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Relishing Pigafetta’s travel ‘blog’ about the coconut

Pigafetta travel 'blog' on the coconut

Coconut grove as seen from the road in Dancalan, Bulusan. Photo taken while on a jeepney commute, 2013 October.

Coconut

Thanks to the irresistible column of Ambeth Ocampo. My files still keep his PDI March 9, 2005 article in his column discussing the wonderful 1521 account of Pigafetta about the country’s most ubiquitous flora. It gave me an absolutely different perspective in seeing our most abundant* and common crop – the coconut.

“Coconuts and coconut oil have been with us a long time. The earliest detailed reference to them can be found in Antonio Pigafetta’s account of the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan.

In March 1521, after escaping the thieves in the place they christened Ladrones Island, they sailed toward Samar and anchored on an island south of Samar called Suluan. Magellan ordered tents set up by the beach. While they were resting there and fetching fresh water, a boat with nine men on board arrived. Magellan offered food and drink to the men who were ornately dressed and later presented some fabulous (to him) gifts to what they presumed were heathen primitive natives. The gifts consisted of red caps, mirrors, combs, bells and other trinkets. In return, the men gave Magellan fish, a jar (earthenware or perhaps even Oriental ceramic vessel) with palm wine they called “vraca,” and bananas which Pigafetta, who was seeing them for the first time, described as “figs more than a foot long.” They were also given smaller better-tasting bananas and two coconuts.

Due to the language barrier, the men spoke in sign language and made it understood that they would return in four days with rice, other types of food, and, again, coconuts. So Pigafetta describes the coconut and its uses in great detail:

“…Just as we have bread, wine, oil and vinegar in their several kinds, these people have the aforesaid things which come only from the palm [coconut] trees. Wine is obtained from these in the following manner. They make an aperture into the heart of the tree at its top which is called palmito, from which is distilled along the tree a liquor like white must, which is sweet with a touch of greenness. Then they take canes as thick as a man’s leg, by which they draw off this liquor, fastening them to the tree from the evening until next morning, and from morning to the evening so that the said liquor comes little by little.

“This tree bears a fruit named cocho [coconut], which is as large as the head, and its first husk is green and two fingers thick, in which are found certain fibers of which those people make the ropes by which they bind their boats. Under this husk is another, very hard and thicker than that of a nut. The second husk they burn and make of it a powder that is useful to them. And under said husk there is a white marrow of a finger’s thickness, which they eat fresh with meat and fish, as we do bread, and it has the flavor of an almond, and if it were dried it would make bread.

“From the center of this marrow there flows a water which is clear and sweet and very refreshing, and when it stands and settles it congeals and becomes like an apple. And when they wish to make oil, they take this fruit called cocho and put it in the sun and let said marrow putrefy and ferment in the water, then they boil it, and it becomes oil like butter.

“When they wish to make vinegar, they let the water of the said cocho ferment and put it in the sun, which turns it into vinegar like white wine. From the said fruit milk can also be made, as we proved by experience. For we scraped the marrow, then mixed it with its own water, [squeezed] and being passed through a cloth it became like goat’s milk. This kind of palm is like the palm tree that bears dates, but not so knotty. And two of these trees will sustain a family of ten persons.”

Reading Pigafetta’s 1521 narrative and knowing all the coconut products and by-products we have today, the coconut can really be called a “tree of life.”

*Total number of coconut trees in the Bicol Region approximates to around 70M  according to a PCA (Philippine Coconut Authority 5) informant.

Photos: Alma P. Gamil

Bulusan, Sorsogon, Philippines

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