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Knowing more about PH at the Spanish contact

One of the rewards of writing an Inquirer column is the opportunity to be continually humbled, corrected and educated by readers who take the trouble to send comments. I lost the “reader over my shoulder” when my father passed away. I always wrote with him in mind; well-read as he was, I knew that if something was too obscure or unclear to him, it would be so to a general reader. Fortunately, my father has been replaced by a sharp regular reader in Dr. Benito Legarda, who humbles, educates and inspires me with each gentle missive, keeping me on my toes twice a week when this column appears.

On the other hand, we have readers like a descendant of Lapu-Lapu who expressed his dismay over a recent column that recounted the sale of the survivors of the Battle of Mactan as slaves as “out of this world, baseless and revolting.” Lapu-Lapu, he explained, would not have done such a thing, declaring that: “They were filthy rich, because they were the Royal Family.” On this note, I was requested to write “with great accuracy” from this information he shared: “Rajah Lapu Lapu, was the son of Maharajah King Luisong Tagean, and Queen Margaret Acuna Macleod. They lived in Lamayan District, now called Malacañang.”

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The information regarding the fate of the survivors of the Battle of Mactan and the Magellan expedition are in standard Spanish documentary sources on the topic, and a lot are available in English translation from the 55-volume “The Philippine Islands,” compiled by James Alexander Robertson and Emma Helen Blair. One of the key documents in this trail is a letter to the King of Cebu by Hernando Cortes, captain general and governor of New Spain dated May 28, 1527. The letter apologizes for, or at least explains away, Magellan’s ill-advised meddling in a local dispute that led to his death in Mactan. Cortes wrote that the Spanish king sent the expedition “desiring to have knowledge of the manner and trade of those districts,” and that the king was:

“Afflicted… [and] grieved most at having a captain who departed from the royal commands and instructions that he carried, especially in his having stirred up war or discord with you and yours. For his majesty sent him with a single desire to regard you all as his very true friends and servants, and to extend to you every manner of kindness as regards your honor and your persons. For this disobedience the Lord and possessor of all things permitted that he should suffer retribution for his want of reverence, dying as he did in the evil pretension that he attempted to sustain, contrary to his prince’s will. And God did him not a little good in allowing him to die as he did there; for had he returned alive, the pay for his negligence had not been so light.”

Cortes adds that the king sent two expeditions to give satisfaction for Magellan’s arrogant mistake, and that he was ordered to send further embassies to request or, if need be, to ransom any surviving Spaniard or member of the expedition still held captive in Cebu.

We find a reference to survivors of the Magellan expedition in the diary of Alvaro de Saavedra, who visited the Moluccas and the Philippines during an expedition from 1527 to 1529. They were welcomed at some point by Katunao, who gave them provisions; then, on Feb. 23, 1528, Ash Wednesday, Saavedra narrated that they encountered Sebastian de Puerta, a Spaniard from Coruña and a survivor of the previous Loaisa expedition. Puerta said he survived an attack by natives and was taken to Maluarbuco under Katunao. Saavadra recorded:

“Puerta, as a slave, accompanied his master in his trading voyages to Cebu, where he learned that the survivors of the Magellan expedition were sold by the Cebuanos to the Chinese traders and were taken to China. He was able to know this because he came to know the Visayan language…”

Whether Puerta was telling the truth or not can surely be ascertained, in comparison with other contemporary documents that await a younger and more diligent researcher than me in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla and the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico. The 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition is an opportunity to know more about the Philippines at the time of Spanish contact, to broaden our understanding of past and present.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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