[What if Magellan had never landed on the shores beneath the blue mountains of Samar? Would we have been as free of colonizers as Thailand — or become as oppressed as Dutch Indonesia or another frenzied copy of Japan’s Korea?
Before we answer those questions, let us first look back at the events of 1521 through the lens of the iconic historical essayist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil. The lady may not exactly have invented the form but was the most excellent at taking it out of the dusty pages of textbook writers and turning it into exciting tales that were part short-story, part movie script.
On the momentuous quincentennial of the arrival of the Spanish in Philippine shores this month, and the death of Magellan at the hands of our very first hero, Lapulapu, we feature an excerpt from Nakpil’s seminal work on the subject, “Magellan and Lapulapu,” written extraordinarily in Manila mid-century.
Nakpil’s pen would capture the larger-than-life characters that filled that summer of 1521 and with her insights inspire several generations of both writers and public historians such as Xiao Chua. Chua would comment, “Like the old babaylan of our ancient ancestors, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil used the narratives of heroes and the past to unify the people with a common national experience, and in the end, those narratives edified the nation. The corpus of her works brought history closer to the people without sacrificing elegance of language which defines great literature.”
Nakpil would be the first-ever chairperson of the first National Historical Commission, which was itself a first of its kind. By then, she was well on her way to writing an estimated 10,000 columns and essays, more than half a dozen books—many award-winning—spanning a career of almost 70 years.-ANCX Staff ]
On a Saturday morning, on 16 March 1521 we see (through the eyes of the Venetian Pigafetta) the small, bearded, unimposing figure (lame in one leg, if we are to credit one historian) of Fernando de Magallanes, standing on the deck of his ship Trinidad and peering at the horizon where the heights of Samar had just become discernible. We see him the next day landing on the tiny island of Homonhon, exclaiming with his sailors over traces of gold in the earth, setting up tents for his sick men, and a day later, meeting a party of nine men out for a day’s sport.
These were the first islanders Magellan and his expedition saw. Pigafetta found them graceful, neat, and courteous, “ornately adorned” with gold earrings and armlets and “very pleasant and conversable.” On another island, the explorers met native traveling in large boats, armed with swords, daggers, spears and bucklers, eating and drinking out of porcelain dishes and jars, living in houses built “like a hayloft”, thatched, raised on “huge posts of wood” and divided into “rooms like ours.” Their rulers were dressed in embroidered silks, were perfumed and tattooed, and used dishes and house ornaments made of gold.
In Cebu, the Europeans met the self-assured but prudent Rajah Colambo who, at first, demanded tribute of the white strangers and then, on the advice of a Siamese trader, who had met the powerful Portuguese in India, acceded to their offer of friendship. Pigafetta’s first impressions are significant; they first saw Colambu seated on a mat in his palace, wearing fabulous jewelry of gold and precious gems, delicately picking at a sophisticated meal of turtle eggs and palm wine sipped with reed pipes. For entertainment, he had four girls “almost as large and as white as our own women,” a fact noted by the Venetian with Renaissance precision, dancing to musical instruments consisting of brass gongs and drums. The queen when they met her was “young and beautiful”, with mouth and nails reddened, wearing a black and white cloak and a hat “like a pope’s tiara” and attended in great pomp.
The strangers also remarked — as did the explorers who were to come after them — that the natives had weights and measures, calendars, bamboo manuscripts, a religious body of belief including painted ikons and the offering of the sacrifices, an orderly and stable social structure governed by oral and written laws and elaborate manners and customs and a vast and active trade among themselves and with neighboring countries. There was also ample evidence of mines, looms, farms, naval constructions, the raising of poultry and stock pearls, fishers, civet, horn and hide industries and, as Magellan was to discover only with his dying breath, an efficient military.
Magellan’s personal history before his great voyage was typical of a lower-class nobleman of the sixteenth century. Brought up as a page in the royal court of Portugal, where he grew up in the exciting company of cosmographers, hydrographers and swordsmen, Magellan saw service in Africa and was soon determined to embark on a career of exploration. Because the Portuguese king ignored his plan to reach the Spice Islands— there must have been dozens of such ambitious proposals from all manner of courtiers and adventurers in the Portuguese court — Magellan renounced his citizenship, went to Spain, and offered his services to the Spanish monarch. Leaving a wife and a six-month-old son behind, Magellan set sail on 10 August 1519 from Seville with five ships, 256 men, and the promise of staggering wealth and fame on a voyage that was to include mutiny, starvation, astounding discoveries, terrible hardship, and at last, the circumnavigation of the globe.
