Magellan and Lapu-Lapu

Posted on 22 March 2021
By Carmen Guerrero Nakpil

An Excerpt from Woman Enough (1963). The National Quincentennial Committee did not adjust the name Lapu-Lapu to conform with the no-hyphen advocacy of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. This is with respect to the time and space the article belonged. Republication of the article is courtesy of NHCP Commissioner Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, daughter of the author.

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.

These were the spirited, self-sufficient, bold and lusty men who were to become transformed by some alchemy of conquest and colonization, into the indolent, dull, improvident indios who would have to be prodded with the tip of a Spanish boot or flogged at the Church door because they were so timid and so stupid and whom the Americans, much later, would find unfit to govern themselves.

The modern mind balks at the circumstances which made a papal bull and a letter from the Spanish king incontestable legal title to these Asian islands. It is hard for us to accept the simplicity and the presumption which brought this stranger from halfway across the earth to a Visayan beach and, erecting a cross, claim to have discovered for his king lands which had existed and prospered when his own native Iberia was marshland. How preposterous! we may say today. But Magellan did not think so.

Creature of his age and race, he had all the lordly audacity of the race which bred explorers and discoverers. Extremely able, patient, ingenious and resolute, he was also fiercely imaginative and indomitable. His heritage was that of Prince Henry the Navigator, of Vasco da Gama who had gone to India and returned to Portugal with merchandise worth sixty times the cost of the expedition; of Columbus who had set out with a letter to the king of Cathay and found America; of Ponce de Leon, Cortes, Pizarro and Balboa. It is not easy to understand, but understand we must, the world of Magellan with its insatiable curiosity for the unknown, its inordinate desire for adventure and renown and the fabled wealth of the Indies, a world so full of unshakeable courage and faith that it set out on wooden ships to conquer the trackless seas and the pathless continents.

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. The Spaniards proved no more receptive to his plans of exploration than his compatriots: for many months Magellan was quite a pest at court, showing everyone his little painted globe. In despair, he decided to make exploration a private venture — a not uncommon method in that age. He had secured the backing of Christopher Haro, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant, and was all but ready to sail on his own initiative when the Spanish King, set on his ear by such determination, finally signed a “capitulation” with the Portuguese mariner.  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 Lapu-Lapu, whom western historian have called, with undisguised annoyance, “a naked savage.” Lapu-Lapu 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,” Lapu-Lapu 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 pitholes 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 Lapu-Lapu’s warriors.

Matthius B. Garcia’s Hindi Pasisiil (2020, Oil on Canvas), the grand prize winner of the Quincentennial Art Competition in 2021.

Their leader dead, still another tragedy overtook the Spanish expedition. Their two newly elected captains, Barbosa and Serrano, went ashore to attend a banquet or to ask for pilots to direct them to Borneo (historians offer at least two motives) and they and a score of others were massacred by the Cebuanos, only recently baptized and embraced in friendship. Pigafetta says the massacre was an act of vengeance of the Malay slave Enrique whom the new captain had ill-advisedly abused. Another authority says that the rape of Cebuano women by the Spaniards was the cause of the massacre. It is more logical to suppose that it was the result of the Spaniards’ loss of prestige at Mactan. Humabon and his allies had, after all, been merely temporizing: they had been warned that the Europeans were to powerful to resist. But after Lapu-Lapu had proved that the white men were not invincible, there was no point in continuing a friendship they did not relish. Nor did their new Christianity, built on so fragile a foundation as wholesale baptism and the promise of a suit of armor from the Spanish king, deter them from slaughtering the evangelists.

The Spaniards lost from twenty to thirty men, Serrano and a few others having been still alive when the ships set sail “in great fear of further treachery.” The expedition stopped at Bohol to burn the now unmanned ship Concepcion, and at Mindanao and Palawan, before leaving the archipelago, not without hearing of the large and prosperous island of Luzon in the north where, it was said, the Chinese traded. 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 Lapu-Lapu 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. Two more expeditions — under Loaisa and Saavedra — both unsuccessful, were sent. In 1529, King Charles, in financial straits, sold all claims to the Spice Islands and all the lands west for 350,000 ducats. This treaty was “a plain renunciation” of any rights over the Philippines, yet both Charles and Philip later chose to ignore it, and sent, first, Villalobos (who it was who named the islands, Filipinas) and twenty years later Legazpi, whose great expedition fitted out from New Spain in America, “established the power of Spain in the Philippines and laid foundations of their permanent organization.”

What if Magellan had not come to Philippines? 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.


Carmen Guerrero Nakpil (1922-2018) was appointed the first chairperson of the then newly-formed National Historical Commission from 1965 to 1971.

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