500 Years Of Christianity In The PH: Revisiting The Historic Battle Of Mactan
April 27, 2021 marks the Philippine government’s milestone celebration of the 500th anniversary of the victory of the Mactan chieftain Lapulapu over the Spanish expedition led by the Portuguese-born Ferdinand Magellan. This battle waged by the native warrior is today signified as the first indigenous military action against a foreign usurper and is one of the highlights of the manifold Quincentennial Commemorations, which will also be observed in 34 local government units. For the Philippine Catholic Church, the year 2021 is made doubly significant because it marks the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the archipelago.
Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Chile and Guam island are also commemorating the first circumnavigation of the world. This nautical and technological achievement not only bound several geospatially dispersed peoples through historical processes such as colonialism, imperialism and capitalism but also through their shared cultural hybridities and blood ties.
When the quincentenary was launched in 2019, both Portugal and Spain jostled for the honours, with the former claiming glory due to the fact that Magellan was its own native-born son. The truth lies, however, in more complicated historical circumstances.
From 1518 to 1519, Magellan appealed valiantly to King Manuel of Portugal to finance his ground-breaking expedition that sought to discover the western route to the Spice Islands, then the source of the most profitable trading commodity in the world—only to be repeatedly rejected.
Magellan then turned to the Portuguese king’s keen rival, Carlos I of Spain (better known as Carlos V, the Holy Roman Emperor) for support, which he received mainly because of the Spanish majesty’s interest in finding a commercially tantalising trade route.
Financing the bulk of the expedition, the monarch gave simple instructions: Magellan’s expedition was to make peace with the natives of the Spice Islands to gain their friendship and to facilitate the trade of the valuable commodities.
The instructions also expressly forbade Magellan’s crew from entering the Portuguese waters as defined by the Treaty of Tordesillas, a pact that had then divided the newly discovered non-European lands between Spain and Portugal by drawing an imaginary meridian line that was situated west of the Cape Verde islands. Lands to the east of the demarcation line (such as the African and Indian continents as well as the Spice Islands) would belong to Portugal and those to its west (mostly the Americas and the entire Pacific) were to be considered part of the Spanish sphere.
Magellan set off from Seville on September 19, 1519 with a crew of around 270 Spanish and foreign sailors in five ships. Sailing westward across the Atlantic, they made landfall at today’s Rio de Janeiro, initially failing to find the marine route around the South American continent.
They sheltered at Puerto San Julián in Patagonia for the winter months until more clement weather allowed them to successfully chart the route around the American continent, finally reaching the passage to the Pacific in November 1520.
Because of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, however, the expedition reached Guam on March 6, 1521. Finally, on March 16, the expedition survivors reached the Philippines, where they would stay for a month and a half.
Antonio Pigafetta, the expedition’s Italian chronicler, recounted how Magellan voluntarily imbricated himself in a local conflict when he attempted to help the Christianised Rajah Humabon, the ruler of Cebu, in the latter’s fight with the ruler of Mactan, Lapulapu. Believing that a mere show of force would settle the matter, Magellan foolishly ventured to the enemy’s neighbouring island where he was met by 1500 native warriors who drew him to shore.
Pigafetta himself related the fatal event: “Recognising the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus, did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther...One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort and our true guide.”
And what is to be gleaned about the prototypical Filipino hero enshrined in national literature and who has become, according to National Artist for Literature Resil Mojares, so “heavily cloaked in myth and fiction”?
Actual historical documents of the period give scant evidence of the personage. Crewmember Ginés de Mafra adds the tantalising statement that Humabon and Lapulapu were brothers-in-law, while fellow sailor Gaspar Correa describes Lapulapu as viejo, meaning old, which Filipino historian Danilo Gerona interprets as being over 60, presumably referring to the shorter lifespan of men during that era.
