Battle of Mactan 500th anniversary: Historian shares 10 facts

Kathleen A. Llemit (Philstar.com) - April 26, 2021 - 8:06pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Battle of Mactan in 1521 was brought into spotlight last February when Filipino-American rapper Ez Mil mentioned about it in his hit song "Panalo (Trap Carinosa)."

Despite the controversy, it reminded many Filipinos of their history. This year marks the quincentennial year of the battle on April 27 where the Filipino chieftain Lapulapu (also reffered to as Lapu-Lapu) is said to have defeated Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Historians often cite the chronicles of Italian scholar and explorer Antonio Pigafetta, who was among the more than 200 crew of the expedition led by Magellan. He was also among the 18 who boarded the Victoria, the only remaining ship from a fleet of five that sailed to the Philippines and Moluccas (Spice Islands) and returned to Spain in 1522.

But what really transpired during the two-year expedition in the name of the Spanish crown? Was there any beheading that occurred? What is the signifance of the Battle of Mactan and Magellan's accidental landing in Samar to modern Filipinos?

Filipino Public Historian Prof. Xiao Chua sits with Philstar.com in an exclusive interview and gives details on what transpired in that perilous journey that culminated in the first circumnavigation in history.

1. National heroes like Rizal saw the story of Lapulapu's triumph against Spain as an inspiring tale of winning against conquerors.

Prof. Chua said that for our heroes to create our nation, they needed a narrative that could inspire people to believe that Filipinos can topple the colonialists.

"Tandaan natin na when our heroes started to create the nation, they have to bring down colonianism, right? And colonianism was of course brought by the Spaniards. Noong panahon 'yan ng 19th century, 1800s.

"They needed a symbol. (Jose) Rizal, Juan Luna, Mariano Ponce, even the Katipuneros, Emilio Jacinto and Emilio Aguinaldo. They needed a symbol wherein they can show that we, Filipinos, can win against Spain. And that's why they made the events of 1521 important because in 1521 we defeated the Spaniards, Magellan in the Battle of Mactan which was led by Lapulapu," he explained.

Prof. Chua noted that in reality the events in 1521 did not drastically change the course for Filipinos until 1565 when the Spaniards started their colonization by annexing it as part of King Philip II's reign. It came after the expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in Cebu in February 13, 1565.  

"That's why if you look at it, Lapulapu became a symbol of victory. Kapagka nanghihina tayo at napaghihinaan ng loob kasi ang laki-laki ng kalaban, ng hamon, we always bring up Lapulapu. So pagka naghahanap tayo ng assurance, ng identity, that we can win, Lapulapu is that symbol. That's why he is important." 

2. Pigafetta only cited Lapulapu once, while Rizal named the Mactan chief.

Most of the accounts on the said expedition, including the famous battle, were told and recorded by most of the European survivors. These are often seen as "primary resources."

Apart from Pigafetta, other survivors like Juan Sebastian Elcano, the captain of Victoria, also told their accounts of the expedition that took off from Spain on September 20, 1519.
Prof. Xiao said there were variations on their stories because "memory tends to fail."

"For example, Antonio Pigafetta was the most detailed of all the records and he only cited Lapulapu once as the leader of Mactan and his name was Cilapulapu in both the Italian and French versions of his account. Historians after that believe that Ci was actually a title like Sri or a great man. Rizal was thinking maybe tinuro siya kaya Cilapulapu. That's why Rizal made him Lapulapu. Actually it was Rizal who made him Lapulapu as we know him today. If you're going to look at it, 'yun lang 'yung sinabi," the professor shared.

On the part of the locals who might have had told their stories, Prof. Xiao said that it takes much to verify its accuracy.

"It is hard to ascertain if the oral history came from the original sources. That's the problem with that. So you have to recognize that they are important because they are oral traditions but oral traditions cannot be construed as historical. They're important but they're not historical."

