Victory and humanity
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 18, 2019 - 12:00am

What do you remember about the “discovery” of the Philippines?

From my history lessons, I learned that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, on a trip sponsored by the Spanish crown, landed in Homonhon on March 16, 1521.

His team of Spanish conquistadores celebrated the first Catholic mass on March 31, 1521 in Limasawa, Southern Leyte. He must have displeased his Creator nevertheless; weeks later, in a battle on April 27 near the shores of Mactan, Cebu, he was killed by Lapu-Lapu, now hailed as the first Filipino freedom fighter. 

The brave conquistadores turned tail and left our shores. In 1542, another expedition led by the Spaniard Ruy Lopez de Villalobos arrived and named the islands of Samar and Leyte Felipinas, after then Prince of Asturias Felipe, who would become King Philip II.

It took many more years, in 1565, before Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in Cebu and founded the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines. He began moving northward, eventually reaching Manila where his conquistadores deposed Muslim Rajah Sulayman in 1571, built San Agustin church and a walled fortress, and began spreading the Christian faith and western civilization across Luzon.

What happened in those “lost years” between Magellan’s death and the arrival of Legazpi was left to our imagination. As that meant several decades less of events to remember for our class recitation and exams, we didn’t really bother about the missing pieces of history.

Today, with the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s arrival approaching, historians are working not just to find the missing pieces but also correcting many details of what we were taught in school. They are scouring libraries, museums and private collections for records, personal accounts, illustrations – anything that may provide glimpses of what life was like in pre-colonial times.

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From what is emerging, from 80 to 90 percent of our history lessons about those times may have to be unlearned. This is according to Ian Alfonso, head of the secretariat of the National Quincentennial Commission, which is preparing for celebrations to mark 500 years of Christianity in this country.

A key point is that our people were not uncivilized heathens who needed subjugation and education by foreign colonizers.

Alfonso, who faced “The Chiefs” last Monday on Cignal TV’s One News, said our ancestors were already cosmopolitan when Magellan arrived, with autonomous kingdoms governed by set rules. Our ancestors had political systems in place. Hindu-Buddhist influence was strong, with a mishmash of folk-animist beliefs tossed in. Arabs and Turks would also bring Islam through the south.

There are indications that Lapu-Lapu himself, according to Alfonso, might have been Hindu-Buddhist. Lapu-Lapu’s depiction at his shrine in Mactan will have to be changed: Alfonso told us that the real Lapu-Lapu was not a muscular young man but in his 60s, with a body heavily tattooed as Visayan warriors were at the time.

The Magellan expedition arrived on March 16, 1521, but docked in Homonhon (in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, where Super Typhoon Yolanda first made landfall) only on March 17. When they finally set foot on the island on March 19, Alfonso said, they were so famished and weary, but they were fed and given a hospitable welcome by the local community.

Alfonso said Magellan made the mistake of becoming embroiled in a power struggle between Lapu-Lapu and rival Cebu King or Rajah Humabon. After learning that the foreigners were supporting Humabon in the power struggle, Lapu-Lapu led a team that attacked the Spanish forces and killed Magellan.

Historians have not yet established whether Magellan was beheaded or had his face smashed, Alfonso said. But his forces left the country, passing through Palawan, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi before exiting through Sarangani.

What is clear is that Magellan left a Sto. Niño image in Cebu, which was found by Legazpi’s group packed in a box together with images of anitos or nature spirits in the ruins of a burned house.

Historians have not yet established where the first Catholic mass was held in the Philippines. Alfonso said experts are expected to submit their report on this to the committee this November.

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This Dec. 14, the 500-day countdown to the 2021 quincentennial will start.

What exactly are we celebrating? Our islands already had a thriving civilization when the conquistadores arrived, trading with Asian neighbors including China, Japan, Thailand and of course the Malay peninsula, and on to India, Europe and the Arabian peninsula.

Our people at the time wore ornate gold jewelry, Alfonso said, indicating a bustling economy, arts and skilled craftsmanship.

President Duterte has said he does not want to take part in any celebration of the colonization of the country. Historians have described it as Spanish colonization by the Cross and the Sword.

Duterte, however, was the one who created the quincentennial commission, which Alfonso stressed is not celebrating colonization.

Instead it is celebrating “victory (Lapu-Lapu vs Magellan) and humanity (islanders welcoming the hungry Spanish expedition)” as well as the fact that with the arrival in our islands, Magellan completed his circumnavigation of the globe, proving that the planet is round.

Alfonso noted that Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta, who accompanied Magellan to Mactan, reported meeting a local rajah in Butuan who was a polyglot – they could converse with each other. It indicated to Pigafetta that they had indeed circumnavigated the planet, Alfonso pointed out.

Butuan, incidentally, will be the site of the first museum dedicated to early Philippine history. This is because Butuan is where the largest number of items from that period has been discovered, Alfonso explained.

And of course the quincentennial will be a celebration of Christianity in this country. Whatever Duterte says, “we should be grateful about the arrival of Christianity, because it has done a lot of good for the country,” Msgr. Pedro Quitorio of the media affairs office of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines told The Chiefs.

The quincentennial is meant to raise public awareness of national identity, of the events and forces that shaped the Filipino nation.

Like it or not, the Cross and the Sword played a key role in gathering together all the autonomous kingdoms across the archipelago and creating a land called Felipinas. The revolution against Spain, Alfonso points out, led to the creation of the first nation, the first republic and the first democracy in Asia.

Today politicians continue to control their fiefdoms across the archipelago, but the state called the Philippines has endured. And so has Christianity – with over 80 percent of the population still followers of the faith, hybrid as it might be.

Come 2021, Filipinos will find cause for celebration in 500 years of the Christian faith.

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