The Battle of Mactan, according to Pigafetta | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

The Battle of Mactan, according to Pigafetta

The launch of the National Quincentennial Committee logo last December was overshadowed by a side event — the winning Miss Universe costume. Now that the glow of Catriona Gray has subsided, we can focus on the blue logo whose undulating outlines reference the sea and the historical period sometimes described as “the Age of Exploration” or “the Age of Discovery.” The latter we reject, because we prefer to read our history from a Filipino rather than a Western point of view.

The number 500 is central to the logo, referencing five centuries, since 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan arrived and died on our shores. Contrary to popular belief, Magellan called the islands Islas de San Lazaro, because he “discovered,” or should we say named them, on March 13, 1521, the feast of St. Lazarus. If he had honored that Easter Sunday, we could have been the Easter Islands.


The name “Filipinas” only came about in 1542 when Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named Leyte-Samar in honor of Felipe, Principe de Asturias, the future Philip II of Spain. It is unfortunate that explorers did not ask or take note of the local or original place names now lost to history; 10th-century Chinese referred to Mindoro or Laguna as Ma-I, while 17th-century Japanese referred to the archipelago as “Ruson” [Luzon].

Our Quincentennial logo has three elements to represent the three themes for commemoration: a ship for the first circumnavigation of the globe, a cross for the introduction of Christianity, and a silhouette of the statue of Lapu-Lapu for the victory in Mactan. On the latter, it is unfortunate that the only detailed eyewitness account we have of the Battle of Mactan is from Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan expedition, who had the habit of embellishing his tale. Lapu-Lapu’s or Humabon’s versions, if they exist, remain to be found by historians.


Pigafetta related that a small group of 60 men led by Magellan arrived at Mactan three hours before daylight, and since it was too early to fight, he sent word to Lapu-Lapu, giving him a choice to recognize the Spanish king and offer tribute, or learn the hard way how their lances pierced. Mactan’s defiant reply was that they had “lances of bamboo hardened in the fire and stakes dried in the fire.” Magellan was taunted, “attack when you wish.”

Magellan refused Humabon’s offer to fight alongside him against Lapu-Lapu, so when daylight broke, Humabon watched as 49 men waded toward the shore (11 were left to guard the boats that could not get to shore, impeded by rocks and stones as it was low tide). Mactan warriors had formed three divisions to repel them, their number estimated by Pigafetta at more than 1,050 fuming warriors.

Common sense was fatefully uncommon then; Magellan did not retreat. Cannons on their ships were supposed to cover them, but were useless because they were out of range. Arrows from their crossbows and hackbuts merely slipped off Mactan shields. Then the warriors of Mactan rained arrows, iron-tipped bamboo lances and stones on Magellan and his men, who noticed that the arrows were aimed at their legs, because they had made the mistake of covering only their head and body with metal helmets and breastplates.

Magellan, hit by a poisoned arrow on the leg, ordered a retreat. A bamboo lance flew near Magellan’s face, and he responded by killing the enemy and leaving the lance in his victim. Wounded in the arm by a bamboo lance, Magellan tried with difficulty to draw his sword from its scabbard, when a large javelin was thrust into his left leg, making him fall face down in the water. “On this all at once rushed upon him,” says Pigafetta, “with lances of iron and of bamboo and with these javelins, so that they slew our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.”

Before he breathed his last, Magellan was said to have looked up twice or thrice to see his remaining men flee to safety as he provided a distraction. Where was Lapu-Lapu in all this? There was no one-on-one hand-to-hand combat between Magellan and Lapu-Lapu as we would like to believe. Lapu-Lapu was said to be about 70 years old at the time of the battle, and probably watched or directed operations safely from the shore.

The Quincentennial is an opportunity to relearn or rewrite history, even if it is a shade less engaging than the fiction we have grown up with.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Battle of Mactan”, ambeth ocampo, Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand magellan, Filipinas, Lapu-Lapu, Looking Back, Philippine history, Ruy Lopez de Villalobos
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