3. Magellan's expedition went to great lengths and ordeal including thoughts of cannibalism  before they first saw Samar.  

It was the age of exploration, and Magellan wanted to have his fair share of the pie. After all, they've heard of the exploits of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. They also wanted to find spices which were deemed valuable commodities at that time.

"Nobody had ever traversed that path before at least recorded and that's why the Pigafetta account and the Magellan-Elcano expedition is important to our history because it is the first circumnavigation in the world. It was an achievement of science and mankind. They were daring because they wanted to get rich and they wanted to be placed in history. They knew about Christopher Columbus and what he did and the other explorers in Latin America. So they wanted to have a fair share of that slice of the pie, so to speak," the professor shared.

The crew were on the high seas for 90 days and Pigafetta's account painted a picture of how little Magellan and his men knew of the unchartered lands and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

"They were eating bad food. They were already selling rats to each other. Kinikiskis nila 'yung kahoy ng barko so they can eat sawdust o 'yung alikabok nu'ng kahoy. They had supply of biscuits na binubulate na and they killed some people in Guam, noong sinasabi nilang ninakawan sila, and they wanted to get the bodies of those so they can eat it. 'Yun na 'yung situation nila. They were hungry.

"On March 16, they saw Samar then on March 17 they landed. There were no people on Homonhon because they were so afraid to go down, na baka saktan sila ng mga natives. But when the natives saw them the next day, March 18, from Suluan, hindi sila nagkasunduan but they were treated well.

"After a few days, these people from Suluan came back from Magellan and his men with two boats of food which meant na sanay ang ating mga ninuno sa pakikipag-kapwa tao at sa trading," Chua said.  

4. Magellan played with local politics and it cost him his life.

Samar natives welcomed the Spanish crew. They even held the first-ever mass in the Philippines on March 31, 1521 in Limasawa. What changed that led to the Battle of Mactan?

"Remember, when you come in peace to Filipinos, they will also treat you nicely. They had the time of their lives in Limasawa where they had their first mass and then they went to Cebu where they were also treated very well but Magellan started to mingle with the local dynamics.

"Since Magellan did not have money, wala siyang way to pay the taxes of (Rajah) Humabon and the latter wanted him to pay and they did not need anything from Magellan. The Cebuanos did not need anything from them and so Magellan used his secret weapon in diplomacy," Prof. Xiao explained.

Magellan had said that Humabon could be like a little king or representative of King Philip II. He said that they could fight for Humabon, who was Lapulapu's rival and the chieftain or datu of Cebu.

"Gustong pakialaman ni Magellan, like in Europe, may emperador tapos hari siya ng mga hari. Humabon liked that idea to be king of kings in a way but Lapulapu did not like it. So naningil ngayon because Humabon was very crafty. The Battle of Mactan happened because Magellan said ipagtatanggol namin kayo sa mga kaaway ninyo, and so pinagtanggol nga niya. Magellan even said (to Humabon) to not help his crew but just watch. Of course, Humabon did not at 'pag lumaban pa si Humabon doon, hindi siya makakapag-hugas ng kamay," Prof. Xiao said.

5. Lapulapu employed the triangle strategy.  

The Mactan chieftain had the advantage and he knew it, so he utlilized it.  

"In some accounts of survivors given to some other storytellers at that time, there were two Battle of Mactans actually. Pero in Pigafetta's account, pinagtulung-tulungan si Magellan. It's 49 versus 1,500. Our ancestors employed the triangle strategy of the backland because Pigafetta said, on three sides, sumalakay 'yung mga Filipino. Ginamitan lang ng strategy kasi hinayaan lang nila pumasok e sa loob ng shore eh papasok 'yun. If you're going to look at it, they will trap Magellan.

"If you're going to look at it, it makes Magellan and his men look good because there were only 49 and there were not so many people killed except that they killed Magellan kasi 'pag napatay mo na 'yung lider, tapos na e," the professsor said.  