Yet, “the greatest navigator of all time,” as Magellan has been called, was to meet his match in an obscure Malayan chieftain, Rajah Lapulapu, whom western historians have called, with undisguised annoyance, “a naked savage.” Lapulapu was, from early youth, an excellent fighter and swordsman. He had incomparable bravery and a subtle intelligence. He had fought and maneuvered himself from the position of a mere datu to that of the major ruler of the island of Mactan, and when the Europeans came he had spies in the courts of his rival kings in Cebu with instructions to observe the fighting gear and tactics of the newcomers. With uncanny prescience, he mistrusted the matter of making friends with the white men.
When Magellan, prodded by his new allies, Humabon of Cebu and Zula of Mactan, determined to make this surly native chieftain submit to him or he “would know how our lances wounded,” Lapulapu was prepared. He sent back an equally arrogant answer: if the stranger had iron lances, he had lances of bamboo and they were terrible. He dug pit-holes along the beach, retreated and waited for the Spaniards to approach. Leaving their boats in the shallow waters and boastfully charging their native allies to leave the fighting to them, the Spaniards, once on land, were quickly outflanked, outnumbered, and outshot. In an effort to turn the tide of battle, Magellan ordered his men to burn the houses of the natives.
A great many times since, Western men in Asia would make the same mistake and would injudiciously conclude that acts of savagery and inhumanity would serve their purpose. But the sight of their burning villages, instead of terrifying the natives, infuriated them and they fell upon the white men with loud cries, until the sea turned red and those who were not slain ran back to their boats.
Magellan was wounded by a poisoned arrow in his arm and a bamboo spear in his face, and no longer able to draw his sword, he was cut down with a kampilan, the native cutlass, then stumbling in the shallow water, he was overwhelmed by Lapulapu’s warriors….Thus ended the first encounter between Spain and what was to be known as the Philippines.
Although its ultimate effects were decisive, its immediate effects on the native population were probably negligible. We can assume that, for a long time, no one questioned the supremacy of Lapulapu in that area (although progress of his career is lost in time) and that the islanders quickly returned to their old life. The only trace of the Spaniards was a curious new idol kept in the queen’s palace, which fifty years later Legazpi’s men would recognize as the image of the Child Jesus.
The effect of the Magellanic expedition on Castille and Europe was much more lasting and dramatic. Magellan’s discoveries not only proved that the earth is indeed round and accomplished the circumnavigation of the globe but galvanized the Spanish crown, the trade houses and the whole area of explorers.
What if Magellan had not come to the Philippines? Most historians are agreed that we would have become a Portuguese colony, therefore Christian and Europeanized in much the same way. With the Portuguese, as with Spain, "Christianization was a state enterprise." In India and elsewhere, the Portuguese have shown great spiritual enthusiasm coupled with the familiar theories of possession and exploitation. Failing that, either the Dutch or the English would have conquered us (both did mount invasions against the Philippines) and we would have known a colonization more punishing because it was built on the commercial rather than the religious ideal with all the "merciless exploitation and frank racialism" of their colonial policy, yet more merciful because it would have left us something of our history and our culture.
Or perhaps the power of Islam, which was strongest in the seventeenth century, might have engulfed us or the tribute which some of the islands were paying China might have been enlarged into more definite subjection.
We could have been another Korea under Japan which for many centuries before Pearl Harbor had definite political ambitions with regard to the Philippines, or another Indo-China under the French whose attitude of racial superiority and "utter distrust of democracy" have provoked the extreme nationalism of the Vietnamese. Or perhaps the Germans? Or, who knows, we could have known the uncolonized bliss of Siam.
At any rate, it is too late to speculate on the possibility of our having escaped the long paradoxical Spanish colonization with its strange combination of hideous cruelty, humane and beneficent policies, and incredible corruption and conservatism. It was too late even on that morning in March more than four centuries ago when a small bearded Portuguese mariner stood on the deck of his wooden ship and glimpsed through the mists of the Pacific the blue mountains of Samar.
[Images courtesy of Lisa Nakpil]