamins and minerals.

Several mutinies were launched; fear and uncertainty did not quell their growling stomachs.

Even if one consumes a lot of iron, the human body won’t be able to absorb it without Vitamin C, and the lack of which could cause scurvy. In time, it was discovered that fresh citrus and citrus syrup offered a dose of the needed vitamin—no wonder some were able to unknowingly avoid the disease by eating membrillo, or the paste of a fruit called quince. Beriberi, on the other hand, is caused by a deficiency in Vitamin B-1 (thiamine), which is found in whole-grain foods (hardly any were on board).

According to calculations, the allotted amount for the provisions should have lasted them two years. They did not.

Regardless, on September 20, 1519, the five vessels lifted their anchors, filled their sails, fired their salutes, and were now Maluco-bound.


Magellan expected few opportunities for restocking, but failed to take into account the discord brewing aboard. It did not help that a captain from Portugal was manning a Spanish expedition. Magellan’s edge? His drive, and the maps and navigational charts he was unwilling to share with anyone. No one wanted to get lost in the middle of the open seas where your only chance of asking for directions were the stars.

As Zweig describes, “ships... as [Magellan] had frequently had occasion to notice, lived lives of their own.” Having to withstand the test of life-threatening storms and battles, each one consumed a part of the voyage as part of its own substance. Storms tore sails apart, sea water gnawed away wood and gobbled up supplies whenever the winds went against the flow.

Starvation decimated the armada. Several mutinies were launched; fear and uncertainty did not quell their growling stomachs. Before even reaching the strait to the Pacific, the Santiago was lost to a storm, and the San Antonio deserted the fleet and steered back to Spain. In anticipation of a long journey, the Captain ordered that rations be cut to half a liter of wine, three quarts of water, and a pound and a half of daily bread.  

The Pacific Ocean was vaster and more menacing than what Magellan expected, having no idea that it covered nearly half of the Earth’s total water surface. Antonio Pigafetta, the Venetian chronicler of the trip recalls in his journal:

<li-bullet>“Wednesday, the 28th of November, 1520… we entered into the Pacific sea, where we remained three months and 20 days without taking in provisions or other refreshments… We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits, swarming with worms, and stank… strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides… which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain and wind… often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado a piece and even then we could not get them. But above all misfortunes, the following was the worst. The gums of both the lower and upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so that they could not eat under any circumstances and therefore died. Nineteen men died from that sickness (scurvy). Twenty-five or 30 men fell sick in the arms, legs or in another place, so that but few remained well.”<li-bullet></li-bullet></li-bullet>

<quote-alt-sidebar>When does starvation occur, and what exactly happens to the human body when it is hungry? Dr. Dex puts it in layman’s terms: “The brain has an appetite center and a satiety center.” It is not true that the stomach is, quite literally, eating itself from the inside. When we are hungry, the appetite center turns on and makes us aware that we need to eat. While eating, the satiety center turns on and the appetite center turns off. If one lies on the heavier side of the scale, the appetite center stays on for much longer. Pivoting back to the Magellan expedition, fruits and vegetables could have helped promote stimulating substances like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a role in desperation for food. <quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar>


After a menu of sawdust and rats, Magellan and his crew finally enjoyed freshwater, wild boar, and fruits as they landed in Samar in 1521. Magellan personally fed his sick men coconut water everyday until they recovered.

My research led me to the pages of “Pigafetta’s Philippine Picnic” by Felice Sta. Maria, a food historian who gives a peek into the feast experienced by the battered sailors in the Philippine archipelago. According to her, two days after the fleet’s arrival, nine islanders from Zuluan found Magellan’s skin-and-bones crew, and true to the hospitality Filipinos would be known for later on, the ancient Warays offered them a sampling of Philippine flavors. There was fish, coconuts, bananas, and a jar of palm wine called uraca. Despite the language barrier, our ancestors knew the language of humanity. The foreigners received an endless list of food gifts throughout their stay in the Philippines, but that’s a story for another day.

<quote-alt-sidebar>Rice was omnipresent in Pigafetta’s account just like in today’s everyday Filipino meals. He observed that our ancestors cooked rice in a leaf-lined clay pot filled with water to form a compact paste. Who knows, maybe it was cooked using our secret way of measuring the water by the line on one of our fingers? He was also fascinated by the coconut wine which our ancestors were always drinking. Just think about it: Magellan getting drunk on coconut wine. <quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar>

Magellan and his crew made their way to Zubu (today’s Cebu) to resupply. En route to Zubu, they made several stopovers, including Gatighan Island, where Pigafetta and the others ate the meat of a bat as large as an eagle—a prehistoric source of protein.

On April 7, 1521, they met Rajah Humabon of Zubu who served them their first Cebuano all-meat meal—considered prestigious—along with jars of wine. Humabon expressed his desire to become a Christian, and together with 500 others, his wish was granted. Magellan promised the Rajah that once he returns to Spain, he would make Humabon the greatest king in the region and would have protection against his enemies. Later on, during a ceremony, Magellan asked all the chiefs to pledge allegiance to Humabon and Spain’s King Charles V. Since Humabon was now a part of the “Spanish empire,” he was obliged to help the Spanish king’s representatives reach their ultimate destination: the Spice Islands.

