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Volume 2, Number 14              May 12 - 18,  2002                     Quezon City, Philippines

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Reliving the Battle of Mactan

Today, Magellan has the dubious privilege of being the namesake of a search engine, and is an enduring reminder that great men can make great mistakes, even with the hand of God to lead them.

Siling Labuyo, 19 April 2002

“We learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from history.” Cicero

Jacksonville, NC. Nowadays, the Philippine mainstream media is increasingly becoming critical of the escalating presence of U.S. troops in the country. Their paranoia of course is understandable, belatedly albeit, having been duped by a government caught entangled in a web of lies.

The American presence in the Philippines will continue to grow courtesy of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo  whose sight has long been trained beyond 2004. Her self-serving purpose is too evident as she continues to fight a surrogate war for the United States hiding under a broad mantle of the so-called ‘Terms of Reference’ (TOR) of Balikatan 2002.

Unfortunately for the Philippines, Arroyo’s total capitulation to the former colonial master guarantees to revive old wounds if it has not already done so, resurrecting the ghost of the post-Spanish McKinley era. History is bound to repeat itself with an illegitimate head of state at the helm vigorously pursuing legitimacy. The continued and escalating American presence in the Philippines will bring token victories to Arroyo and her cordon of inept and corrupt generals in its campaign against a ragtag bandit but woefully at the cost of worsening the plight of the Moro people and the rape of Philippine sovereignty.

Filipinos have always cherished their freedom. Long before the world came to know of them as such, Filipinos had always wanted to be free. Whether under the rule of aliens or of their own people, they have always fought for the right to lead their lives without tyranny. The Battle of Mactan provides a glimpse of the Filipinos’ first battle for freedom undeniably won by the ancestors of present day Filipinos.

Lapu-Lapu’s defining moment

April 27 marks the 481st death anniversary of Ferdinand Magellan whose conquest to circumnavigate the world was brought to an abrupt end in the Philippine island of Mactan in the hands of a local hero – Lapu-Lapu, a Moro.

That famous day for the Philippines (infamous if you’re reading the European and Western version of it) is worth reliving in light of the ongoing assault being foisted by the United States on Philippine sovereignty. Unquestionably, Lapu-Lapu’s bravery and nationalistic fervor is beyond reproach standing up to a more superior invading army but whose modern armada proved inferior to the Moro’s kawayan (bamboo) weaponry.

The Battle of Mactan is replete with characters that are metaphorically present today. Except that Mactan is no longer the site, but present Mindanao.

Ferdinand Magellan was an experienced soldier and navigator. His Portuguese name is Fernao De Magalhaes (1480-1521) from Saborosa in Villa Real, province of Traz os Montes, Portugal. His parents were members of nobility but unfortunately they died when Magellan was about the age of 10. He had fought in India and Malacca for Portugal and was wounded in the left leg while fighting the Moors in Morocco. Since then, he had to walk with a slight limp. Rebuked in his own country, Magellan tried his luck in Spain. His travels convinced him that a westerly route to the Far East was possible, and was prepared to back up his notion with expedition. Christopher Columbus had the same vision but unlike Columbus, Magellan found the route.

When Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines on the island of Cebu in 1521, there was no doubt he thought himself a man of exceptional quality (in local parlance, mayabang). This was not without cause: for the irrepressible Magellan had managed to convince the 18-year-old King Carlos I of Spain that the Spice Islands were on Spanish, and not Portuguese, territory. This may sound odd, given that the Spice Islands, or Moluccas, were in fact part of Indonesia, but in 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas declared that everything east of Rome was Portuguese territory, and everything west of Rome, Spanish. Magellan believed that by sailing west he could prove the islands were to be found in Spanish territory (as it panned out, even though they were reached from the west, they still fell into the Portuguese 'half' of the world). The Spice Islands were a considerable asset given the inflated price of spices, and Carlos I was pretty keen to get them in his clutches.

Magellan had always been a pious man: there wasn't much option in those days. But having achieved the seemingly impossible, his religiosity turned into fanaticism. His enthusiasm to convert the locals to Catholicism was two-fold. He had, after all, achieved a remarkable journey, which he directly attributed to the benevolence of his heavenly father. More importantly, he believed that the natives' conversion to the Christian faith symbolized their acceptance of the Spanish crown as their earthly lord.

Thus, he began negotiations with the local ruler, Datu Humabon. After much discussion Humabon agreed to follow the Christian God, but only if he could continue to maintain his considerable harem. (Religiosity, it seems, is selective. The higher ranking the convert, the more flexible the terms -- after all, why let 40 or so nubile young women stand in the way of so grand a salvation?). Magellan agreed with the TOR and then went on to perform a rather remarkable trick.

Power of the Lord

Humabon had informed Magellan that a member of his family was gravely ill. Magellan met the man, baptized him, his wife and ten children, gave him some herbs and presto, the man recovered. This impressive convalescence was attributed directly to the power of the Lord. The Filipinos, suitably awed, flocked to the ships' priest to be converted by the hundreds.

The captains of the remaining ships were getting decidedly nervous at this point, having witnessed, or at least heard, stories of the wrath of the Almighty on those who smugly claimed His power for themselves. They were acutely aware of how disastrous it could have been for all of them had the ailing patient died, and were more used to the traditional Spanish method of subduing natives -- raping, torturing, and selling them into slavery as pagans. Magellan's altruistic approach made them uncomfortable.

