Was Lapu Lapu real?



Gemma Cruz Araneta Gemma Cruz Araneta

No one knows what he looked like; Pigafetta did not even try a crude sketch to illustrate his work, neither did any of the survivors who were interviewed by agents of Transylvanus and other European chroniclers.  In the heat of battle, none of the Spaniards could identify Lapu Lapu so contemporary historians who have no inherited respect for the chief of Mactan deny that he killed Magellan with his own hand, it must have been a collaborative thing, they all ganged up on the hapless Portuguese. However, a couple of survivors did say that Lapu Lapu was an old man when Magellan disembarked.

During the quincentennial, expect Lapu Lapu to be completely obscured by the over-sized presence of Magellan, if not denigrated as a “ludicrous human insect…” (Stefan Zweig, 1938)  and the battle of Mactan  “a miserable skirmish with savages” (F. Guillemand, 1890). Magellan’s European biographers acclaim him as the circumnavigator of the world, though we Southeast Asians know that it was his slave Enrique de Malacca who first circled the globe..

Pigafetta refers to him as Cilapulapu, he must have heard some natives saying “si Lapu Lapu.”  Other colonial writers use the name Calipulaco, Cali Pulak or Lupalupa. Was the grouper  named after him? It may have been the other way around because, according to folklore, he was afflicted with a disease that made his skin look scaly, like a fish. Perhaps it was a mispronunciation of Lapolapo, which alludes to his skill at skewering (laposlapos) his enemies with a spear. There seems to be no credible documentary evidence, so let us settle for Lapu Lapu, the chief of Mactan.

My fascination with Lapu Lapu is a residue of my childhood. He was the unsinkable hero of the bedtime stories my Guerrero grandfather would tell my brother and me. He made small oil paintings of Lapu Lapu seated majestically on a throne or in the midst of a ferocious battle on the shores of Mactan.  He never called Lapu Lapu Filipino and it must have been too complicated to explain to grade-schoolers that there was no Philippines yet when Magellan landed. Contemporary historians say that Lapu Lapu is nothing but a nationalistic fabrication, a tool to arouse anti-colonial and anti-Spanish sentiments.

After college, I worked at the National Museum and one fine day, we were invited to the National Historical Institute (now National Historical Commission of the Philippines, NHCP) to a series of conferences.  One of the speakers was Dr. Antonio Molina (may he rest in peace) who was a history professor, if not the dean of history at the University of Santo Tomas. He came with a flock of adoring students who practically filled the hall.  I do not remember how he began his lecture but suddenly I heard him talking disparagingly about my childhood hero, Lapu Lapu. He made fun of Lapu Lapu and the people of Mactan. He said they never even identified Magellan. Lapu Lapu, the chieftain, was probably just watching in the side-lines and never eyeballed Magellan, so how could we claim that he was the first one to hold his own against a European invader? As he laughed and mocked, so did his students laugh and mock at their own history, which is what made me so angry.

I was an audacious, quick-tempered 20 –year-old, and I felt sorry for the students who were inveigled and misled to laugh at their own history by their own professor who happened to be a Spaniard.  I could take it no longer. I got up, went to the nearest mike and gave Dr. Antono Molina a piece of my mind.  I said it was unconscionable that he was making fun of our history and of the heroes we revered, like Lapu Lapu.  I did not call Lapu Lapu a Filipino because even then, I knew there was no political entity called Philippines  when Magellan was killed in Mactan.  I also said that it was a shame that he was making young Filipino students mock and laugh at their own history.  I called Antonio Molina a little brown Spaniard and walked out of the hall.

Soon after, the Pamana Foundation began a contest for children’s books so I submitted my entry titled, “Makisig, the Little Hero of Mactan,” which was about a little boy who warned Lapu Lapu about the coming of the Spaniards and witnessed the battle of Mactan. His father was one of Lapu Lapu’s warriors and after the battle, Lapu Lapu thanked Makisig for being vigilant in the defense of his land. The first and second prizes of that contest went to my mother’s ex-pupil, Gilda Cordero Fernando. My Makisig won only the third prize but because I came home with the Miss Inernational title the year after, Makisig became quite famous. My nieces reported that my children’s book was required reading in their schools and that they would dramatize the Battle of Macan, one of them portrayed Makisig.  There were also Makisig tee shirts and translations into other native languages.

Many, many years later when I was already working for Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, I received a call from Mr. Chaco Molina, executive director of Fundacion Santiago which was a partner in   our Santa Ana Heritage project. Chaco said: “Gemma, I just want you to know that the favourite hero of Antonio Molina’s grandson is Lapu Lapu.”  I felt vindicated.