Diarist.ph: 500th anniversary of Magellan: Half a millennium of staying the same

If you read Pigafetta in April 1521 alone,
you will find things we still encounter today

One of the entries to the national art contest commemorating the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s coming to what would be the Philippines.

Map showing Magellan’s expedition

Some weeks ago I found myself in the Presidential Car Museum in the Quezon Memorial Circle because I’d ended up a judge in the national art contest to mark the 500th Anniversary of Magellan, his expedition, and his fate at the hands of Lapulapu’s warriors in Mactan. Since the results have been announced, I can already talk about it (to be sure, as with any contest, the rules define the terms of engagement; something tackled, quite thought-provokingly, elsewhere by Tito Genova Valiente).

Suffice it to say that what I found most interesting about the entries was their overall derivative approach: you could basically subdivide the entries into the Amorsolo or Botong schools or styles; and, overall, the artists, some of whom—even if the works were anonymously presented to us—obviously submitted entries to more than one category, and didn’t seem to find it odd that they could paint very peaceful scenes on one hand, and violent ones, on the other. But most of all what struck me was that in each Filipino painter—and probably, viewer (we all received the same basic programming in school)—lives a contradiction we’re so comfortable holding that we don’t explore it much at all.

For Nick Joaquin, here was the birth of the refusal to dream big and prefer, instead, to stay small

This contradiction was best expressed back in 1979 by Nick Joaquin in a talk on Lapulapu he gave during a symposium in Cebu. Referring to the two chiefs, Humabon of Cebu and Lapulapu of Mactan, whose story bookends the life of Magellan and the start of our own formal history, he said they could be viewed like twins, permanently joined by their different reactions to the arrival of Europeans in our shores. Humabon welcomed the Europeans, submitted himself, to enjoy the advantages of association; Lapulapu rejected association with the Europeans precisely because it would place Humabon, whom Magellan had proclaimed overlord of all the chiefs in Cebu, over him (meaning, Lapulapu). For Nick Joaquin, here, on one hand, was the birth of the idea of a Philippines larger than, and including, its component island, and also, the birth of the refusal to dream big and prefer, instead, to stay small: after all, Joaquin pointed out, Mactan is a “microscopic isle,” yet even that place was divided into two, with two rulers; thus, said Joaquin, began “the ambivalence in the character of the Filipino.”

Depending on where you are, and perhaps who you are, three logos representing three different approaches to Magellan and friends, will be relevant to you today, in one way or another. This is, after all, the 500th anniversary of the first encounter, chronicled, anyway, between those whose descendants would come to be known as Filipinos, and the explorer-conqueror-missionaries of the West. There is the yellow-and-black logo, stylized to recall the sails of the ships of the Age of Exploration, of the Spanish commemoration of the Five Hundredth Anniversary of the First Circumnavigation of the Globe, in which the Philippine portion is an important part. Next is the white, yellow, red, and blue logo of the Catholic commemoration of five centuries of the faith in the Philippines, with a prominent cross, a priest blessing an indigenous person, and the legend, “gifted to give”. Finally, there is the blue-and-white Quincentennial Commemoration in the Philippines, with its silhouette of Lapulapu and a cross, with the legend, “Victory and Humanity.”

Filipinos are viewed as one of the great hopes of the Church

To me, of all these, the one that will have the most impact is that of the Catholic Church. In Rome last Sunday, Pope Francis, wearing the rare, pink vestments the Catholic Church reserves for use only once a year (on Laetare Sunday: the fourth Sunday of Lent, a brief, joyful interruption), celebrated Mass to commemorate five centuries of Catholicism in the Philippines. It was an occasion far simpler, and smaller, than it was originally meant to be, because of the pandemic. But it was one that Filipino Catholics the world over paid attention to. It’s been often said that to Rome, Filipinos are viewed as one of the great hopes of the Church: not just the cathedrals, but also the parishes, of Western Europe would simply be tourist spots devoid of faith, if it weren’t for visiting or resident Filipinos.

A far, far runner-up, perhaps, will be the official commemorations of Spain and our own country. Today, the third-largest sailing ship in the world, and the one that has sailed more kilometers than any other sailing vessel afloat, arrives in Guian, Eastern Samar, with a Spanish crew and a proud name—that of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the man who completed Magellan’s expedition and thus is hailed by the West as the one who completed the first circumnavigation of the world—but its crew will remain onboard, because of the pandemic; so that, after having arrived, it will hang around like a ghost of the past, before continuing its journey marking the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s ill-fated journey. It will then go on to haunt the Homonhon Islands before haunting Cebu on March 18.

Generations have been fighting over the distinction of who played host to the first Mass

As for the rest, generations have been fighting over the distinction of who played host to the first Mass. In 1921, to mark the 400th anniversary of the event, a monument was built in Butuan to mark that locale’s claim as the site of the first Catholic Mass in the Philippines. By 2021, that claim had been set aside, after panels of historians decided, once and for all, that the first recorded Mass took place in Limasawa. Thus we can hope that a debate that has emerged, and re-emerged, time and again since 1663, leading to competing monuments (in 1872 in Magallanes, then the name for today’s Butuan; in 1953 in Limasawa island, not to mention the 1921 monument, also in Butuan) and the battles of the brains (in simplest terms, it is Masao, in the Butuanon view, that is the Mazaua in Pigafetta’s account; though supporters of Limasawa successfully claim otherwise) has finally been settled.

