“At Seville on 24 August 1519 Magellan signed his last will and testament….One-tenth of all he may gain from the voyage to the Moluccas is to be set apart for legacies; one-third to build a new chapel around Santa Maria de la Victoria, where the monks may forever pray for the repose of his soul…” From The Great Explorers by Samuel Elliot Morrison
Although there are exceptions, few people begin the day knowing it will be their last. Magellan had experienced many a close shave with fate, this day held another battle to be fought and won. With a pattern of decisive action, the iron willed man had muscled his way through many a tight spot. He had no reason to think his God and tactics would fail him today.
But fail him they did at Mactan Island in the central Philippines on April 27th, 1521.He went down fighting in the knee deep water of what is now called Magellan Bay. He and his band of marines tried to retreat to their shallops at the outer edge of the shallows: the majority cut and ran, a core of eight stood together giving way slowly.
His position among the men and his distinct armor gave him away as the prize. Thrown rocks knocked his helmet off twice. He received a wound to his arm and tried without success to draw his sword as the enemy fell upon him. A scimitar slashed his leg and he fell forward into the water. He was last seen looking back at his retreating men scrambling aboard their small vessels. A frenzy of stabbing spears ended Magellan’s life. His body was never given up.
Although the initial landing force of 48 held their own against a substantially larger defending force, the advantage of gunpowder and crossbows was lost when the ammunition ran out. Armor, swords, and lances weren’t sufficient to withstand a barrage of bamboo spears, stakes, and rocks coming in from hundreds of furious warriors. Magellan and seven others died, the rest went back across the waterway to Cebu. Chief Lapu Lapu and his warriors won the Battle of Mactan. Historian’s estimate of the dead; home team 15, visitors 8.
An evangelical cloud of misjudgment preceded the disaster. 1000 warriors in thirty war canoes watched the debacle from offshore at Magellan’s insistence. Rajah Humabon had advised Magellan against the attack but had still provided the 1000 warriors familiar with the defenses of Mactan to join in the battle. Instead, they witnessed the defeat. Magellan’s intent to demonstrate the power of his God fell to earth. The invincibility of all the king’s men came up short. Humabon would soon turn on the survivors of this flawed ally of his with a disguised slaughter.
Magellan’s 10 year servant/slave Enrique, who amazingly spoke the local language, was wounded in the Battle of Mactan. He knew his master’s will stipulated his freedom upon Magellan’s death. The newly promoted captain general, Duarte Barbosa, stated otherwise, ordering the despondent Enrique ashore to negotiate with Humabon.
Enrique brought back notice of a feast scheduled for May 1st. 26 more members of the Magellan expedition were slaughtered in the trap. Enrique was spared and the fleet Chaplain Valderrama was seen being led quietly away to the home of a Humabon’s brother before the carnage commenced. Enrique and the priest are lost to history.
From the decks of the Victoria, Trinidad, and Conception, the tumult of screams came screeching across the water from shore. Left with only enough survivors onboard to sail 2 of the 3 ships, the Conception was taken to the southwest side of Bohol Island and scuttled.
Just three weeks prior to the Battle of Mactan, the expedition’s arrival in the central Philippines (originally named Islas de San Lazaro by Magellan) during Easter week was quite different from the previous year’s Semana Santa mutiny attempt at Port San Julian in present day Argentina. Subsequent to Magellan’s arrival here, thousands of locals had been baptized into the Holy Catholic Church. The ritual of the Mass apparently appealed to the indigenous culture of idol worship. Firepower, pomp and circumstance, along with a successful faith healing by Magellan of Humabon’s brother, wowed the ranks of the population and its leaders. With Enrique as interpreter, Magellan had taken to pontificating sermons with such enthusiasm that his faith was contagious. Magellan’s faith was so strong at this point, he outpaced his most well-armed guardian angels.
April 27th, 1565, 44 years later to the day of Magellan’s death, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi led the first renewed Spanish contact with the inhabitants of Cebu. It was a hostile encounter. Cebu was set on fire. The following day, one of Legazpi’s sailors came across a charred wooden box containing the wooden image of the Christ child given by Magellan to Humabon’s wife Lisabeta. The Catholic cathedral franchise industry pounced on the relic, building a series of churches that would eventually become the Basilica of the Holy Child on the reported spot of its finding.
The relic draws a line of visitors to this day into the church on Magellan Square, slowly winding by the glass incased ‘Santo Nino’, near the waterfront of old Cebu.
Across the bay from here, the Battle of Mactan is reenacted annually every April 27th with lots of chickens and pigs giving up their lives for the cause.
Magellan is known incorrectly to the world as the great circumnavigator, Lapu Lapu is known in the Philippines as the great circumciser. Both are as famous in the Philippines as the ‘forefathers’ are in the USA.
The Philippines is the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia. It all started right here with the evangelical zeal Magellan unintentionally gave up his life with to begin. The story of the world’s first nonfiction geodrama is wrapped around this seminal period in the history of the Philippines.
Only after the one surviving vessel foundered into the port of San Lucar de Barrameda in Spain in 1522, was the world first encircled without question. The barely floating ‘Victoria,’ full of cloves and nutmeg, carried the news of a story that would change the world.