Magellan’s graffiti: The Homonhon Rocks
We reached Homonhon last week, three hours by motorized boat from Guiuan, Eastern Samar. From the port to the Magellan Landing Site in Cantilan meant a five-kilometer travel on a rough, rust-colored road — a sign of chromite mining on the island. We crossed streams of clear running water along the way and I watched these emptying into the sea. Getting to the historic site on my own would be a challenge without the assistance of Guiuan municipality and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).
People had already taken their seats when we arrived, they came to witness the unveiling of a historical marker and endure a number of speeches. Translated from the original Filipino the marker reads:
“Homonhon. Route of the Magallanes-Elcano Expedition in the Philippines. After spending a night in the waters of Suluan Island (now part of Guiuan, Eastern Samar) the expedition traveled to (nearby) Homonhon where they first stepped on land on March 17, 1521. They called the place Acquada da li buoni segnialli (Fountain of Good Signs) because of its clean [fresh] water. While resting, the tired, sick, and hungry men were sighted by Suluan islanders. Ferdinand Magellan, head of the expedition, requested them for food and drink that he paid for with assorted things on March 18, 1521. They were provided with food and drink by the Suluan [Samareños] who promised to return with more supplies. The expedition lifted anchor on March 25, 1521, after loading with provisions. This historical marker was unveiled as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the world.”
Someone should remove the unofficial marble marker on the site that carries a different date:
“On March 16, 1521, the day of St. Lazaruz (sic) the Spanish expedition to the Spice Island (sic) led by Ferdinand Magellan landed on this island. The Expedition consisted of the ships: Trinidad, Concepcion, 8[&] Victoria.
“The visitors stayed for 8 days to rest and refurbish their supplies with Magellan servant Enrique from Malacca as interpreter. The great navigator extended to the islanders the message of goodwill from the King of Spain. This started the interaction of Filipinos with the Europeans.”
Aside from the official events that day, I was more focused on seeing what was left of seven rocks in the area associated with the 1521 landing that were discovered in 1932. Forty years ago as an undergrad, I read a 1934 article on the Homonhon Rocks by E. Arsenio Manuel and clearly remember the grainy photo of the rock that had Magellan’s name in Portuguese incised on it. Manuel had not seen the actual rock but that was allegedly dated March 14, 1521, contradicting the account of Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the expedition.
Well, the rock is no more. Vandalized over the decades, and recently covered over with concrete to replace the base where a 1952 historical marker once stood. Fortunately, the pre-eminent historian of Samar, Dr. Rolando Borrinaga was around to update us on the latest research on the rocks that brings to light not just the one that was formerly incised with “FERNSO MAGALHAES” that he refers to as “Magellan’s Rock” but another one incised with “M.A.” that Borrinaga believes to refer to “Martin de Ayamonte” (one of seamen in the expedition) and “R A V.O.)” that led to the debate over the date because these letters taken together were previously believed to refer to “March” when “R A V.O.)” could very well be the initials of Cristobal Ravelo, illegitimate son of Magellan who was also killed in the battle of Mactan weeks later. Borrinaga considers this second rock “Magellan’s Son’s Rock.”
On the day I visited, I took a video of the stream of clear water whose path was close to the Homonhon Rocks. From these rocks we walked a few meters to the shore remembering Pigafetta who mentioned two streams of the clearest water that made them call the place “the watering place of good signs.” Reference was also made to gold, white coral, and “large trees with a fruit a trifle smaller than the almond and resembling pine seeds [Talisay], and many palms, some of them good and others bad.”
Five hundred years later, one would think historians would know all there is to know about the Magellan expedition, but these rocks with graffiti, if they are authentic, open us to other stories, other narratives.
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