1521: Encounter or discovery?
March 16, 1521, is a date seared into my memory by textbook history and Yoyoy Villame’s 1972 hit song “Magellan.” Classroom history has come a long way since my childhood, and the “discovery of the Philippines” is now explained in a more nuanced way. If Filipinos read the entire account of the voyage, Ferdinand Magellan’s death in Mactan is only a footnote in the first circumnavigation of the world, that in 1521 could be likened to space travel in 2021.
Discovering the natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was perilous but gave us what is known today as the Straits of Magellan. Here, the expedition entered an ocean so calm and tranquil it was described in Latin as “maris pacifici.” It took 99 days to cross the Pacific without seeing land. Low on provisions, the malnourished crew, many down with scurvy, resorted to boiling the leather from their shoes and belts for food. Magellan’s men were so desperate that rats caught on board sold at a premium.
Their agony ended when they landed in Guam on March 6, 1521, and were provided food and drink by the Chamorros. Unfortunately, something got lost in translation; the islanders helped themselves to everything they could take from Magellan’s ships as fair barter for what they supplied the crew. Magellan saw things differently and named the place Isla de Ladrones (Island of Thieves). After 10 days’ sailing from Guam, Magellan landed in Eastern Samar, to experience the Filipino hospitality we are famous for to this day.
Magellan’s “discovery” of the Islas de San Lazaro is only one side of the story. Looking back on the events 500 years ago, we now see an encounter of two worlds, not the European “discovery” of the Philippines. Didn’t the Samareños who provided the starved expedition with food, drink, friendship, and directions to Cebu “discover” Magellan? The National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) frames the Philippine leg of the first circumnavigation of the world within the twin themes of Victory and Humanity, focused not just on the victory of Lapulapu in Mactan, but also on the friendship extended to the foreigners earlier. The introduction of Christianity remains a double-edged sword in the context of the Spanish colonization of 1565-1898.
Tracing the route of the Magellan expedition as it made its way through the Philippines is possible through a map downloadable from the NQC website. Lifting anchor at Suluan (March 16, 1521), the expedition stopped at Guiuan, formerly Homonhon (March 17-25, 1521). After months of privation at sea, the crew were revived here. A grateful Magellan named it a “place of good signs.” After passing Gibusong (Loreto, Dinagat Islands) and Hinunangan, Southern Leyte, the expedition stopped at Masaua, now firmly established by the National Historical Commission as Limasawa (March 28-April 4, 1521). Welcomed by Rajah Colambu who sealed his friendship with Magellan through a blood compact, they celebrated Easter on March 31, 1521, with the First Mass in Limasawa, which remains contested by those who insist the location is Butuan.
On April 4, 1521, the group left Limasawa together with Colambu and sailed past Leyte, Canigao (now Matalom, Leyte), and Baybay, to rest overnight at Gatighan (now Himoklan, Hindang, Leyte) where they were fed bat or kabog. Continuing through Ponson (now Pilar), Poro, and Ticobon (now San Francisco), they arrived in Cebu where Magellan was introduced to Humabon by Colambu. The expedition stayed here from April 7 to May 1, 1521, during which time Humabon was baptized as Carlos and his wife christened Juana, for the queen known in history as Juana la loca or Joanna the Mad. Offered a religious image as a baptismal present, Juana chose the Santo Niño over those of Christ and the Virgin.
Magellan’s fatal mistake was involving himself in the local rivalry between Humabon of Cebu and Lapulapu of Mactan. After Magellan’s death on April 27, 1521, what was left of the expedition exited the Philippines for Brunei via Bohol, Panilongon, Kipit, Mapun, Palawan, Tagusao, Balabac, and Buliluyan. All details missing from textbooks can be found in Antonio Pigafetta’s account of the Magellan expedition, a text that should be required reading for all Filipino students. It is not boring at all; Gabriel Garcia Marquez referenced Pigafetta in his 1982 Nobel Prize speech, “The Solitude of Latin America.”
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