Following Magellan’s route | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Following Magellan’s route

The sleepy town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar is roused by activity this week being the base for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Philippine leg of the first circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan. On March 16, 1521, Magellan sighted the inhabited island of Suluan but chose to anchor in Homonhon the next day. The decision must have stemmed from his bad experience 10 days earlier with the Chamorros in Guam that went down in history as Ladrones (Thieves) Island. In contrast the people in the islands that were to become the Philippines were more welcoming and they revived the crew grown weary from crossing the Pacific low in supplies of food and drink.

As I flew into Tacloban last Monday, I looked out of the airplane window at the islands and appreciated what it was like to travel around the world by sail without GPS. When we touched down in Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport, I was reminded of Pope Francis and the Mass he celebrated in 2015 in the ruins of the city devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” The Pope presided over the Mass protected from the rain by a raincoat in the color associated with the Aquinos and Edsa 1986. In a sea of yellow sat Imelda Marcos, sticking out like a sore thumb, her red hood peeking out of a yellow raincoat. The image of the Pope in yellow came to mind as I watched the Mass livestreamed from the Vatican last Sunday, a special Mass to celebrate the 500 years of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. On this occasion the Pope wore pink vestments for Gaudete Sunday, a welcome break from the somber purple that marks liturgy in the 40 days of Lent. Of all the biblical texts sung in that Mass, one sentence was relevant for us: “Let my tongue be silent, if I ever forget you.” While this line refers to Jerusalem and the Old Testament, it resonates as we look back on the double-edged sword that is history and the Magellan expedition.

I did not have Philippine geography in grade school and did not realize that Guiuan is about three hours by car from Tacloban. From the airport we crossed from Leyte to Samar on San Juanico Bridge whose title as longest bridge in the Philippines starting from July 1973 will soon be taken by a longer bridge in Cebu. On July 3, 1973, Ferdinand Marcos recorded in his diary the events of July 2:


“The day came off fine although it ended about twenty minutes ago in a strong rain driving everyone for cover including the models of the fashion show. The cultural minorities show was a terrific hit. And so was MC Gen. [Jose] Rancudo on the songs offered by the cabinet. But it was a working visit… inauguration of San Juanico which is known as Marcos Bridge… “


The Official Gazette provides more detail: “The President inaugurated the 2.16-kilometer San Juanico Bridge linking Samar and Leyte which he called a symbol of the Filipinos’ vision and firm resolve to unite themselves under the New Society. In inaugurating the longest bridge in Southeast Asia, the Chief Executive said the engineering marvel which constitutes the central segment of the Pan Philippine Highway is a clear proof of the people’s determination to obliterate obstacles to unity and progress. The opening of the S-shaped bridge marked a giant stride toward the realization of the plan to link the archipelago’s three main regions—Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao—through the Pan Philippine Highway.”

The bridge that forms an “S” on the Samar side and what appears to be an “L” on the Leyte side was named after one of the six galleon ships that made up the Ruy López de Villalobos expedition that reached the Philippines in 1543. It was Villalobos that gave the name Filipinas to Samar and Leyte, a name that later extended to the whole archipelago. Unfortunately, San Juanico that was once billed as the “bridge of love,” a gift from Ferdinand to Imelda Marcos in 1973, is also remembered as a method of torture during martial law. The victim was made to lie with his head and feet on beds or chairs, and the body, suspended like a bridge, was beaten.

Midway between Tacloban and Guiuan, we stopped briefly in Balangiga to see the three bells that were taken as spoils during the Philippine-American War. Recently repatriated from US bases in Wyoming and Korea, these are displayed outside Balangiga church as a memorial not just to the enemy soldiers killed but also to the reprisal on the population in a drive to make Samar into a “Howling Wilderness.”

(Conclusion on Friday)

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Ferdinand magellan, Looking Back

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