The Battle of Mactan & Magellan

View this slide show for a clear introduction to Magellan’s journey as well as Lapu-Lapu’s story before the battle.

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Before the Battle

On 16 March 1521 (Spanish calendar), Magellan sighted the mountains of what is now Samar while on a mission to find a westward route to the MoluccasIslands for Spain. This event marked the arrival of the first Europeans in the Archipelago. The following day, Magellan ordered his men to anchor their ships on the shores of Homonhon Island.[1] There, he befriended Rajah Kulambu and Rajah Siagu the chieftain of Limasawa, who guided him to Cebu.[1] He, and his queen were baptized into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos, in honor of King Charles of Spain, and Juana, in honor of King Charles’ mother. To commemorate this event, Magellan gave Juana the Santo Niño, an image of the infant Jesus, as a symbol of their new alliance.[1] As a result of Magellan’s influence with Rajah Humabon, an order had been issued to the nearby chiefs that each of them were to provide food supplies for the ships, and convert to Christianity.

Most chiefs obeyed the order. However, Datu Lapu-Lapu, one of the two chiefs within the island of Mactan, was the only chieftain to show his opposition. Lapu-Lapu refused to accept the authority of Rajah Humabon in these matters. This opposition proved to be influential when Antonio Pigafetta,[2] Magellan’s voyage chronicler,[3] writes,

On Friday, April twenty-six, Zula, the second chief of the island of Mactan, sent one of his sons to present two goats to the captain-general, and to say that he would send him all that he had promised, but that he had not been able to send it to him because of the other chief Lapu-Lapu, who refused to obey the king of Spain.[4]

Rajah Humabon and Datu Zula suggested that Magellan go to the island of Mactan and force his subject chieftain Datu Lapu-Lapu to comply with his orders.[1] Magellan saw an opportunity to strengthen the existing friendship ties with the ruler of the Visaya region and agreed to help him subdue the rebellious Lapu-Lapu.

The Battle itself

According to the documents of Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan tried to convince Lapu-Lapu to comply with Rajah Humabon’s orders the night before the battle,

At midnight, sixty of us set out armed with corselets and helmets, together with the Christian king, the prince, some of the chief men, and twenty or thirty balanguais. [a type of Filipino boat] We reached Mactan three hours before dawn. The captain did not wish to fight then, but sent a message to the natives to the effect that if they would obey the king of Spain, recognize the Christian king as their sovereign, and pay us our tribute, he would be their friend; but that if they wished otherwise, they should wait to see how our lances wounded. They replied that if we had lances they had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire. [they asked us] not to proceed to attack them at once, but to wait until morning, so that they might have more men. They said that in order to induce us to go in search of them; for they had dug certain pit holes between the houses in order that we might fall into them.[4]

Pigafetta writes how next morning Magellan deployed forty-nine armored men with swords, axes, shields, crossbows and guns, and sailed for Mactan in the morning of April 28.[1] Filipino historians note that because of the rocky outcroppings, and coral near the beach, the Spanish soldiers could not land on Mactan. Forced to anchor their ships far from shore, Magellan could not bring his ships’ firepower to bear on Datu Lapu-Lapu’s warriors, who numbered more than 1,500.

When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, [the natives] had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries… The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly…[5]

Magellan then tried to scare them off by burning some houses in what is now Buaya, known then as Bulaia.

Seeing that, the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to flight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain. The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away.[5]

Many of the warriors attacked Magellan; he was wounded in the arm with a spear and in the leg by a kampilan. With this advantage, the Lapu-Lapu’s troops finally overpowered, and killed him. He was stabbed, and hacked by spears and swords. Pigafetta and the others managed to escape,

Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice… An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off…[5]

According to Pigafetta, several of Magellan’s men were killed in battle, and a number of natives converted to Christianity who had come to their aid, were killed by warriors, and soldiers. There are no official records of the number of casualties in the battle, although Pigafetta mentions at least 3 Christian soldiers killed including Magellan.[4]

Magellan’s allies, Humabon and Zula, were said not to have taken part in the battle due to Magellan’s bidding, and watched from a distance. Pigafetta reports that the Christian king Humabon sent a message saying that if they return the bodies of Magellan and his crew, they would give as much merchandise as they wished. Magellan’s body, however, was never recovered from the natives.

