The untold stories of Lapu-Lapu and Zheng He

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

It is not surprising that at the opening of the ASEAN summit, President Duterte should choose the theme of Lapu-Lapu as hero. He boldly set the tone for a new age not just for the Philippines but for the entire region. 

 “Lapu-Lapu left us a legacy of freedom through his leadership, extraordinary bravery, courage and love for his own land,” the proclamation added.

He made the proclamation in a press conference on April 27 – the day Lapu-Lapu repelled Spanish colonizers led by Magellan in 1521.

Duterte said Lapu-Lapu stood for Filipinos against the Spanish colonizers but he has not been given his rightful place in the pantheon of Filipino heroes by local historians. 

But who was Lapu-Lapu? We have come to know him because there is a fish named after him. Having been colonized successively by two superpowers, Filipinos were not to know of him during the colonial period. He was a ruler of Mactan in Visayas when Magellan came. 

At the Battle of Mactan on the dawn of April 27, 1521 he and his soldiers defeated and killed Ferdinand Magellan who attempted to circumnavigate the world. The battle delayed the Spanish occupation of the islands by over 40 years. 

The only surviving documents about his life were written by the Italian writer Antonio Pigafetta which give his name, origin, among other things but a large part of the first Filipino hero remains unknown. Lapu-Lapu is also known under the names Çilapulapu,Si Lapulapu, Salip Pulaka, Cali Pulaco, and Lapulapu Dimantag.

The title Salip (and its variants Sarripada, Sipad, Paduka, Seri Paduka, and Salipada, etc.) is an honorific for Lapu-Lapu and other Visayan datus. Like the cognate Si, it was derived from the Sanskrit title Sri Paduka, denoting “His Highness.” The title is still used today in Malaysia.

During Humabon’s reign, the region had become an important trading center. 

According to the epic Aginid, this was the period in which Lapu-Lapu (as Lapulapu Dimantag) was first recorded as arriving from Borneo. He asked Humabon for a place to settle, and the king offered him the region of Mandawili (now Mandaue), including the island known as Opong (or Opon), hoping that Lapu-Lapu’s people would cultivate the land. 

When Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines in the service of Spain, Zula, another datu gave tribute to the Spanish king but Lapu-Lapu refused.

Magellan led a force of around 60 Spaniards and 20 to 30 balangay (war boats) of Humabon’s warriors from Cebu. Magellan’s ships could not land on the shores of Mactan. Their ships were forced to anchor “two crossbow flights” away from the beach. According to Antonio Pigafetta, they faced around 1,500 warriors of Lapu-Lapu armed with iron swords, bows, and “bamboo” spears.

Magellan repeated his offer not to attack them if Lapu-Lapu swore fealty to Rajah Humabon, obeyed the Spanish king, and paid tribute.

Magellan, perhaps hoping to impress Humabon’s warriors with the superiority of European armor and weapons, told Humabon’s warriors to remain in their balangay. Magellan and 49 of the heavily armored Spaniards (armed with lances, swords, crossbows, and muskets) waded ashore to meet Lapu-Lapu’s forces. They set fire to a few houses on the shore in an attempt to scare them. Instead, Lapu-Lapu’s warriors became infuriated and charged.

The historian William Henry Scott believes that Lapu-Lapu’s hostility may have been the result of a mistaken assumption by Magellan. Magellan assumed that ancient Filipino society was structured in the same way as European society (i.e. with royalty ruling over a region).

While this may have been true in Islamic sultanates in Mindanao, the Visayan societies were structured along a loose federation of city-states which showed a federal structure of governance.

A treaty did not stop the colonization of the Philippine archipelago from New Spain.

The supreme god of the religion of the Visayans, was referred to as “Abba” by Pigafetta and “Kan-Laon” (also spelled “Laon”) by the Jesuit historian Pedro Chirino in 1604, comparable to the Tagalog “Bathala.”

There is no mention of Islam. This is in contrast to the other locations visited by the Magellan expedition where Pigafetta readily identifies the Muslims whom they encountered; he would call them Moros after the Muslim Moors of medieval Spain and northern Africa.

According to local legend, Lapu-Lapu never died but was turned into stone, and has since then been guarding the seas of Mactan. Fishermen in the island city would throw coins at a stone shaped like a man as a way of asking for permission to fish in the monarch’s territory.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Zheng He is a Muslim considered as China’s greatest explorer. Although well known, he is not always recognized or glorified.

He was born in 1371 in the southern China region of Yunnan to a Hui (a Muslim Chinese ethnic group) family. His birth name was Ma He. In China, the family name is said first, followed by the given name. “Ma is known in China as short for “Muhammad, indicating Zheng He’s Muslim heritage. Both his father and his grandfather were able to travel to Makkah and complete the Hajj.

In 1405, when emperor Zhu Di decided to send out a giant fleet of ships to explore and trade with the rest of the world, he chose Zheng He to lead the expedition. This expedition was massive with almost 30,000 sailors in each voyage, with Zheng He commanding all of them. 

Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led 7 expeditions that sailed to present day Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Kenya, and many other countries. 

Many of his advisors were also Chinese Muslims, such as Ma Huan, a translator who spoke Arabic and was able to converse with the Muslim peoples they encountered on their journeys. He wrote an account of his journeys, titled the Ying-yai Sheng-lan, which is an important source today for understanding 15th century societies around the Indian Ocean.

The ships Zheng He commanded were up to 400 feet long, many times the size of Columbus’ ships that sailed across the Atlantic. 

Everywhere they sailed, they commanded the respect (and sometimes fear) of the local people, who offered tributes to the Chinese emperor. The expeditions sent one message to the world: China is an economic and political superpower.

Zheng’s exploits today were mostly forgotten or overlooked for hundreds of years in China.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any nation in the world, and much of that could be attributed to Zheng He.

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