Lapu-Lapu: the man behind the myth

"Now this is something we didn't know before."



From depictions in art and sculpture, we’ve always had a mental image of the chieftain Lapu-Lapu as a muscular young man who engaged and slew the explorer Ferdinand Magellan in hand-to-hand combat.

However, research by Bicolano historian Dr. Daniel Gerona upends this idea by revealing the hero of the Battle of Mactan to have been elderly at the time. Likewise, our image of Magellan as a tall, 30-ish or middle-aged adventurer is inaccurate. 

“We always thought of Magellan as a warrior,” said Gerona, “but he was a short fellow, less than five-footer, and he was in fact limping.” He also found out from Portuguese records that Magellan sired “a lot of children outside marriage,” so it’s probable that the explorer has many living descendants, an interesting factoid for genealogy buffs.

Mhon Estrada, an instructor at Partido State University in Goa, Camarines Sur, recently shared on Facebook these and other excerpts from the lectures of Gerona, the author of “Ferdinand Magellan: The Armada de Maluco and the European Discovery of the Philippines” (2016), a research made from primary sources.

Gerona conducted research at the Museo Naval (probably the one in Portugal) where he saw “voluminous” documents on Magellan, “virtually untouched.” Upon perusing the documents, he realized that “we always thought of Lapu-Lapu as a young, muscular guy [for the last 500 years]. But in the document in Portugal, he was actually seventy years old… he should no longer be carrying a bolo but probably a baston…” 

This information comes from Gaspar Correa, a sixteenth-century Portuguese historian. Gerona describes Correa as “the only European chronicler who provided the only clue into the personality of this Mactan chieftain which he obtained from the reports of the survivors of the Magellan expedition.” Correa described Lapu-Lapu as “one who was very old (veljo in Portuguese and viejo in Spanish).”

Was it Lapu-Lapu himself who actually killed Magellan?

Narratives show that Magellan was slain in a melee on April 27, 1521. Answering a question on, Gerona said “A number of eyewitness accounts offered slightly varying details on the captain’s death but all of them seemed to agree on one thing, it was not Lapu-Lapu who killed Magellan.”

In describing Magellan’s death, Gerona quoted from the writings of Fray Rodrigo Aganduru Moriz (an Augustinian missionary in Cebu in the early sixteenth century) which borrowed from the account of Juan Sebastian del Cano, navigator of Magellan’s expedition.

One of the members of the war party was one Cristobal Rabelo or Rebello, said to be Magellan’s illegitimate son. During the fight, a poisoned arrow or arrows killed Rebello. This so enraged Magellan that, “overwhelmed with grief at the sight,” he rushed into the fray “as if he were a madman,” whereupon “the enemies encircled him and snapped his life miserably.” 

Now that’s something else we didn’t know before—that Magellan had a son with him on the expedition. It is no surprise then that he threw judgment away and waded blindly into the fight.

Citing many other sources, Gerona goes on to describe what occurred. The natives realized that the Spaniards armor did not cover their legs, so they aimed their weapons there, particularly the poisoned arrows. One of these pierced Magellan’s right leg, prompting a gradual retreat. But many of the Spaniards ran hastily away, leaving only six or eight soldiers with Magellan, who decided to maintain their position the “distance of a crossbow shot from the shore,” or less than a kilometer from their boats.

In water just above their knees, the Spaniards continued the fight for another hour. Magellan’s helmet was knocked off twice but he stood firm. Another native hit his face with a bamboo spear, but Magellan killed him with his lance, which stuck in his assailant’s chest. As he struggled to pull it out, another bamboo spear hit his right arm. He was then surrounded by native warriors. 

Trying to draw his sword, Magellan was hit in the left leg with a scimitar, bringing him down on his face. He was then overcome by sheer numbers. Natives rushed upon him “and ran him through with lances and scimitars, and all the other arms which they had” (from the account of Antonio Pigafetta, another member of the expedition). 

Other sources differ on details of the battle, but, Gerona points out, “Not one of these archival sources mentioned Lapu-Lapu killing Magellan!”

What happened to Magellan’s body?

Dr. Gerona said that according to Fray Rodrigo Aganduru Moriz, Magellan was decapitated “in accordance with the martial custom of the natives where the victor took a trophy, which was a part of his body, commonly the head, and placed it on the tip of a lance,” a pre-conquest Visayan custom.

He explained, “the natives regarded the body of Magellan as their dangin, which, according to Fray Alonso de Mentrida’s sixteenth century Diccionario de la Lengua Bisaya, was ‘a trophy of their enemy killed or captured in war (blason, trofeo de enemigo, muerto o cautivo en guerra, la persona asi muerta o cautiva)’.”

Gerona added, “In a society which put premium on prestige and prowess not only as social virtues but also equated with mystical qualities, the body of Magellan constituted as the most valuable war booty.”

These findings by Dr. Gerona affirm that there is still much more that we are discovering about our history. What we’ve taken for so long as gospel truth turns out to be questionable. Scholars are continually stumbling over old documents and materials that tell a different story from what we know at present. 

Estrada says after posting Gerona’s lecture excerpts, he has had hundreds of queries about them, and he hopes this interest may serve “as an invitation to revisit our notions of history and update our knowledge of Philippine history with inquiring and open mind.”

And from now on, we can think of the muscular Lapu-Lapu depictions as how the chieftain may have looked in his youth, but not as he was in the Battle of Mactan. 

 Dr Gerona’s book will be available again starting the first week of January in National Book Store. Find me on FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Lapu-Lapu , Battle of Mactan , Daniel Gerona , Fray Rodrigo Aganduru Moriz , Antonio Pigafetta
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