The Cross of Magellan in Cebu

DIYANDI - DIYANDI By Linda Kintanar-Alburo () - November 27, 2005 - 12:00am
For this month's column, I'd like to feature a brief reaction to the book Over the Edge of the World (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 2003) by Laurence Bergreen which details Magellan's circumnavigation of the world, including the latter's activities in Cebu and his eventual death in Mactan. It is written by a former chair of the USC History department, Virgilio de la Victoria, who visits us now and then from his home in LA, where he works as Eligibility Supervisor of the Department of Public Social Services.
I was a balikbayan not too long ago and one of the places I visited was Cebu City, popularly known as the Queen City of the South. The progress that Cebu has achieved through the years since I left in 1987 is truly impressive. The remodeled Mactan International Airport, the huge reclamation area that now straddles 3 cities, the 4-lane circumferential road that stretches halfway around the city, the proliferation of first class hotels, resorts and shopping malls, among others, are reflective of the city's booming economy. But, what aroused my interest most that prompted me to write this article is the Cross of Magellan which is housed in a kiosk fronting the City Hall. The kiosk has become not only a popular tourist and historical landmark but a place of worship as well. Many young couples, I was told, made their marriage vows before this revered religious artifact.

Inside the kiosk is the approximately 7-foot wooden cross under which is a marker with the inscription: "MAGELLAN'S CROSS. This cross of tindalo wood encases the original cross planted by Ferdinand Magellan on this very site April 21, 1521." If the original cross really exists, why encase it in wood and hide it from the public? Why not expose it or at least encase in a glass for everyone to see? This is a question that is often asked by people who have visited the place.

There is a perception that since the marker was put up by the Cebu Tourist Guides Association 1967 under the advisorship of then regional tourism commissioner Phineas A. Alburo, the misrepresentation was self-serving, designed to create an impression that the original cross still exists today thereby, attracting more tourists to the city. Whether true or not, the inscription lacks any historical basis and deserves a closer scrutiny.

To begin with, the cross was definitely not "planted on this very site" but most likely in the vicinity of the present-day San Nicholas District which is more or less 10 kms from the kiosk. This conclusion is reached because the Cebu chieftain at the time, Rajah Humabon, had his "kingdom" located in that area which was then a prosperous riverine trading community. With all the pomp and pageantry, the cross was erected on the village square in commemoration of the rajah's "conversion" and baptism to Christianity along with hundreds of his followers on a Sunday, April 14, 1521, not April 21 as indicated above. Thus wrote Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan's voyage: "A large cross was set up in the middle of the square. The Captain General told them that if they wished to be Christians as they declared on the previous days, they must burn all their idols and set up a cross in their place." The general area on which the City Hall stands today was a swampland and was obviously uninhabited in 1521.

The next time the Spaniards appeared in Cebu was in 1565 where they initiated the colonization of the Philippines led by Miguel de Legaspi. Was there a cross when they arrived? Simple common sense does not support that view. Granting that the cross was left where it was, how could any wooden material - exposed to nature's elements - withstand the ravages of tropical heat and humidity, storm, rain and yes, quite possibly, termites after 44 years?

The Spaniards lost prestige after Magellan's ignominious defeat in Mactan island at the hands of a defiant chieftain named Lapulapu. Humabon who, earlier submitted meekly to Spanish vassalage, was now preparing to redeem himself, his lost honor and dignity. To him and his followers, the cross became a hated symbol of a short-lived foreign rule and the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from it was that the natives must have chopped it down just as they did to the Spaniards on May 1, 1521, four days after the Mactan debacle. On this day, Humabon and his men through treachery butchered 27 Spaniards during a farewell banquet ostensibly given in their honor. While the massacre was in progress, those who remained in their ships hurriedly raised anchors and set sail amidst the wails and cries of the dying Spaniards left behind. Fleeing to safety, "their last sight of Cebu", according to Harvard University scholar Laurence Bergreen in this book Over the Edge of the World, (p. 297) "was of enraged islanders tearing down the cross…and smashing it to bits."

Moreover, it is naïve to think that, in one morning's baptismal rite, the natives became docile and true Christians who would value material representations of their new faith. To them, their baptism was a ritual with hardly any religious underpinnings. It was simply to placate Magellan who dazzled them with almost divine power (he was reported to have miraculously cured a dying man) and that he "represented the most powerful king in the world." In reality, Spanish presence in Cebu was but a brief and insignificant interregnum in the animistic ways of the Cebuanos.

Finally and perhaps, the most convincing argument that the cross was forever lost to posterity is the fact that after Lepaspi set foot in Cebu, he made an exhaustive report to his king anything that suggested Spanish presence in the island including the finding of the venerable image of Santo Niño (which was used as a religious idol and was thus saved). But nowhere in his report did he ever mention the cross! A replica of the Magellan cross as a symbol of Philippine colonial past is an undeniable fact but "the original cross encased in a tindalo wood" is a myth that must be shattered for indeed, there is no such thing. The original cross, like the prehistoric Neanderthals, is lost forever and does not exist anymore in our time and no amount of "covering" can ever change that reality. Attracting more tourists to the city should never be promoted at the expense of historical truth.

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