Exploring history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 April, 2006, 12:00am

Today is the 485th anniversary of something every Filipino schoolchild learns: the battle in which Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed by chief Lapu-lapu, on Mactan Island. The story provokes strange attitudes. Some claim it was the first organised resistance of Filipinos against foreign invaders. This overlooks the fact that, in 1521, the word 'Filipinos' had yet to be coined.

On the other hand, I once heard a tourism minister exclaim: 'Magellan was our first tourist - and they killed him.' This will intrigue those who know that Magellan sailed around compelling submission to Spain and Catholicism, and burned down a village whose inhabitants refused to comply. If he was a tourist, it's no surprise he got such bad service.

Actually, he was employed by Spain to sail in 1519 to the tip of South America and find a passage to Asia. He had five ships and possibly 268 men - Spaniards, Portuguese, English, French, Germans and Greeks. In 1521, after incredible suffering, the expedition arrived here with three vessels.

Magellan befriended a local chieftain, converted him to Christianity and offered to subdue an opposing ruler, Lapu-lapu. But, in the ensuing battle, the foreigners were routed and their leader killed. There are lots of versions of the tale, which is surprising because there's only one source: Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian adventurer who paid for the privilege of accompanying Magellan (he was the tourist) and kept a journal.

He claimed the battle pitted 49 Spaniards against 1,500 natives, and the Europeans couldn't deploy their shipboard artillery. But the Spaniards wore armour, had firearms, crossbows and halberds. Magellan himself boasted that one armoured conquistador was worth 100 natives.

Things fell apart, though, when Lapu-lapu's men noticed their foes' legs were bare, and started shooting arrows at sensitive European feet (trust a Filipino - or a prototype - to spot and exploit a weakness). The Spaniards lost eight men, but a lot of face. Their allies subsequently turned against them and massacred their senior officers.

The expedition returned to Spain in 1522, with only 18 men and one ship. They had already discovered the Magellan Strait, given the Pacific ocean its name and 'found' the Philippines.

As for Lapu-lapu, nobody knows what he looked like or what became of him. But he was a tough character, worth admiring. Warned before the battle that he still had time to surrender, he sent a reply that one American writer liberally translated as: 'Shut up and fight'.

Two years ago, a 9-metre-high statue of Lapu-lapu was unveiled in Manila. It happens to stand right in front of the Department of Tourism. But don't read too much into that.