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An eyewitness account of the Battle of Mactan

Fireworks of a different kind exploded last April 27 when politicians commented on the 500th anniversary of the Victory in Mactan. Cavite Vice Gov. Jolo Revilla posted on FB: “A salute to the bravery of one of the first heroes of the nation, Ferdinand Magellan, who gave his life for freedom 500 years ago!” Called out by netizens, Revilla blamed an “intern” who supposedly posted on his FB page without clearance.

There was also clickbait from presidential spokesperson Harry Roque: “President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is my modern day Lapulapu, especially his independent foreign policy. It means that we are friends to all, we have no enemies, he doesn’t shy away before any foreigner.”

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But the winner is Sen. Bong Go, who doused the once-in-500-years jubilation of Cebuanos by declaring that Lapulapu was a Tausug! Worse, Lapulapu, Raja of Mactan, was reduced to a warrior sent by the Sultan of Sulu to confirm reports of foreigners in Cebu. Go cited a certain Abraham Idjirani as his source. Idjirani is an engineer, not a historian. He served as the spokesperson of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, who died in Taguig in 2013.

For the record, the primary source for Lapulapu and the Battle of Mactan is not a Pinoy but an Italian—Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan expedition. Our story begins on April 26, 1521, when the son of Zula, minor chief of Mactan, presented two goats to Magellan. Zula, apologizing, said he could send more, if not for “the other chief

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Cilapulapu, who refused to obey the king of Spain.” Zula requested from Magellan a boatload of men to help him fight Cilapulapu. Against his better judgment and the advice of his officers, Magellan set off at midnight with a force of 60 men. They were accompanied by the “Christian King” Carlos (who was Humabon before baptism), with 20 or 30 balanghai (about 450-500 Cebuano warriors) as back-up.

Arriving in “Matan” (Spanish for “they kill”) three hours before dawn, Magellan issued an ultimatum to Lapulapu and his men: Obey the Spanish king, recognize the Christian King as their sovereign, and pay tribute. “Otherwise, wait and see how our lances wounded.” Lapulapu’s insolent reply: “We have lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire.” Magellan foolishly agreed to fight in the morning at Lapulapu’s request. Magellan assumed that Lapulapu was buying time to dig pits in between their houses for the Europeans to fall into. He did not consider the low tide in the morning, which meant Magellan’s ships could not get close enough for cannon fire to cover them. Ignorant of the terrain, his three boats were impeded by rocks and coral, making their crossbows too far out of range to be useful. From the original 60 men that set off, 49 jumped into the water, leaving 11 to guard the boats. Magellan told Humabon and his 30 balanghais not to intervene as his 60 men supposedly sufficed to subdue Mactan. He was in for a big disappointment.

Magellan divided his landing force of 49 into three divisions and were pitted, by Pigafetta’s reckoning, against 1,500 Mactanons. Common sense, which is not common, should have told Magellan to retreat as he was outnumbered 31 to one. Their arrows were deflected by native shields, and bullets from their muskets would not hit Mactanons who “would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither.” When a shower of arrows, wooden stakes, and bamboo spears, some with iron tips, rained upon them, Magellan ordered his men “to burn (20 to 30 of) their houses to terrify them (but) they were roused to greater fury.”

Magellan and his men were half-armored, protected only by helmet and breast plate. They waded waist-deep in unfamiliar waters while the Mactanons aimed at their legs. Hit in the leg by a poisoned arrow, Magellan ordered a slow retreat. All but six or seven ran for their lives back to the boats. Mactanons ganged up on Magellan; one knocked his helmet off, another hurled a spear in his face. Magellan was drawing his sword halfway when he was cut in the left leg by a cutlass that caused him to fall face down. Surrounded and outnumbered, he was finished off by spears and cutlasses.

Described by one source as an old man, Lapulapu was far from the beautiful half-naked man with six-pack abs memorialized in monuments. He did not kill Magellan in hand-to-hand combat as we imagine. He was not in the thick of the fight, but to him is credited the victory for this mismatched battle. History should never be left to politicians and engineers.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Battle of Mactan”, Lapulapu, Looking Back, Mactan, Ocampo
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