List of Posts

  • Journals of Pigafetta: Gutenberg Project
  • Who Closed the Circle First?
  • The Royal World of Magellan
  • A Pound of Cloves
  • The End of the Beginning

The End of the Beginning

June 30th, 2015 by

“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.

Notes from Mactan

June 30th, 2015 by

May 10th-14th, 2015

Visiting the Island of Mactan and Cebu is useful in understanding the background and geography of this dynamic location along the route of the first recorded circumnavigation.

What is now Magellan Bay is pretty much the same as described by the expedition chronicler Antonio Pigafetta in his account of the Battle of Mactan: shallow waters extending far from a mangrove lined shoreline. The present day locals in the area continue to fish these and the surrounding waters.

Onshore around the “Magellan Monument” and “Lapu Lapu Shrine,” locals sell tropical fruits and produce, fish and seafood, and rice along with modern day junk food and drinks from dozens of little stands. For whatever monkey reason there is within us, the t-shirt stands are here in force too as they seem to be at all significant historical sites around the world.

Some of the local folks here probably share chromosomes with the locals from 500 years ago. A research project of sampled DNA analysis of the area’s current general population would be interesting to look at for the mixed strains of Malaysian and European genes sure to be found.

McDonalds has its arches high in the air above its restaurant about a mile from where the Battle of Mactan occurred. I think of it as McGellans.

Renting a Honda ‘Scoobie’ motor scooter from a small business near the monument and shrine (owned and operated by a Swiss ex-pat), I say my prayers, don a helmet, and head across the bridge to Cebu in the noisy free-form traffic of cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles, tricycles, and pedestrians – a dusty adventure in search of the ‘Museo Sugbo.’

The search and find is worth the risk taken – archeological displays of pre- and post-European contact are well presented.
Archeologists have unearthed extensive Thai and Vietnamese ceramics in Cebu area burial sites, ceramics unique to this area of the modern day Philippines. Magellan’s onboard expedition scribe noted a ship from Siam (present day Thailand) on anchor in Cebu harbor when Magellan’s remaining 3 ships arrived.

Widespread archeological evidence of trade with Cathay (present day China) is found throughout the Philippines, and some good examples of Chinese porcelain are on display at the Museo Sugbo. The Chinese apparently sailed by a code of live and let live and let’s trade while we are at it.

The ‘live as we say you should, or else die by our God-guided hand’ attitude of Magellan didn’t work out so well for him here.

On the day of the Battle of Mactan on April 27th, 1521, a pre-battle negotiation of sorts took place. Magellan sent a messenger ashore.

“He ordered them to immediately deliver three goats, three pigs, three bags of rice and three bags of millet to provision his ships. They replied that they would send him two of each article he requested instead of three and, if this were satisfactory to him, they would proceed immediately. If not, he could do as he pleases, they would give him nothing more.” From the interview of the Genoese Pilot cited in In Pursuit of Longitude by Andre Rossfelder.

In hindsight, Magellan should have taken Lapu Lapu up on his offer. One extra goat, pig, bag of rice and millet hardly seem worth dying for. But die he did that day.

While at Mactan and Cebu I could find no record of archeological digging related to the Battle of Mactan. Lapu Lapu refused to give up Magellan’s body or the bodies of the seven other expedition mariners killed in the battle. These downed fighters were wearing armor, and contemporary burial practices at the time as noted by archeologists here show the deceased being buried with worldly possession and keepsakes. Speculation will allow there are still some pieces of rusted metal to be found from the Battle of Mactan somewhere in the area associated with the burials of the victors. Beneath the present day cement, asphalt, and resorts of Mactan Island and Lapu Lapu City lay stories yet to be told.