History is too important to be left to historians. This explains why the most memorable and lasting narratives of the Magellan-Lapu-Lapu story were woven by an ophthalmologist, Jose Rizal, in the 19th century, and a composer of comedy songs, Yoyoy Villame, in the 20th century. What historians know of Magellan and his search for spices originate from two primary sources: “First Voyage Around the World” by Antonio Pigafetta, and “De Moluccis Insulis” by Maximilianus Transylvanus. Pigafetta was the chronicler of the Magellan spice expedition to the Moluccas and an eyewitness to Magellan’s death in Mactan. “Max of Transylvania,” as my students refer to him, wrote his book from interviews of survivors from that epic voyage. Both books are available online for free, and one would hope more Filipinos would take the trouble to read them, if only to realize that what we imagine to be the hand-to-hand combat that happened between Magellan and Lapu-lapu is not supported by the primary sources.
After being immobilized by a poisoned arrow and slashed in the face by a bladed weapon, Magellan fell on the shores of Mactan and was finished off with spears by a group of angry natives. Lapu-Lapu does not seem to have been part of this group. Lapu-Lapu’s conspicuous absence from Pigafetta’s account can be attributed to bias. After all, in his last moments the captain is described as the mirror and guiding light of the expedition. Pigafetta might have forgotten about “Cilapulapu” or “Kalipulako” because he was busy running for his life, back to the safety of their ship.
While Magellan’s state-of-the-art arms and armor were superior to the wood spears, poisoned-tip arrows and homemade knives of the Mactanons, his group of 49 was no match to the 1,500 angry natives that faced them, as estimated by Pigafetta.
Rizal did not actually write a history book; rather, he annotated Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas [Events of the Philippine Islands],” first published in Mexico in 1609. It’s a pity that nobody remembers or reads Rizal’s edition of Morga anymore. By law, the college Rizal course only requires the reading of “Noli me tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” Rizal’s dated and often angry footnotes may not be scholarly enough for historians, but these forgotten texts express the first history written from the point of view of a native of Southeast Asia. Contrary to popular belief, nationalist history did not begin with Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino in the 1960s; history from the Filipino point of view began in 1890 with Rizal. In 1609, Morga wrote that Magellan was killed in “Matan,” which can be understood in Spanish as “They kill.” Rizal’s footnote of 1890 corrected this to “Maktan or Mactan,” adding a lengthy excerpt from Pigafetta to counter misconceptions about the battle.
Juan Luna read Pigafetta, too. In 1890, Luna painted a small oil portrait of Magellan, now in the National Museum, and a study depicting the Battle of Mactan that remains unlocated. Luna offered the study to Rizal, asking whether to call it “Death of Magellan” or “Victory of Lapu-Lapu.” Luna was unsure whether to focus on Magellan or Lapu-Lapu.
This cannot be said of the Boholano comedian and songwriter Roman Tesorio “Yoyoy” Villame (1932-2007), whose catchy tune “Magellan,” popular in the 1970s, taught a whole generation of Filipinos about: the discovery of the Philippines by Magellan; the conversion of the Cebuanos to Christianity; and the death of Magellan in Mactan.
“Magellan” was later recast, with the lewd parts in Visayan and Tagalog, as “Magellan ug Lapu-Lapu,” and recorded jointly by Villame and Max Surban (b. 1939), a.k.a the “King of Visayan Song.” In this “inverted story,” Magellan is discovered by the Philippine islands; Magellan lands in Olongapo City, then a place for rest and recreation of the US military, and goes for some “borikat” [prostitute]; he gets infected with venereal disease, jokingly referred to as “tulo” [gonorrhea] and herpes, after playing with a “high voltage lady.” Lapu-Lapu takes a plane from Cebu and comes to Magellan’s rescue with a doctor who examines Magellan and tells him not to worry “because your disease is the same as mine.”
“Magellan ug Lapu-Lapu” may not be historical, but it is a subversive revision of the story, just like National Artist Kidlat Tahimik’s films of the voyage and its aftermath told from the point of view of Magellan’s slave Enrique de Malacca, who some people want to believe is a Filipino. There are as many histories as there are historians.
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