Five hundred years ago this year, Ferdinand Magellan left Spain to embark on a sea voyage that would result in the first circumnavigation of the Earth. Two years from now, the Philippines will mark the quincentennial of Magellan’s arrival in our islands in 1521.
Why am I writing about Magellan?
First, no other event in our country’s history has surpassed the impact, for better or for worse, brought about by Magellan’s advent on our shores. We grasp the magnitude of this impact when we visit our neighboring countries because we realize that we are a sticking sore thumb in Asia. We don’t have any of the cultures defined by Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, or Islamic beliefs that are shared by clusters of countries in our continent, with the exception of course of our Muslim brothers in the south. The Spanish conquest obliterated almost everything that is Asian in our people, except the color of our skin.
Second, reading history is one of my leisure indulgences, and writing about olden times gives me a welcome break from the toxic chore of writing about law and politics. Readers also benefit because of a momentary relief from getting harangued with perorations on horrible current events in our country and around the world.
One of my prized possessions as an amateur history buff is the 55-volume “The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898,” commonly known as the “Blair and Robertson” books after their two American authors. The massive publication contains a mother lode of information about our way of life before it was completely reworked by the Spaniards.
The books were first published in 1903 to help Americans understand the country they newly conquered. The authors sought out books and manuscripts about the Philippines, translated them in English, and assembled them in volumes.
The books compile the chronicles of the explorations of early navigators and records of Catholic missions that describe our islands and their peoples, as well as the political, economic, commercial and religious conditions of our islands from their earliest contact with Europeans.
Reading the first volume, I found out that Magellan’s arrival in our islands was not exactly his first trip to Asia. He had earlier traveled via Africa to join Portuguese missions in India and Malacca, the latter now part of neighboring Malaysia. While in Malacca, there’s an account that Magellan disappeared for several months with the ship he was in command of, and there are suspicions that he might have visited some of the Philippine islands.
My readings got interrupted when my life’s pace went on overdrive. But I’ve been motivated to resume reading because of a recent conversation with my friend, Rolando Narciso, who is a legend in the steel industry and a native of Butuan City.
Narciso narrated to me Butuan’s efforts to get recognized as the site of the first Mass on Philippine soil held by Magellan and his men. Our history books and two research studies commissioned by our government, the Gancayco (1997) and Legarda (2008) panels, point to Limasawa island in Southern Leyte, as the site of the first Mass.
But in a series of investigative studies made by Narciso’s fellow Butuanon, Greg Hontiveros, a vigorous argument is being made that the first act of evangelization in the Philippines was performed in what is now Butuan. Hontiveros analyzed navigational data, the travel logs of Antonio
Pigafetta who was Magellan’s chronicler, Spanish-era documents of the Catholic Church, antique maps, artifacts and “ecofacts.” Hontiveros argues that the “Mazaua” mentioned by Pigafetta as site of the first Mass is actually “Masao” which is the old name of an area in present day Butuan.
Hontiveros’ writings include very interesting snippets of the chronicles of early explorers about our islands, such as bats as large as eagles, birds that buried their eggs in the sand, blood compacts, a chieftain with fully painted body, and gold mines that produced gold as large as eggs.
We may need to study our past in order to rework our current way of life.
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