Read Also: Casa Manila Gets Redesigned By Arch. J Antonio Mendoza To Celebrate Spanish Contributions To Philippine Culture
In the most important primary document penned by Pigafetta, the putative hero defied both Magellan and Humabon. The Italian historian Peter Martyr, quoting accounts of the Spanish survivors, added a highly indicative yet overlooked fact: that Lapulapu had wanted to render allegiance to the Spanish king, but not to the Cebu chieftain.
This inter-regional rivalry between Lapulapu and Humabon was also brought out in the accounts by other crewmembers such as Elcano, Martín de Ayamonte and Francisco Albo.
Significantly, the expedition’s barber, Fernando de Bustamante, clearly stated that “…those [warriors] of the kingdom of Matan [Mactan] had wanted to render allegiance to the King of Spain, [but] the said Fernando de Magallanes insisted that they would have to [first] kiss the hand of the king of Zubú [Cebu], leading them to refuse to render such an obeisance to the Cebu king. And because of this, the said Magallanes sailed over there, where the said captain and other seven men were killed with their other companions wounded.”
These lesser primary sources lead us to a couple of tantalising realisations: that it was primarily the inter-regional rivalry that led to the historic events of April 27; and that the first circling of the globe would not have happened had Lapulapu failed to stop Magellan. The latter would come from the assumption that the great navigator would have not had the wherewithal to defy and directly challenge the Spanish king’s express instructions of returning via the Pacific.
After the disastrous turn of events in Mactan, the surviving Spanish captains hied off to the Moluccas in search of their fabled spices. After securing their precious cargo, they decided to protect their shiploads by taking different routes, in an effort to diversify their odds.
The captain of the Trinidad, Gómez de Espinosa, strictly followed the directive of King Carlos V to return via the waters in the Spanish sphere by retracing the navigational route back through the Pacific into the Atlantic. But the captain of the Victoria, Elcano, deliberately defied the Spanish king’s instruction and sailed on to the better-charted Portuguese waters that passed through the Indian Ocean and around the southern African continent into the south Atlantic.
Gómez de Espinosa’s return route via the treacherous Pacific ended in disaster, forcing him and his crew to return to the Moluccas where they eventually surrendered to the Portuguese. But Elcano and his men eluded the enemy’s capture by avoiding any landfalls in known Portuguese ports in Asia and Africa, and through this heroic strategy eventually claimed the glory of circumnavigating the world.
The commemoration of this common 500-year history is an opportune time to take stock of its meaning, inherent contradictions, as well as the exhilarating possibilities wrought by time.
It invites closure as well as the reopening of civilisational trauma. For instance, when both sides of the Atlantic celebrated 1992 as the quincentennial year of the “discovery” of the New World, King Juan Carlos of Spain proffered an apology to the Sephardic community for their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Immediately, questions arose: and why not to the Muslim people of Al-Andalus who had likewise been expelled? And how explain the silence on the holocaust of New World peoples that was occasioned by that momentous event?
This looking back not only retrieves the colonial memory of Filipinos but also that of Spaniards and many Westerners who, over that period of half a millennium, regarded the Philippines conceptually and administratively as the westernmost outpost of an immense Hispanic empire. The vastly changed circumstances of the contemporary world has led to today’s colonial disavowal, not only in the Iberian Peninsula but also in the Asia-Pacific region, from the Philippines up to the Marianas.
Histories framed by using a nation-state prism frequently occluded inconvenient or painful segments of our shared past and culture unless they could be reclaimed as nationally significant. Similarly, collective memory in Spain is littered with the loss and the spectral absence of embarrassing accounts of its own history.
Happenstance figured a major role in this unfolding chain of events. Had Lapulapu not killed Magellan, Elcano would not have braved the Portuguese waters to return to Spain, precluding his true circling of the world. The Philippine natives’ subsequent encounters with Spain truly and inevitably unleashed globalisation and the knitting together of the Old and New Worlds.
Read More: Dr Jose Rizal, The National Hero Of The Philippines
- Images National Quincentennial Committee and the Lapu-Lapu City government; Getty Images