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Magellan Conferences: 1921 and 2021

If not for the pandemic lockdown, we would have Lapulapu fatigue by now from all the events ably coordinated by the National Quincentennial Committee. Unfortunately, all that people remember of the highlight of the celebrations last April was the controversy over an unfounded claim that Lapulapu was Tausug.

As an academic, I have looked into many conferences here and abroad the past three years, and compared them to one held a century ago.

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In 1921, the Philippine Legislature passed Law 2810, which provided for the celebration of the 400th anniversary “of the discovery of our Archipelago by the immortal Portuguese navigator Fernando de Magallanes.” Governor-general Francis Burton Harrison then appointed an all-male commission of government officials to undertake the festivities. It was originally chaired by Isauro Gabaldon, sponsor of the law on the 400th anniversary, but he was replaced by Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera after Gabaldon resigned to assume his post as Resident Philippine Commissioner in Washington.

One of the major programs of the commission was an industrial exposition within the purely happy spectacle that was the annual Manila Carnival, highlighted by a beauty contest. Carmen Legarda Prieto, a mestiza from one of Manila’s prominent families, was crowned 1921 Manila Carnival Queen; it was rumored that she won over a Spanish candidate at the intervention of Manuel Quezon.

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The 1921 Carnival was known as the “Carnaval de Magallanes” or the “Carnaval Magallanico.” Its artistic and agricultural exhibits were aimed “to promote the commercial, industrial, and moral progress of the Philippines.” A Pavilion on Navigation and Marine Products was erected at the Luneta to provide some education and recreation for the public aside from the beauty contest. Then as now, a lecture series was rolled out, beginning with a paper on “Spain in 1519” read by Victoriano R. Onrubia, followed by “Navigation and Metereology from the time of the Magellan expedition,” delivered by Fr. Jose Algue, SJ, Manila Observatory director; “The Formation of Filipino Nationality” by UP Professor of History Leandro H. Fernandez; “Voyages on the Suez Canal, the Cape of Good Hope and Acapulco” by congressman Manuel Briones; and “Democracy in the Philippines from Magellan to Dewey” by Supreme Court Justice George Malcolm, who is best remembered for Malcolm Hall in UP Diliman. Last but not least were lectures by Epifanio de los Santos and Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera, who were both unlicensed librarians but were eminent directors of the prewar National Library of the Philippines.

Pardo de Tavera traced the historiography of Magellan’s voyage through various primary sources: Pigafetta, Peter Martyr, Francisco Albo, and Maximilian of Transylvania, concluding that “General ignorance, natural forgetting of past events and details, bad faith, jealousy, hatred, personal revenge on the part of narrators and also on the part of those who compile these led to obscuring the achievements of Magallanes, belittling and depreciating the person of this distinguished navigator.”

De los Santos (who is memorialized by traffic on Edsa) spoke, surprisingly, about the fishing industry, and listed fish you will not find readily in a supermarket. I recognized apahap, lapu-lapu, maya-maya, dorado, kitang, dilis, sapsap, kanduli, and dalag, but I wondered why today’s bangus, galunggong, and tilapia were noticeably absent in the 1921 list. And how come I don’t know 80 percent of the fish on the list? For example, I know what a blowfish or butete is, but what is a buteteng-saguing? I know bia is a gobi, but I have never heard of biang-itim, biang-puti, and bunog. I hope a scientist would compare and contrast a 1921 and 2021 fish list if only to extract what the data say of biodiversity in the country in the last century.

Comparing the 1921 conference with the recently concluded Ateneo de Manila University conference that ran online for a month brings out significant differences: The 1921 event celebrated the “discovery” of the Philippines by Magellan, while the 2021 event commemorated Magellan as an explorer, not a discoverer. Seven papers in 1921 had Spain and Mexico as reference points; in 2021, a wider net was cast with 75 presenters from all over the world focusing on Asian-Iberian connections, bringing in views from Portugal and Japan long absent in our historiography. The Ateneo conference acknowledged both “Contacts” and “Continuities” over the last 500 years; it can be viewed for free on YouTube and Facebook.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: History, Lapulapu, Magellan, Spain
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