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Lapu-Lapu, national hero

When the University of San Carlos (USC) Press conceptualized a Magellan Quincentennial book series as part of what should have been a worldwide celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition, it met some hitches: first, Magellan was a Portuguese who commanded a Spanish expedition, so Portugal did not seem keen on memorializing a wayward subject who worked for the rival country; second, Spain had learned from its experience of the 1992 commemoration of the Columbus expedition that there may be one event that opens many, sometimes conflicting, readings, so instead of heralding it as the triumphant 500th anniversary of the “Discovery of America,” they recognized the viewpoints of the “discovered” or the “colonized” lands and peoples and branded 1992 as the 500th anniversary of the encuentro de dos mundos (meeting of two worlds). In the Philippines, 1521 refers to the beginning of Spanish rule and the introduction of Christianity. A national organizing committee should be set up not just to coordinate events but to emphasize the Filipino viewpoint because in the Battle of Mactan, we should look beyond Magellan’s loss and underscore Lapu-Lapu’s victory.

Fortunately, USC Press ditched the Magellan series and rebranded it as the “Pangatagbo 1521-2021” book series to call attention to the event as an encounter (from the Cebuano verb panagtagbo) between two worlds. The eminent Resil B. Mojares, scholar of Cebu, wrote for the first three publications. In the first, he provided the present state of scholarship on the Santo Niño image and the devotion that grew from it and for the third, he surveyed what we know of Lapu-Lapu to date. It is hilarious that Mojares wrote a 90-page essay as an introduction to a 167-page novel on Lapu-Lapu by Vicente Gullas translated from the original Cebuano by Erlinda K. Alburo. He began his study with these words:

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“In European historical records, Lapu-Lapu is invisible. No one of those who were involved in the Battle of Mactan and its surrounding events in 1521, and left behind a written record, actually saw him, knew what he looked like, heard him speak (his recorded words of defiance and pride are all indirect, reported speech), or mentioned that he was present in the battle that made him famous.

“It is starkly ironic, that, even as we approach the quincentennial of this famous battle, preciously little is known about a key figure in what has been enshrined as a ‘world event,’ and one that has acquired the status of a ‘national’ hero. Yet, the problem, too, is that — because imagination abhors a vacuum — the deficit of facts has inspired such rampant speculation that no Filipino hero is as heavily cloaked in myth and fiction as Lapu-Lapu. In the search of the historical Lapu-Lapu, therefore, the challenge is that of finding one’s way between the void of facts and imagination’s excesses.”

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From these opening paragraphs, Mojares argued a point in the succeeding 89 pages starting with the primary sources: “First Voyage Around the World,” a first-hand account by Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler; and “De Moluccis Insulis,” not a firsthand account but a lengthy letter that included interviews Maximilianus Transylvanus had with the survivors of the Magellan expedition who made their way back to Europe. Then he surveyed the secondary sources beginning with standard Magellan biographies that painted Lapu-Lapu in the worst possible way: for F.H.H. Guillemard (1890) the Battle of Mactan was nothing but “a miserable skirmish with savages”; while Stefan Zweig (1938) wrote that the great Magellan was “felled by a ludicrous human insect named Silapulapu … one of the most insignificant of the princes.” And the victorious Mactan warriors were downplayed as “a horde of naked islanders.”

Missing from this masterful bibliographic survey, even as a reference, is the latest and most engaging book on Magellan, “Over the Edge of the World,” by Laurence Bergreen (2003) who, like Mojares, said that centuries after the battle “Lapu-Lapu has been romanticized beyond recognition …. [Aside from the scant references in the primary sources] there is no other record of Lapu-Lapu […]; were it not for his battle with Magellan, his name would be lost to history.”

What Filipinos have lost in the European historical record, we have regained with a vengeance through tradition and oral lore that make Lapu-Lapu not just a hero of Mactan or Cebu, but a national hero for all Filipinos.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Battle of Mactan”, Ambeth R. Ocampo, Lapu-Lapu, Looking Back, Magellan Quicentennial, Resil B. Mojares
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