Looking beyond the first Mass in Limasawa
The spoiler for today’s commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the first Easter Mass in Limasawa are the advocates who stubbornly insist that it was actually held in Butuan. It seems we are far from closure after decades of debate and four times that the issue was re-opened to provide the pro-Butuan side to present their evidence against Limasawa. A libel suit has recently been filed in Butuan against the members of the Resil Mojares panel that decided on Limasawa last year. Perhaps the church historians who participated in the Mojares deliberations should also be made respondents since it was upon their recommendation that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued a statement affirming Limasawa as the site of the First Easter Mass in 1521.
In 1980, 1995, 2008, and 2020, the National Historical Institute (now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) repeatedly sustained Limasawa. These decisions were based not just on the presentation of primary and secondary sources in the form of manuscripts, documents, books, and maps, but a review of the historiography or the way the issue has been written on and understood from the 16th century to our times. To complicate matters further, there is a contention that the “first Mass in the Philippines” was celebrated in Bolinao, Pangasinan, in 1324 by the Franciscan Odoric de Pordenone! It is also logical that Masses were held on board the ship, while the expedition was sailing through what we now know as the Philippines, that were not recorded by Pigafetta. Also unrecorded might be a thanksgiving Mass or Masses in Homonhon where Magellan’s weary men rested for eight days revived by the clear spring waters they found there. That is why the event being commemorated today is the first Easter Mass in the Philippines.
Everything boils down to Antonio Pigafetta’s eyewitness account and that of the pilot Albo who identified the island as Mazzaua. Another source known as the “Genoese pilot” called it Maçangor, Ginés de Mafra called it Macagua, and the Jesuit Colin in 1663 noted it down as Dimasauan. American historian James Alexander Robertson, who published a translation from the original Italian Ambrosian manuscript in 1906, is often blamed as the culprit who added “Li” to Pigafetta’s “Massaua.” He did so not out of caprice but based on his later documentary sources and maps that clearly identifies Limasawa as an island separate from Butuan in Mindanao.
When Pigafetta returned to Europe in 1522, he made two copies of his diary of the first voyage around the world. One copy was presented to Emperor Charles V now believed lost, the second copy presented to the mother of the King of France. Unable to oversee the printing of his work, Pigafetta’s story published in 1525 was drawn from the French Queen’s copy in a garbled rendering later published in Italian by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in 1536. This Ramusio text is now pitted against four extant “Pigafetta” manuscripts. All four manuscripts are copies and not in Pigafetta’s own hand: Three manuscripts in French (two preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, one in Yale University, and one in Italian kept in the Ambrosiana Library, Milan. High resolution digital copies of these manuscripts are available at the NHCP but the pertinent text leaves us with little to go on, just Easter Mass attended by Raja Colambu and Raja Siaui.
Rereading Pigafetta however revealed a detail I did not notice before. Magellan asked one of the kings through Enrique his slave: “…to declare whether he had any enemies, so that he might go with his ships to destroy them and to render them obedient to him. The King thanked him and said that he did indeed have two islands hostile to him, but it was not then the season to go there. The captain told him that if God would again allow him to return to those districts, he would bring so many men that he would make the king’s enemies subject to him by force.”
It is a premonition of an offer Magellan made to Humabon after the Mass in Cebu some weeks later. Magellan made the fatal mistake of involving himself in local politics. Pigafetta’s text may be 500 years old but it resonates in our times, just look beyond the trivial dispute between Butuan and Limasawa to see the past reflected in the present.
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