1521: The quincentennial

"These words by Raisa Mabayo should make the storytellers pause."


Next year, on March 16, 2021 to be exact, we will be commemorating the 500th anniversary – the quincentennial as historians call it – of the arrival of Europeans in the Philippines.

More popularly known as the landing of the expeditionary flotilla led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (Fernando do Magallanes) in Homonhon, the story of this voyage has been punctuated by a number of conflicting, slanted accounts often dependent on the story teller. Much like many facets of our history such as the assassination of Antonio Luna, the death of the Bonifacio brothers and the mass murders in Samar during the Fil-American war, to name a few, the arrival of the flotilla and the death of its leader, Magellan, as well as the eventual landing of the expedition’s remaining ship, Victoria, in Spain under Magellan’s second-in-command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, has engendered in its wake a trove of accounts, written or otherwise, each changing with every narrative.

Such is the nature of the beast, as we used to say, that accounts of events or incidents, whether personal or historical rests heavily on the story teller. In the case of the Magellan expedition and subsequent events thereafter an article written by Raisa Mabayo, our Third Secretary and Vice-Consul in charge of Cultural Diplomacy in the Philippine Embassy in Madrid provides an interesting insight and a fresh perspective on how we should view and even teach history in our schools and the younger generations. In this Mabayo piece, the oft-repeated note – history is written by the victors – which has been de rigueur for most people, gets a better than even counterpoint as far as historical accounts are concerned to make things more sober, objective and believable.

Given the continuing debate over the martial law years, Mabayo’s notes should make the storytellers pause, take a deep breath and widen their horizons. There is more to the events than meets the eye. As Father Rannie Aquino wrote in his column on the martial law years, every story teller has his or her own “construct” of that period in our history. Forty eight years after, those who have harangued and thrown tons of garbage at then President Marcos and those who presided over the country’s fate during those years could not get over the fact that more and more points of view, of actual accounts of what transpired during that period contravening their ‘construct’ have been coming out. Their narrative even if they insist as non-debatable has been scrutinized and found wanting. It is not the only story to tell. As some noted writers and academics have been saying lately, the martial law years were not as dark and utterly useless as these guys are saying they would want everybody to believe. Like in all distress and conflict situations as the country was at that time, there were mistakes and low points but there were high points and celebratory ones as well.

But that would be another story. Back to Mabayo’s notes on the quincentennial celebrations as posted in The Diplomat:

“...On March 16, 2021, we will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Philippines. It is a day that means different things to different countries and their peoples.

“...To the Philippines, that first contact meant an introduction to the Western world, the impetus in the eventual formation of its territorial identity — often a common consequence of empire building — and the beginning of its journey toward nation-building.

“...To Spain, whose monarch commissioned the voyage that set sail in 1519, this means a celebration of its role in the technological development of nautical science and the will of its leaders to reach previously unknown lands and recreate world geography. It marked the beginning of one of the most powerful empires in history, defined by its maritime force and Catholicism, and one that was to last four centuries.

“...To the rest of the world, this was arguably a key milestone in the history of globalization; thereafter, the exchange of cultures, ideas, and technology was spurred to unprecedented heights.

“...Not surprisingly, an eventual disconnect in the narrative surrounding Spanish arrival in the Philippines developed as each country went on to construct their own national identities. In the practice of national myth making, historical events are perused, selected for exclusion or inclusion by storytellers, in this case the states, and then told and retold — proselytized, really — to their respective peoples.

“...One such example of this is the marked difference in the retelling of the story of Ferdinand Magellan’s death. Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian scholar who kept a detailed journal of the events of the voyage, wrote of how Magellan was besieged by natives in Cebu while attempting to help Rajah Humabon, a recently Catholicized local ruler convert others to Catholicism and loyalty to Spain. Magellan believed that his display of force would be enough to accomplish those tasks. That fateful decision and his miscalculation of enemy forces, led by Lapu Lapu, resulted in Magellan’s death. He was struck in the face by a Mactan warrior using a local scimitar. After, the Spanish ships retreated from Cebu.

“...Forty-four years later, Spain would be back to successfully establish its first settlement in the islands, but that very first encounter in 1521 was marked by indigenous resistance. Of course the story is much more complicated — there was discord and rivalry among local rulers, and Magellan likely and unwittingly paid the price for getting in the middle of local politics. But it hardly changes certain facts — the superiority of indigenous forces in this battle and local leaders’ determination to eliminate threats to their rule. These factors speak to native resistance and intolerance toward interlopers.

“.. Should you ask Spaniards what they know of how Magellan died, they would tell you that as taught in school, he died from a poisoned arrow. The emphasis on poison — in literature, a gendered weapon, associated with cowardice and the disempowered — alludes to the rejection of the narrative that a larger-than-life character like Magellan was killed by indigenous peoples living in a far-away land.

“...In contrast, in the Philippines, Magellan’s arrival in the country is presented as the arrival of a foreign subjugator. Magellan’s story begins upon arrival, and quickly ends in his death at the hands of a local warrior. This credit has traditionally been given to Lapu-Lapu, though according to Pigafetta, it was a joint effort by native fighters.

“...Constantly highlighting Magellan’s defeat has served as a persistent reminder of that first and rare victory against imperial Spain. This is rooted in Filipino nationalism that has largely been shaped by the colonial experience, and often meant the purging of foreigners from Philippine history textbooks. Unlike in Latin America, it is rare to find in the country a public monument of a non-religious, political, historical figure with Caucasian features.

“...Filipinos are immensely proud of the fact that Magellan was killed in the Philippines. It is not the death of Magellan that is celebrated, but that Filipinos, through Lapu-Lapu, resisted. Lapu-Lapu the hero and Magellan the villain is a story that every Filipino child can retell by heart. Five hundred years of history has created a narrative that glossed over the complexities of warring tribes, of a fractious and intricate network of allegiances that Magellan stumbled upon.

“...The Philippines’ National Quincentennial Committee, tasked to oversee celebrations in the Philippines for the commemorations of 1521, has chosen to emphasize the natives’ hospitality and generosity to the expedition crew. After all, there might not have been a circumnavigation without the natives’ offer of food and water to the Europeans at Homonhon Island, and the replenishing of the ships’ provisions from local sources.

“...The focus on hospitality — a perceived, innocuous national character trait of Filipinos — adds another layer to the national myth-making that could perhaps inform the next 500 years of the Philippine narrative.

“...The divergence in our retelling of a single history brings to the fore what ought to be underscored by both countries as we mark the Spanish and Filipino encounter in 1521. This is a story that, in reaching 500 years, has been reborn in a number of iterations. The main versions should be explored and reconciled...”

Topics: Jonathan Dela Cruz , quincentennial , Europeans , Ferdinand Magellan
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