Wednesday, June 06, 2012

What did Magellan and his sailors eat?

"Real bread" was the first food that the 18 survivors of Magellan's circumnavigation of the world ate upon returning home. Their fleet's one remaining ship had finally landed at the mouth of the Gualquivir in Spain. For three years, they had been at sea, having left the Guadalquivir with five ships and 265 men. After spending months out of sight of land, taking sides in a failed mutiny, witnessing the death of their leader Magellan and many other comrades, and exploring new territories in South America and the Pacific, their privations were over and they kissed the earth as they landed.

"For years they had not fingered the soft, aromatic crumb; for years they had not known the flavours of the wine, the meat and the fruit of their homeland," wrote Stefan Zweig at the end of his account of Magellan's voyage. Zweig's Magellan is an imaginative and dramatically written account of this, the first voyage around the world. He published it in 1938, but like many of his works, it's been reissued recently.

Zweig depicted Magellan as a taciturn hero, who acted boldly but never without forethought, except perhaps in the instance of the one fatal mistake that led to his death. Zweig was as admiring of and interested in Magellan's long and careful preparation for the voyage into the unknown as he is in the voyage itself.  He detailed first the patient preparation of food, ships, and supplies, then the alternation of plenty and famine as the five, then four, eventually only one ship, the Victoria, (shown below in an image from Wikimedia, from a 1590 map) circled the globe.

Just decades after Columbus's discovery, when ocean voyages were extremely long, basic ship's provisions mainly consisted of biscuit (a long-lasting hard bread that was the mainstay of all ocean trips until modern times). Magellan's ships also carried beans, lentils, oil, salt pork, cheese, dried fish, and other staples. A few cows would provide milk for the start of the voyage; along with a few pigs, there could be fresh meat -- though not for long.  In both the text and in an appendix, Zweig lists the amounts and the cost of all these provisions, illustrating Magellan's careful record-keeping and planning.

Wine was to be served with two meals a day during the voyage: Magellan laid in hundreds of casks and bottles. Obviously he also provided what he hoped would be adequate supplies of drinking water -- though the ships' reservoirs often became foul and the water after long days at sea became nearly undrinkable.

Magellan wanted his men to eat well. To the staple supplies he added intriguing extras: sugar, vinegar, garlic, onions, raisins, figs, almonds, honey, currants, capers, salt, rice, mustard, quince paste, and flour. What were the cooks' recipes to be made from these tasty additions to ordinary ships' provisions? I'm sure no one made any record of such a thing.

Preparing to sail around the world -- which had never been done before -- Magellan knew that his would be the longest voyage ever planned. He expected few opportunities for re-supplying his five ships. In fact, he believed the strait between the Atlantic and the Pacific to be far closer to the equator than the Strait of Magellan, which he discovered. And he found the Pacific Ocean to be much vaster than expected as well.

Consequently, the enormous food supplies were inadequate. As the five ships finished the voyage down the coast of South America, a mutiny and the desertion of one of the ships helped to deplete the supplies. Magellan's underlings, when they traitorously took over one of the ships, opened the stores to the crew to buy their loyalty. By that time, perhaps the most luxurious foods like figs, raisins, currants, and almonds had already been used up -- rations had already been cut significantly.

After coming through the newly discovered strait, the remaining ships had an agonizingly long reach across the Pacific. The crews experienced first hunger, then scurvy and other forms of malnutrition, and finally (in many cases) death by starvation. The biscuit, unpalatable when fresh, crumbled and turned to dust; however, it was the only nutrition available. The sailors eked it out with sawdust and with the meat of the ship's rats, which became a delicacy. They soaked, boiled, and ate some of the rigging as well.

In contrast, when the starving remnant reached the Philippines, the welcoming king of Cebu Island offered them feasts of sweet tropical fruit and other delicacies. Bananas, palm wine, coconuts, exotic vegetables, and roasted fish with fresh ginger --good food and fresh water brought them back to life. As they visited various islands, including the Spice Islands that had always been their goal, they learned to enjoy these treats. Though Magellan was already dead, they claimed the islands for the king of Spain as they had meant to do.

While making their way back to Europe, the voyagers suffered again. By this time, 1520, the route from the Spice Islands through the Indian Ocean and around Africa was well known. Politics, however, made the excruciatingly long trip from the Spice Islands back to Spain even more frustratingly hunger-ridden than the Pacific crossing. Magellan, a Portuguese by origin, had been rejected by his own king, and thus was sailing for Spain. All the ports were Portuguese, and his ships and men were labeled pirates in Portuguese territory -- a price was on every head.

Thus, the survivors had to hurry across the seas without going into port except once, on a ruse. By the time the last 18 sailors once more tasted the bread and wine of their homeland, they had been starving for months since their days of feasting. Moreover, they were starving within a ship loaded with exotic and unimaginably valuable spices that could do no more for their hunger than the ocean did for their thirst, according to Zweig's narrative.

Obviously, most of Magellan is about non-food issues -- though the motive Zweig cited on the very first page, and which persisted throughout the voyage, was to create a proprietary Spanish trade route to the Spice Islands to obtain rare spices for European use. I've concentrated on the issues of eating and starving that were the undercurrent throughout.


I'm writing beside a very calm Pacific Ocean beach, thinking of the naked terror that other parts of these waters must have delivered to Magellan and his crew. Cormorants roost in the trees and tiny sailboats dash around the harbor. So different!

Two very interesting things in Magellan that are not related to food are:
  • Magellan had a Philippino slave who traveled with the ships and was intended to be an interpreter. When the ship landed in his land of origin, he thus became the very first man ever to circle the globe. (He also was caught up in the nasty aftermath of Magellan's death at the hands of a rival to the Philippine king who welcomed the voyagers, and thus remained in his own country when the ships left.)
  • Upon their first stop at a port on the African coast, when they were almost back to Spain, the surviving sailors discovered the paradox that their carefully maintained ship logs recorded the day of the week as Wednesday, but the local date was Thursday. Being the first men to make a full trip around the world, they discovered that you need an international dateline (to explain it with an anachronism). Zweig says this was incredible to the people of that era: "as exciting to the humanists of the sixteenth century as has been the theory of relativity to those of our own generation."

I enjoyed Zweig's book and its rather retro style of writing historic narrative. My only reservation is that he sometimes overuses Homeric similes.

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

Excellent post, Mae. I tried to explore the meals of sailors, or lack of, many moons ago on my blog. I didn't come anywhere near this fabulous post of yours. I did, however, post a bit about a Portable Soup Bread invented by Borden on my Tasteful Inventions blog a while back.

Thank you so much for sharing...I love that you portioned your post in bites:)

P.S. I hope you're rustling up some good thoughts for the Picnic Game while you're out there taking in the waves:)