A king’s ransom for Magellan’s men

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | November 13,2020 - 08:00 AM

Some students who were thoughtful enough to thank me for our recently concluded online Rizal course confessed that their hatred for history stemmed from boring content and being forced to memorize mind-numbing dates, names, and places. With Google, there is no need to memorize anything, but students must learn to follow a lead in an online search, and validate whether the data they gathered were biased, reliable, or false.

Students learn about Rizal by reading Rizal. Through his letters, diaries, photographs, and novels, students rediscover someone who once walked the earth rather than the hero fossilized in bronze and marble. Primary sources provide a view of the old through new lenses; they bring to light the motivations behind the acts of our heroes, helping us fully understand the emergence of our nation.

After teaching Philippine history from primary sources for two terms now, I am compiling a set of readings that are engaging and relevant to college students who cannot read Spanish. Theirs is a sorry generation separated from their past because of language. To be able to place the death of Magellan and the victory of Lapu-Lapu in context, students have to read beyond textbooks or Pigafetta’s eyewitness account of the Magellan expedition. They have to unlearn the notion that Magellan came to colonize what later became the Philippines.

The Spanish king ordered Magellan to find a new route to the Moluccas, one different from that used by the Portuguese, and to bring Spain into the spice trade. Magellan was instructed to befriend all the peoples encountered along the way, but he forgot all this when he sighted gold instead of spices in the archipelago he named after San Lazaro. He lost his bearings when he saw lost souls to be converted in the people he stumbled upon. He ended up dead, face down on the shores of Mactan, by involving himself in a local political problem between Humabon and Lapu-Lapu.

I was lucky to have had Helen Tubangui as my college history teacher, because she taught me not just about Magellan (1521) and Legazpi (1565), but the other expeditions in between, often skipped by teachers for lack of time: Loaisa (1525), Cabot (1526), Saavedra (1527), and Villalobos (1542). It was Villalobos who named Samar and Leyte “Felipe-nas” in honor of the crown prince better known as Philip II.

Aside from exploration, these later expeditions were ordered to find out what happened to the Trinidad, Magellan’s flagship that was abandoned in Tidore, and, if possible, to seek out and repatriate survivors of Magellan’s team in the hands of the Portuguese or the islanders.

It is not well known that Hernan Cortes, Governor of New Spain (Mexico), sent a letter to the King of Cebu dated May 28, 1527, apologizing for Magellan’s actions and adding that only one of Magellan’s five ships returned to Spain:

“…owing to the said captain’s lack of caution and foresight… His Majesty learned the reason for the destruction and loss of the rest. Now, although he was sorely afflicted at all this, he grieved most at having a captain who departed from the royal commands and instructions that he carried, especially in his having stirred up war or discord with you and yours. For His Majesty sent him with the single desire to regard you all as his very true friends and servants, and to extend to you every manner of kindness as regards your honor and your persons. For this disobedience, the Lord and possessor of all things permitted that he should suffer retribution for his want of reverence, dying as he did in the evil pretension which he attempted to sustain, contrary to his prince’s will. And God did him not a little good in allowing him to die as he did there, for had he returned alive, the pay for his negligence [would not have] been so light.”

Cortes also requested the return of any survivors of the Magellan expedition, even offering to ransom them at a price that met the Cebu king’s satisfaction. Magellan’s body was kept as a trophy and was not for sale or exchange, but the eight survivors of the Battle of Mactan and the massacre in Cebu? They could not be returned as well, because after they were treated for their wounds and were on their feet again, all were sold to the Chinese as slaves. After all, their upkeep cost money.

We need a more nuanced reading of 1521 to understand not just the past, but also the present and the future.

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