Some of the soldiers who survived the battle and returned to Cebu were poisoned while attending a feast given by Humabon. Magellan was succeeded by Juan Sebastián del Cano as commander of the expedition, who ordered the immediate departure after Humabon’s betrayal. Del Cano and his fleet sailed west and returned to Spain in 1522, completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

Lapu-lapu as a hero

Today, Lapu-Lapu is retroactively honored as the first “Philippine national hero" to resist foreign rule, though formally the territory of the "Philippine Islands" had yet to be established or even named at the time. He is remembered by a number of commemorations: statues on the island of Mactan and the Cebu Provincial Capitol, a city bearing his name, and a local variety of red grouper fish. Kapampangan actor-turned-politician Lito Lapid starred in a film called Lapu-Lapu, and novelty singer Yoyoy Villame wrote a folk song entitled “Magellan” that tells a humorously distorted story of the Battle of Mactan.[6]

There is a spot in Mactan Island called the Mactan shrine where the battle is reenacted during its anniversary. In the same shrine, next to the Lapu-Lapu statue, there is a semi-destroyed obelisk erected in Magellan’s honor by the Spanish colonial authorities and defaced shortly after the US military occupation of the Philippines.

Magellan is also honored for bringing Christianity to the Philippines in general and the Santo Niño (Child Jesus) to Cebu in particular. The Magellan’s Cross and the aforementioned Magellan’s shrine were erected in Cebu City and Mactan Island. Many landmarks and infrastructures all over the Philippines bear Magellan’s name, mostly using its Spanish spelling (Magallanes), which is also a widely used Filipino surname.

Resourece: wikipedia

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It is often misconceived that Magellan named the islands the Philippines. It was not until 22 years later, in 1543 that Ruy López de Villalobos led an expedition to the islands and gave the name “Las Islas Filipinas” - after the fifteen year old heir apparent, Philip - to the islands that Magellan had first laid claim, Samar and Leyte.

The name would eventually be given to the entire archipelago - but not just yet.

When Magellan arrived at Homonhon in that year of 1521 he had been on his voyage for almost eighteen months. He had already lost two of the five ships and one third of his crew which first set sail.

Clearly being welcomed so well by the Rajah Kolambu of Limasawa, a local sultan would have come as utmost relief. He in turn introduced him to Rajah Humabon of Cebu, who - impressed with Magellan’s armoury and ships - happily converted to Christianity.

Humabon later managed to convince Magellan to embark on a mission to kill his rival Lapu Lapu of Mactan. In what appears to have been a reckless ill thought endeavour, it led to his death.

Perhaps Magellan’s drive to convert the indigenous tribes to the Catholic faith had impaired his judgment. Whatever conversation took place through his translator Enrique of Malacca, we shall never know, but perhaps some misunderstanding occurred. It’s also possible that Magellan was so deluded that God was on his side he believed himself invincible.

Consider the facts: he did not take his most experienced soldiers with him, and he failed to reconnoiter Mactan’s coastline. Consequently he was unable to land his cannon, and marched knee deep through the surf with only forty of his men, to be overpowered by 1500 natives (or so the story goes - the numbers were possibly slightly exaggerated.) And the rest, to employ the old cliché…is history!

On that note the tale was finally conveyed to the Spanish king by the captain of the sole surviving ship able to limp home, and in so doing manage to complete Magellan’s (posthumously awarded) circumnavigation.

So began - albeit not overnight - the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Philippines.



For interesting trivia on living in a boat back then, look at this. Don;t answer the questions included in the slideshow. They won’t be included in the quiz.