So the intrepid sailors suggested to Magellan it was time to call it a day and head on to the Spice Islands to pick up their booty before heading back across the Pacific to Spain. But Magellan had a few surprises in store for them.

In the meantime, he'd generously offered to conquer Lapu Lapu, Humabon's rival on a nearby island. By this time Magellan believed he was unconquerable (must have been reading Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break’.) – With his ego, no pissant pagans were going to stand between him and his God. As a matter of fact, they managed to bring Magellan face to face with his Lord rather sooner than he expected.

The armada council on board was horrified. The Spanish government expressly forbade expedition captains from risking their lives, and this was clearly an unnecessary battle. Magellan waved away their protests, assuring them that the cross of Jesus was the only protection he needed in the forthcoming hostilities. He argued that the heavenly Father would surely protect this most pious of his children against the savage riff-raff. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and has from time to time deserted His followers in their hour of need. Magellan was to be no exception.

He announced he would be waging this glorious battle on April 27, to everyone, including Lapu Lapu, who was no doubt rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of showing this foreign upstart a thing or two about native warfare. Magellan graciously declined all offers of help from the Filipinos, inviting them instead to join the spectators that would be watching from canoes offshore. He refused all strategic advice from locals, and instead asked for twenty volunteers from each ship, wishing to show those irascible heathens that a Christian army could win against seemingly insurmountable odds. The experienced marines were not included in the battle plans, and, deeply offended, stayed sulkily on their ships.

Cabin boys, chefs and stewards

He chose for his forces 60 cabin boys, chefs and stewards. None had any battle experience. Many had to be shown how to load a musket. The other officers, realizing the folly of this adventure kept well out of preparations, deciding instead to keep their fingers crossed and joined the spectators.

Magellan gave Lapu Lapu one last chance, and sent him an ultimatum decreeing that if the insurgent would accept the sovereignty of the Spanish, with the local Christian king as his immediate superior, all would be well. Lapu Lapu sent back a vitriolic message saying he wasn't afraid of the Spanish, as he had the finest spears of bamboo, with fire hardened tips. He also asked if Magellan could postpone the conflicts until the following morning, to allow for a proper native force to be assembled for the battle. The Spaniards laughed heartily at this message, and agreed to the delay.

The battle plan was set. Magellan and his army of 60 would march into shore, while several bateaux, armed with cannons, would fire into the amassed army of savages. Once the cannon fire had dispersed their troops, Magellan's men would race in to finish them off with swords and guns.

It wasn't a bad plan. Under most circumstances it would have worked but Magellan, in his fervor, had neglected to survey the island particularly the spot Lapu-Lapu picked. There was a reef surrounding the appointed battlefield, and this reef prevented the armed boats from getting within firing distance of the shoreline.

So when day broke the next day, the invading forces found themselves stranded on the coral, too far from the beach to be of any real use. Undaunted, Magellan hurled himself into the thigh deep waters, and started awkwardly marching toward shore. His men followed suit, and, encumbered by armor, were exhausted before they reached the surf line.

Lapu Lapu, on the other hand, had organized his men behind three rows of trenches, well back from the water level. The Spaniards were confused, running ashore and shooting arrows that the natives easily deflected with shields. When the Europeans were far enough inland, the native forces flanked them and attacked viciously.

Unable to watch the awful spectacle further, the Cebu warriors launched a rescue party, but as fate would have it, they were instantly dispersed (four were actually killed) by the fire from one of the Spanish ships that had also thought to rescue their leader.

At this point, some of the more clever of Magellan's men realized that they were in real strife, so they did what any self-respecting man in the face of oblivion would do: they turned tail and ran like hell for the boats. Magellan was left with less than ten of his original force, surrounded on all sides by furious natives.

Shot in the foot

Magellan fought bravely. Shot in the foot by a poisoned arrow, he reached down and, in magnificent Hollywood fashion, wrenched it from his ankle and continued with the battle. Speared in the face, his lance was torn from his hand by a falling body, his sword arm had been all but severed, and he collapsed to his knees in the shallow surf. When the warriors had finished with him, not one of Magellan’s men survived. Humabon offered Lapu Lapu a reward for the return of Magellan's remains, but none could be found.

Lapu-Lapu’s ordeals clearly manifested his intense desire against foreign subjugation. There were others that followed: Andres Bonifacio, Jose Rizal, Jose Maria Panganiban, Gen. Vicente Lukban just to name a few. But there were also people like Arroyo who influenced the outcome of history, whose equally intense desire to hold onto power made no bones about setting aside Constitutional mandates and going to bed with the enemy. Spain lorded it over the Philippines for over 300 years. Actually, independence from Spain was already forthcoming in 1898 had the United States not intervened. Nagulangan lang ang mga Pinoy!

The Americans then became the new masters for the next 43 years until 1945 when the country was “granted” independence. Philippine independence of course is a misnomer because the U.S.’ continued its presence and influence for another 46 years. In 1991 the U.S. bases were booted out by an enlightened Senate. A ‘poor girl’ from Lubao then came along and changed the course of history once more. Ironically, it was the late President ‘Cong’ Dadong Macapagal who changed the ‘Philippine Independence Day’ celebration from July 4th to June 12th albeit to prop up Filipinos’ self-worth. Arroyo’s adventurism must be making her father turn in his grave.

Today, Magellan has the dubious privilege of being the namesake of a search engine, and is an enduring reminder that great men can make great mistakes, even with the hand of God to lead them. (Reposted by Bulatlat.com)

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