Looking Back

How do we liberate ourselves from the past?

It seems that I will be homebound till the end of the year. Plans for international travel seem dim, even if the enhanced community quarantine is relaxed to general community quarantine or lifted entirely. I was so looking forward to a trip to Cebu a week ago to address a meeting of local historical associations organized by the National Historical Commission; read a paper at a conference, with Malaysian colleagues, organized by the Philippine Historical Association; and participate in the 499th anniversary of the Battle of Mactan set in the context of the twin themes of “Victory and Humanity.”

I admit to readily accepting any invitation to Cebu, because after work I can extend my stay by a day to enjoy lechon and conversation with friends like archaeologist Jobers Bersales and National Artist Resil Mojares, who continually instruct this jaded visitor from “Imperial Manila” on how Magellan and Lapu-Lapu should be remembered.


In extemporaneous remarks delivered on National Heroes Day in 2018, President Duterte sought to recast the narrative from the Filipino point of view by emphasizing Lapu-Lapu over Magellan. In his remarks that were unusually free of colorful cuss words, Mr. Duterte commented on the sad fact that the grouper is known to us as “lapu-lapu,” reducing one of our National Heroes into a fish that is cooked, steamed, or fried on a daily basis. Years ago, I proposed that we reverse the situation by renaming the grouper into “Magellan” but nobody listened, not even the lawmakers of Lapu-Lapu City.

Our problem with Lapu-Lapu is that Magellan’s chronicler Pigafetta and other primary sources do not flesh him out completely. With no physical and other biographical details, the vacuum was filled by the imagination. In this realm, history recedes into wishful or aspirational images of the hero that now appears in monuments, komiks, film, and just recently an advertisement for disposable baby diapers. Naturally, Filipinos prefer the folk or mythical Lapu-Lapu to be young, beautiful, and muscular, not the chubby, 70-year-old man, not good on the eyes, described in the historical documents brought to light by the historian Danny Gerona.


Contrary to popular belief, Lapu-lapu did not kill Magellan in close, one-to-one, hand-to-hand combat. We don’t even know if he was in the water or was directing the battle from the shore. Pigafetta’s eyewitness account focused on Magellan who was finished off by a group of angry Mactan warriors, thus delaying the natives long enough for the rest of Magellan’s men to retreat to their ship. Over the years, I have collected various depictions of Magellan’s death, and the most spectacular has Magellan helpless on the ground with his head about to be bashed in with what looks like a rock. Or is it a coconut?

One story gives rise to many others, and Lapu-Lapu or Cilapulapu is referenced in the Malolos Constitution and in texts that go with monuments of bronze and marble. Manuel Luis Quezon used the memory of Lapu-Lapu for different ends: to inspire the struggle against the Japanese Occupation in a 1943 radio broadcast, and to cast a cynical comment on Sergio Osmeña during a prewar visit to Cebu. Magellan, in the learning module for Grade 5 Social Studies, is part of lessons on the Spanish colonization of the Philippines that unfairly color the way he will be presented and remembered by a new generation. At an early age, students are taught to deploy fire for heat rather than illumination.

Next year, I hope to participate in the 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition as a conscious act of remembering and forgetting. To remind those who care to listen that history is not as simple as it looks; that it is never innocent, never objective, because it always carries a point of view. Having taught college-level history for over three decades now, I have seen how history can be used to either include and exclude. How it can be weaponized to marginalize certain people or sectors of society. How it can imprison people in views not of their own making.

There are two questions we should ask ourselves during the 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition in the light of the pandemic: Can history unite rather than divide? Or, more importantly, how do we liberate ourselves from the past?

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Lapu-Lapu, Looking Back, Magellan, Philippine history
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