Looking Back

To sail into the great unknown

/ 05:20 AM October 27, 2017

I was fortunate to have had good history professors in college. Fr. Richard Leonard, SJ, started his classes on the “Modern World” with a review of the books relevant for the lecture. He praised the good and damned the bad—the same thing he did as he described the catalogue of heroes and heels in history. His lectures transported you to the dank factories of the Industrial Revolution, or made you retch with poison gas deployed on World War I trenches or the death chambers of the Holocaust. Only stones would be unmoved by his passion.

In stark contrast was Helen Tubangui, the “terror professor” everyone avoided. She was consistent and her lectures so precise that when she spoke her last word for the day the bell would ring within five seconds. I borrowed the notebook of someone who had taken the same course years before, and all the data required for the exams were ripe for the picking. Unburdened with note taking, I sat back and enjoyed her trademark deadpan humor that was lost on my classmates, whose eyes glazed over because they didn’t allow themselves to follow the complex story of the emergence of the Filipino nation.


Danton Remoto remembers the name of Rizal’s pet dog from Miss Tubangui’s exams. My question was: What didn’t Rizal like about the women of Dapitan? Answer: They did not wear stockings! These are absolutely useless details by themselves, but like condiments they spiced up a dull story. Her lectures on the Magellan expedition and the galleon trade made up for the lack of detail in textbook history, painting the romance and adventure of the long sea voyages that connected the Philippines with Mexico from the 16th century until the islands connected direct to Spain in the 19th. In the age of jet travel we find it hard to imagine that Magellan’s voyage into the unknown, in search of a sea route to the fabled spices of the Moluccas, is comparable to today’s exploration of outer space. It took both daring and courage to sail into uncharted waters at a time when most people believed the world was flat, and that a ship could literally fall off the edge of the world.

Alonso Sanchez de Mora reproduced archival documents in the exhibition catalogue for “Flavors that sail across the seas,” detailing the food brought on board for the Magellan expedition that sailed in 1521 and the Legazpi expedition in 1565:


Flour, rice, bizcochos (a hard, double-baked biscuit) and oil were staples. Water was not for drinking, as each man was given a daily measure of wine. Beans, lentils, chickpeas and almonds were ground into flour to fortify stews, porridges, or sauces. Preserved fish came as anchovies in barrels, cheap dogfish, hammer fish or bream salted and dried. Sardines were not eaten but used as bait to snare big fish like tuna. Dried meat was part of the provisions that included live cows and pigs, the latter fattened with bran to produce more bacon. Officers had pork meat and left the fat for the crew. Salt, vinegar, lard and oil were used, not as table condiments, but as preservatives. Fruit came in the form of sun-dried raisins, plums, figs and a quince jelly known in Spain as carne de membrillo.

One did not know how long a voyage would take or periods in the open sea without sighting land to dock, rest and procure fresh provisions. Magellan was threatened with mutiny when he reduced food rations to extend his provisions. Pigafetta chronicled a particularly trying time:

“We were three months and twenty days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit that was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the mainyard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on the top of embers, and so ate them. And
often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado a piece, and even then we could not get them.”

When roast rat, boiled belt and shoes become food one can imagine their desperation and their joy when friendly ports provide food and other pleasures that bring about STD, which the Spanish expedition referred to as “the Portuguese disease.”

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TAGS: Fr. Richard Leonard, Helen Tubangui, industrial revolution, Modern World, world war I
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