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Tracing Magellan’s footsteps

Despite the availability of GPS, motorized boats, and four-wheel drive vehicles, following the route of Magellan through the Philippines five centuries ago is not easy. Suluan and Homonhon, now part of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, are not easily accessible.

The travel organized by the National Quincentennial Committee and Guiuan Mayor Annaliza Kwan included boat trips to these islands from Guiuan that took over two hours each way. But whatever discomfort I experienced I charged to experience; not many historians can claim to have set foot on Homonhon. Filipinos of my generation associate Homonhon with a brand of biscuits, when it is the site of the earliest documented contact between Europeans and Samareños.

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Standing on the prow of our boat, with the wind blowing in my face, I looked out at the exact same vista Magellan saw 500 years ago. When the sea changed color from emerald green to a deep blue, I knew it indicated great depth. When our ride turned bumpy as we crossed from Leyte Gulf to the open sea, I asked, isn’t the Pacific supposed to be calm? Someone answered that what I considered a rough ride was “pacific” to the experienced mariner.

Suluan, our first stop, had a pristine white sand beachfront and clear waters ideal for diving. Islanders walked among the visitors from Manila without masks, reminding us to keep ours on to ensure that we kept Suluan COVID-19-free. A historical marker was installed in a basketball court, the heart of town, flanked by a chapel, a fire station, and a barangay hall.

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Contrary to popular belief, Magellan set foot on dry land in the Philippines on March 17, 1521, in Homonhon. Antonio Pigafetta, Italian chronicler of the expedition, narrated:

“After eating, on Monday afternoon, 18 March, after we saw a boat coming toward us with nine men in it… [Magellan] ordered that no one should move or say a word without his permission. When those men reached the shore, their chief went immediately [to Magellan], giving signs of joy because of our arrival. Five of the most ornately adorned of them [tattooed] remained with us, while the rest went to get others who were fishing. [Magellan] seeing that they were reasonable men, ordered food to be set before them, and gave them red caps, mirrors, combs, bells, ivory, bocasine, and other things. When they saw the captain’s courtesy, they presented fish, a jar of palm wine [tuba] that they called uraca [arak or alak], figs (bananas) more than one span [dangkal] long and others that were smaller and more delicate, and two coconuts. They had nothing else then, but made us signs with their hands that they would bring umay or rice, and coconuts and many other articles of food within four days.”

I leave out Pigafetta’s detailed description of the wonders of the coconut. Pigafetta’s text is worth rereading to get a sense of his curiosity at his first

encounter with a coconut. It is also relevant to ask how Pigafetta got all this obscure information if, as he mentioned above, they communicated only with hand signals. Remember, too, that Italians are known for generous gesticulation. “They told us many things, their names and those of some of the islands that could be seen from that place [enabling Pigafetta to draw one of the earliest maps of the islands]. Their island was called Suluan and it is not very large [compared to Homonhon where we were]. We took great pleasure with them, for they were very pleasant and conversable.

“In order to show them greater honor, [Magellan] took them to his ship [Trinidad] and showed them all his merchandise: cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mace, gold, and all the things in the ship… They made signs to us that the articles just mentioned grew in [Maluku, Moluccas or the Spice Islands] that place where we were going.”

The Magellan expedition was sent to find a route to the Spice Islands that did not trespass into regions Pope Alexander VI had granted to Portugal when he divided the world in half like an orange in 1493, and gave the other half to the Spanish Catholic kings.

Magellan’s mission was exploration, not colonization, which should rightfully be associated with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. Those who criticize the 2021 commemoration of the first circumnavigation as a celebration of colonialism and oppression need to brush up on their textbook history and the Armada de Molucca.

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TAGS: Eastern Samar, five centuries ago, Guiuan, National Quincentennial Committee, Philippines, route of Magellan, Suluan and Homonhon
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