6. No one-on-one happened between Magellan and Lapulapu.

Battles are won by compelling narratives, and as much as many would have liked to think that there were great moments between the two leaders, it was not necessarily the case.

"There's always this imagination that Lapu-Lapu was one-on-one with Magellan, which was not the case. People just assumed that the two leaders will have their man-to-man but they did not," he said.

7. Lapulapu was not Muslim.

The professor also shared several misconconceptions about the Cebuano hero.

"The other things, na siya (Lapulapu) ay Tausug daw na nagmula sa Sulu na nagpunta sa Cebu. (Doon sa mga nagsasabi na) siya ay isang Muslim are not true because in the Visayas, they were eating pork," he shared.

He shared that the Spaniards described non-Christians as Moros but he cleared that the Cebuano chieftain was not described as Moro.

"They were Visayan animists. They were worshipping anitos. Nag-sandugo sila. Sa Muslim, bawal ang sandugo e," he explained.

8. The surviving crew got lost in the Zamboanga Peninsula and Palawan before finding Moluccas.

After the death of Magellan and the massacre of the newly elected leaders of the expedition due to a betrayal, the remaining crew set sail for Moluccas, an island off Indonesia.

"After that, they proceeded to other parts of the islands. Naligaw-ligaw pa sila. They even passed by Zamboanga, Palawan, Zamboanga again and even went to Brunei then back to Zamboanga. They traversed both the sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao until Saranggani province until they were able to see their much-longed for spices in Moluccas na kailangan na kailangan sa Europe because of their value in gold," Prof. Xiao said.

From more than 200 crew, 18 survived aboard the remaining ship Victoria manned by Juan Sebastian Elcano.

9. No one knows how Lapulapu died.  



The Battle of Mactan was put into spotlight early this year when Filipino-American rapper Ez Mil infamously wrote "pinugutan si Lapu sa Mactan" in his hit song "Panalo (Trap Carinosa)." The singer has since apologized for the misstep.

"Wala. We don't even know how he died. Nothing like that," Prof. Xiao said on Lapulapu's demise.

The professor commended the song, saying it was beautiful and as an artist, Ez Mil, had the "right to do that."

"It was a very good song. Sabi niya he included it because he wanted it to be noticed. But the song is beautiful, it would be noticed even with him not doing that. If you're going to look at it, the song is beautiful in itself and you did not need that controversy. Kumbaga there's so much confusion about history tapos dadagdag ka pa. 'Yun lang 'yung resentment ko but otherwise, he was free to do it," he said.

The professor jested that he had found Lapulapu's "killer."

"Sino pumatay kay Lapulapu? It's Ez Mil. Pinugutan si Lapu sa Mactan e," he said referring to the rapper's controversial lyrics.

10. Filipino frontliners are modern-day superheroes like Lapulapu.  

The quincentennial commemoration of the Battle of Mactan is a cause for celebration and reflection for Filipinos. Prof. Chua believes that colonialism may have a negative connotation but Filipinos should still see it as a lesson so it would not be repeated.

Heroism and unity should be observed, he said, especially in these uncertain times. Filipino frontliners possess the spirit of Lapulapu and like him who is celebrated throughout the years, our modern-day heroes should also be a source of inspiration.

"We should be united. We should think of other people. Makipag-kapwa tao tayo. We should show compassion especially during this time of COVID-19 and pay tribute to those who like Lapulapu had the tenacity and bravery na harapin ang virus to cure people. These are our Filipino frontliners, medical or non-medical, who help us get through this nightmare," he said.

"Walang pinipiling lahi ang Pilipino. The humanity that we show to the world, the Filipino nurses, are being hailed around the world. This is the spirit of the victory of Lapulapu and the humanity of our ancestors. That for me is the meaning of the quincentennial commemorations in the Philippines."  — Videos by Efigenio Toledo IV, Deejae Dumlao

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