The death of Ferdinand Magellan 500 years ago is remembered as an act of indigenous resistance
This week, the Philippines marks an important event in the history of European colonialism in the Asia-Pacific region – the 500th anniversary of the death of Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (better known as Ferdinand Magellan).
The Philippine government is hosting a series of events to mark the role that indigenous peoples played in Magellan’s contested first world tour in the 16th century.
European history books celebrate the expedition as a three-year Spanish-led voyage, carrying 270 men on five ships. But Philippine commemorations remind the public that Magellan died halfway through the Philippine expedition and that a single ship with only 18 survivors limped back to Seville.
In particular, Filipinos remember how Lapu Lapu, the datu (chief) of Mactan Island, inspired a force of native warriors to defeat the Magellanic crew – and the Spanish threat to their sovereignty – on April 27, 1521.
The Philippine commemorations show what an indigenous-centered government approach to imperial history can look like in the Pacific. They also contrast with the exhibits, reenactments and publications that have marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in Australia and New Zealand in recent years.
These commemorations have for the most part confirmed the unique bravery of the British navigator, ruling out potentially more in-depth discussions of violence against Indigenous peoples that he and his crew also brought about.
What happened to Magellan in 1521
Magellan reached what is today the Philippines in March 1521 after an arduous 100-day Pacific crossing. He set out to use a combination of diplomacy and force to get local leaders and their supporters to convert to Catholicism and submit to the rule of the distant Spanish king.
Rajah Humabon of Cebu and other local leaders have embraced an alliance with the Spaniards, hoping to gain an advantage against their rivals.
Read more: 500 years after Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Patagonia, there is nothing to celebrate for its indigenous peoples
However, Magellan decided to attack Mactan when Lapu Lapu refused to negotiate. About 60 European sailors and soldiers joined forces at Humabon and attacked Mactan at dawn, but they were encountered on the beach by Lapu Lapu and his armed warriors.
Weighed down by their armor, the Europeans stumbled into the shallows under the fire of the arrows. Popular Filipino stories say that an army of marine animals was also part of the resistance. The octopuses wrapped their tentacles around the legs of the invaders, dragging them to their death. The battle was over in less than an hour.
Celebrate victory in Mactan
Events organized by the Philippine government’s National Quincentennial Committee to mark Magellan’s death include a drone show, a military parade and the televised unveiling of a new shrine in Lapu Lapu. All of these commemorations are designed to pay “homage and recognition to Lapu Lapu and the heroes of Mactan”.
The NQC also sponsored a national art competition centered around four themes related to Mactan’s victory – sovereignty, magnanimity, unity and legacy.
Matthius B. Garcia’s painting Hindi Pasisiil (Never to be conquered) recently won the grand prize in the “sovereignty” category.
In his work, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the strong figure of Lapu Lapu. He is covered in Visayan tattoos and wears the bright red bandana and thick gold chains of a warrior and a ruler. He jumps to the center of the canvas, Kampilan (sword) raised above his head, leading the charge of men rushing at the European invaders.
Magellan and his men, clad in armor over puffed sleeves and stockings, fall on top of each other and fall into the sea to their death.
The work is Aboriginal-centric as it was produced by a Filipino artist for a Filipino audience. It tells the story of what happened in Mactan from the perspective of locals rather than outsiders.
Ordinary Filipinos have also shared their own artistic depictions of the Battle of Mactan on the NQC’s Facebook page, such as Miguel Alfonso Manzano Noriel’s painting, 5, titled The Battle of Mactan, below.
The NCQ also encouraged children to print paper doll figures of Lapu Lapu and Magellan so they can reenact the Battle of Mactan at home.
Unlike Garcia and Noriel’s fiery chaos scenes, the winning entries in the “magnanimity” section of the art competition are remembered for the compassion Filipinos showed towards explorers.
In Romane Elmira D. Contawi’s award-winning painting, a local man hands fruit to a white man with hollow, scruffy eyes. The work illustrates the key role the locals played in the expedition, providing supplies to Magellan’s fleet and sharing their expert knowledge of surviving dangerous seas.
Remembering Cook in Australia and New Zealand
From 2018 to 2020, the Australian and New Zealand governments also sponsored events related to a significant anniversary of the European incursion into their lands – the arrival of Cook’s ship, the Endeavor, in 1769-1770.
Some aspired to take an Aboriginal-centered perspective. But the majority ended up pushing, at best, a “shared stories” approach. They encouraged the public to consider “both sides” of the beach when the Endeavor docked on the Native shores.
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Australian national institutions have organized exhibitions called “Cook and the Pacific” or “Cook and the First Australians”. The central event in New Zealand was a flotilla of six ships – three European, three Pasifika – which stopped in 14 communities to launch “a balanced narrative of a shared history between Maori and Pākehā”.
In these performances, Cook was forced to give up some of the limelight, but never completely leave his pedestal.
Other memorials have not even achieved this vague sense of reciprocity. Cook’s pre-existing statues, for example, not only remained standing during the anniversary years, but they were often protected from degradation. In the case of the Cook statue in Hyde Park in Sydney, it happened in the form of dozens of police officers.
Decolonized public histories
The Philippines’ approach to a more Indigenous-centered and critical form of public history is flawed. The government has come under fire for silencing “unpatriotic” criticism from national leaders today – and in the past.
And the government has come under fire for handling the death of another Ferdinand – the former President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country by martial law for nearly a decade. He received the burial of a hero to the indignation of many.
Likewise, public stories that happily remember the 16th century rebellions against the Spanish conquistadors in order to “strengthen the cultural confidence of the Filipino people” may render invisible some modern indigenous struggles for autonomy, particularly in the Islamic south of the Philippines. There is only room for patriotic versions of the country’s history that emphasize unity.
Read more: Preparing the books: How Endeavor’s reenactments of the voyage perpetuate myths of Australia’s ‘discovery’
Despite these serious concerns, the Filipino approach to the era of European expansion provides a refreshing contrast to the dominant stories about Cook in Australia and New Zealand. It’s not just about adding Indigenous voices or co-starring Indigenous peoples on commemorative occasions.
Rather, the Filipino attitude towards Magellan overturns colonial history by focusing on indigenous resistance.
The promise of decolonized public stories in the Pacific is not to punish, shame or settle scores. Rather, it is intended to help forge an as yet unsuspected future for the region, which places the original rulers at the heart.