<quote-alt-sidebar>A flavor footnote is given by Pigafetta when he was the first to describe local viands as “half cooked and very salty.” This is perhaps due to foods being eaten against the steamed and bland background of rice. He also writes about the live laghan sea snails found attached to the hearts or livers of a large fish. When the large fish is cut up for eating, natives would find these snails and consider them a very rare delicacy. Nothing is to be wasted in Philippine cooking tradition. <quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar>


We all know about the Battle of Mactan: Lapulapu and his men fighting invaders with spears. But we less often hear about how this great battle was also, as Ms. Felice theorizes, a food war.

Food security was every community’s concern in 1521. Magellan knew he couldn’t move forward if he didn’t procure enough to feed his men everyday. He demanded a food quota from each of Humabon’s chiefs: three goats, three pigs, three loads of rice, three loads of millet, and other provisions. If not, their villages would be torched—as was the town of Bulaia, and even Opon as suggested by new accounts. He was soliciting and then demanding food from a society that lived by subsistence; however, our ancestors knew that they still needed to stockpile their food to get through the upcoming typhoon season. Lapulapu, a datu of Mactan, presented only two goats since he refused to consider anyone as sovereign, sparking the skirmish.

Pigafetta recalls that the armed Spanish boats couldn’t close in due to low tides, leading to a man-to-man battle in the water: 1,500 local warriors versus a small Spanish team. Neither Magellan’s Castilian armaments nor Catholic faith protected him from the spears that pierced through him. Upon seeing the Captain fall, the natives ran straight towards him and dragged his corpse away. His body was never recovered. I guess it is true that the way to someone’s heart is through their—in this case, empty—stomach.

While Magellan’s dream of glory died with him, his name lived on and is immortalized in history books. And at the time, the dream to reach Maluco was still very much alive.


Finding themselves short-handed, Magellan’s crew burned down the Concepcion and raised anchor. Juan Sebastián Elcano became the new commander of the fleet. The expedition sailed all day and night, oblivious of where to go, but they eventually reached the Spice Islands in November 1521 and found all the coveted spices: cloves, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg. They even found fish, coconuts, and bananas, which gave substantial profits.

Before departing from Mare Island, they found the Trinidad leaking at the bottom and left it to stay for an overhaul. On December 21, the Victoria, the last ship standing, set sail westward with 47 crewmen and 13 natives aboard.

Dr. Antonio Sánchez de Mora, the head archivist and historian of Spain’s Archivo General de Indias, tells me that even after gathering so many provisions before leaving the Spice Islands, the expedition’s supplies continued to deplete throughout the homestretch. “The problem was that the Portuguese were coming to the Moluccas islands so [the Spaniards] had to leave quickly, and they had no opportunity to load enough food. They tried to get some food in other islands after they departed from the Moluccas, but obviously this was not enough… They had to use little rations. They tried to get food in Cape Verde, but then they got discovered by the Portuguese, so they had to flee quickly.”

Why, I asked in wonder, didn’t they just fish for food considering that, when they looked left and right, they were surrounded by the ocean? Apparently, fishing wasn’t always possible: open waters are relatively devoid of life (likely due to chlorophyll concentrations); and the fishing tools and techniques of the time only allowed them to fish near shores. For the inquisitive mind: no, there are no references about cannibalism.

While Magellan’s dream of glory died with him, his name lived on and is immortalized in history books.


Finally. The last 18 survivors of the death-defying voyage were back in familiar waters as they arrived at Seville on September 8, 1522—a year more than their expected time of arrival—bringing home a cargo full of spices, goods, and glory. The first food they returned to? “Real bread.”

The first known circumnavigation of the globe was complete, but at what cost? More than 200 of the crew had died—many under horrific circumstances and with their original captain lost.


As I set fire to my imagination again, I can see Pigafetta later craving for rice cakes, or perhaps the roast fish he was served in Cebu; Humabon waiting at home for the fulfillment of the promise that he would be made powerful; and while drinking wine, the survivors giving a silent salute to their fallen comrades. The hunger for adventure brought the expedition so far, but real hunger also killed many, and in the end they had focused on their thirst for home in order to find the strength to make that final nautical mile back. I find it even harder, however, to envision the perplexing feeling of famine when you’ve never experienced it before: the excruciating hunger pangs in the stomach, the wasting away of body tissues and muscle mass, the slow-motion brutality of death from starvation, and the heart-rending descent into emaciation.

Food is an underrated part in man’s endeavor. The hunger for discovery, for long journeys, for riches or even for power, these can drive humankind to pursue almost impossible ventures. But these hungers, no matter how strong, can still meet their match in someone with a fiercer craving of his own, one for freedom and for the independence of his homeland. Yet in all that it is, it fuels every human undertaking—may it be mundane or grand.

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