As the colonial experience goes, I happen to think Spain is on a better track than our other colonizers. Our Friendship Day, by mutual agreement, mind you, commemorates no day of glory for the Spaniards but one of defeat—that of the surrender of last resisting detachment in the then-obscure town of Baler, and the magnanimous, gallant treatment they got from their Filipino foes (have you watched the excellent movie on it in Netflix? Do so, if you haven’t). The previous King of Spain, Juan Carlos, grandson of the last Spanish monarch to claim sovereignty over our shores, Alfonso XIII, laid a wreath on Rizal’s monument (and tomb) in a symbolic act of recognition and atonement two decades ago; and in Madrid, there stands a replica of his monument. The Instituto Cervantes, the cultural institute of the Spanish government, hosted a mock trial of Magellan and Elcano (a home court advantage? Magellan was voted innocent by 73% of respondents, guilty by 27%; Elcano, 76% innocent and 24% guilty).

In contrast it can be said that the Americans have only begun to confront the Filipino-American War, the Balangiga Bells were returned only recently, and Japan objected to a Manila monument dedicated to the memory of the Comfort Women enslaved during the War.

I myself belong to the generation that picked up more from dear, departed Yoyoy Villame

But how do we approach this event as a modern-day Filipino?

I myself belong to the generation that picked up more from dear, departed Yoyoy Villame and, perhaps, from the Ayala Museum dioramas, than anything we actually learned in school. The enduring image is of the Spaniard defeated in single combat by the vigorous, youthful Lapulapu. I kept thinking as I looked at the Quincentennial Art Competition entries on the Battle of Mactan, how strong the hold of that image is on our collective imagination. It’s reinforced everywhere and modified, it seems, only by superstitions older than Christianity in our shores.

As early as the 1990s, when I first heard the historian Luis Camara Dery discuss lore and legends that suggested Lapulapu was a Tausug, it became clear that historians were engaged in going beyond what we thought we knew, to search for what was actually knowable about that portion of our past.

The first thing that struck me over the years, is that much as it’s comforting, we have to be precise or try to be more precise, about what we understand when we toss around terms like Rajah and Sultan and even King or Queens; we have to accept the fact that what we had were many chiefs, ruling over fairly small areas, and that, as one scholarly work memorably describes it, the chief activity of our chiefs was Raiding, Trading, and Feasting. Imagine then, such a world, and the effects of a bunch of fanatical, greedy, bad-smelling foreigners uniquely armored and armed with firearms including artillery, barging in, on one hand trying to trade, and on the other, trying to earn converts to a new religion, and to complicate it more, talking of changing the power arrangements in the area.

The second thing is how little we actually know, because as a rule, we don’t really look deeply into the past. To give just two examples of the many wonderful, because unknown to most, things to consider: one scholar points out that if you go through what Western chroniclers, including the most famous of them all, Antonio Pigafetta—an Italian who kept a diary of the Magellan expedition—have written, no one can really claim to have been an eyewitness to Magellan’s death –the scholar even suggests it’s entirely possible Magellan didn’t die on the beach but was captured, and possibly sacrificed later!

The same scholar, Richard J. Field, in his 2006 article also suggested what made Magellan zero in on Mactan—the terms of his contract with the King of Spain stipulated that he would get to keep two islands for himself, and that he may have felt that Mactan was the island he should make his own.

But beyond these things, in general, I was content to settle on the idea that Magellan was a particularly lucky navigator who proved to have been a truly inept representative of Spanish ambition. But something else would come along to inspire my own modest contribution to the Quadricentennial, which was to put some of these sources together online in a site I maintain, The Philippine Diary Project: first, the diary of Antonio Pigafetta; second, a summation of some of these ideas.

Lapulapu himself was old at the time of the Magellan’s ill-fated expedition to try to intimidate Mactan

The key lies in something Ambeth Ocampo wrote in 2016, when he called attention to the book of Danilo Madrid Gerona, a historian from Bicol. Like all historians, Ambeth believes in going back to basics, that is, the original sources as far as we can tell, to strip away the layers of legend and misinformation that have stuck to the facts and often overshadowed them, over the ages. He pointed to Danny Gerona because he (Gerona) went back to existing records to try to piece together what, exactly, is known about Lapulapu. Among other things, Humabon of Cebu was related by marriage to Lapulapu of Mactan; and that, furthermore, Lapulapu himself was old, at the time of the Magellan’s ill-fated expedition to try to intimidate Mactan.

Watching Gerona’s engaging mini-lecture on Lapulapu on Youtube, something else struck me. Forty years after Magellan, when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in the Philippines to conquer the Visayas and Luzon, it seems that Mactan was empty: while Cebu remained, and indeed, would become at the start, the home base of operations for the Spaniards as they set about conquering, by hook or by crook, what we now consider the Philippines (plus or minus Mindanao).

The Filipino of today may find it hard to relate to the past of half a millennium ago but if you read even just Pigafetta’s account—knowing he was an admirer of Magellan—you will surely be struck by how familiar many of the power dynamics were, as observed by him and as chronicled by him. The need to obtain the local bigshot’s approval to engage in business; the absolute absence of any division between personal gain and political gain: indeed, how the two always go arm-in-arm; the perennial infighting, even among those closely-related with their own turf; and the violence not far from any disagreement.

If you read Pigafetta in April 1521 alone (see my timeline) you will find things we still encounter today: the influence of faith on power, the influence of personal gain, familial pride, and of force to settle disagreements, and if you add what the scholars are discussing and revealing to us, it makes one suspect that the real victor of Mactan wasn’t Lapulapu—because neither he nor his settlement made it past the return of the Spaniards—but the way we treat each other, and outsiders, too; whether Humabon or Lapulapu, or everyone else, you can see us, as in we, the people and in particular the lords and ladies of today, in those of half a millennia ago.


Manolo Quezon is a columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has worked in TV broadcasting and the government, and teaches at Colegio de San Juan de Letran.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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