Magellan was not the first to travel the world—it was a Filipino

Published March 3, 2021, 11:30 PM

by AA Patawaran

Salcedo Auctions holds first major Important Philippine Art & Furniture sale for 2021 to commemorate 500 years of cross-cultural encounters

LARGER THAN LIFE This untitled work in oil on canvas, the largest of Elmer Borlongan’s works ever to go on auction, is the jewel of the collection to go under the hammer at Salcedo Auctions’ March 13 sale

Was Ferdinand Magellan the first to circumnavigate the world? No, but we’ll get to that later.

Was Magellan even Spanish? No, he was Portuguese. His name wasn’t even Magellan, it was Fernão de Magalhães. He was a page to queen consort Eleanor and Manuel I of Portugal, who later denied his campaign to sail west, instead of east, in search of a new spice route on suspicions that he was into illegal trading. So he went to King Charles I of Spain, with which Portugal at that time was engaged in intense conflict. In Spain, he was lavished with every opportunity to succeed, so he did. His was “the greatest sea voyage ever undertaken, and the most significant.” So said American historian Laurence Bergreen.

But was he the first to circumnavigate the world?

STATE OF THE ART Construction Always on Progress, oil on canvas, by Marina Cruz

In the article “Magellan Was First to Sail Around the World, Right? Think Again,” published in the National Geographic in September 2019, I found this paragraph: “A month later, the expedition reached the Philippines. To the crew’s surprise, Enrique, an enslaved man Magellan had purchased before the journey, could understand and speak the indigenous people’s language. It turned out he was likely raised there before his enslavement—making him, not Magellan, the first person to circumnavigate the globe.”

Not the first time I ever heard of this “very extraordinary thing,” but I’m more than happy that since I first heard about it, I’ve come across it more and more. In Jose Rizal’s essay “On the Indolence of the Filipinos,” first published in La Solidaridad in 1890 in Madrid, he also wrote that “in that very year 1521 when (the Spaniards) first came to the islands, there were already natives of Luzon who understood Castilian.” He furthered that “in the treaties of peace that the survivors of Magellan’s expedition made with the chief of Paragua… they communicated with one another through a Moro who had been captured in the island of the King of Luzon and who understood some Spanish. Where did this extemporaneous interpreter learn Castilian? In the Moluccas? In Malacca, with the Portuguese? Spaniards did not reach Luzon until 1571.”

GHOST OF THE PAST Untitled, oil on canvas, by Dino Gabito

And that is why, I guess, when I took a tour of the lots as a preview to Salcedo Auctions’ first major Important Philippine Art & Furniture sale for 2021 under the theme “1521-2021: 500 Years of Cross-Cultural Encounters,” I was hopeful that at last we could look at our historic ties from a different perspective. There is no doubt that our encounters with the West, not only the Spaniards, the Dutch, the British, or the Americans or even the Japanese, but also the Chinese and the Arabs, with whom we had engaged in trade centuries before Magellan’s expedition claimed to have discovered us. Recounting what he read from Italian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines, which he found in the original Italian in London in 1888, Rizal also said that, upon arrival on an island now known as Samar, Magellan was honored by the inhabitants and shown “their boats where they had their merchandise, which consisted of cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmegs, mace, gold, and other things; and they made us understand by gestures that such articles were to be found in the islands to which we were going.’”

ACT OF FAITH Territorial Terror, oil on wood, by Ronald Ventura

Ah, if Magellan and Pigafetta could only see us now, much richer than they found us before, though a little worse for wear thanks to a series of bad encounters with conquerors and imperialists. Even then, Salcedo Auctions commemorates this milestone of our colonial history from a context more Filipino-centric. After all, though we have yet to mine our deep reserves of riches on the economic or political front, in the realm of art we have delved deep enough, if not too deep, in our experience, cross-cultural ties included, along with the conflicts and conquests and the losses that came with them.

The piece-de-resistance is an untitled work by Elmer Borlongan, which first belonged to cultural icon Gilda Cordero-Fernando, the largest ever Borlongan to go on auction and probably one of the largest works ever by the artist.

“After all, art is part of the very fabric of Filipino society. It has thrived and endured throughout centuries of socio-cultural change.” says Salcedo Auctions’ chairman and chief specialist Richie Lerma. 

A MATTER OF COLONIALIZATION Untitled, oil on board, by Félix Martinez

Rare and distinctive discoveries are on offer, some of them having survived 500 years of colonialism intact, such as the King Bulol. From Paris, a couple of watercolor illustrations by Honorato Lozano, one of which portrays the Indios Tagalos in a fashion worthy of theater, serving in fact as a basis for the costume design in one Ballet Philippines obra, are among the pieces that speak volumes about our past.

The piece-de-resistance is an untitled work by Elmer Borlongan, which first belonged to cultural icon Gilda Cordero-Fernando, the largest ever Borlongan to go on auction and probably one of the largest works ever by the artist, who is said to do pieces of this size only for friends. Biblical in feel and proportions, the mural, measuring 11.6 x 13 feet, is inhabited by Borlongan’s signature bald-headed figures, including a couple in a despairing cuddle, a sword-carrying two-headed angel, and a barenaked man, tall and lean and agitated, with a conch shell, as if to say gather ye all. There’s a galloping horse as well as an ox and, in a bottom corner, as if trying to elude notice, like an elusive dream, a doorway to the sea.

THE SHAPE OF HISTORY San Rafael Manila Aparador, made of babaeng kamagong

While Salcedo Auctions considers the Borlongan the jewel of the collection, the rest of the lots are as covetable, masterworks by the likes of Victorio Edades, National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, Arturo Luz, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, and Jose Joya. Ronald Ventura, Emmanuel Garibay, Andres Barrioquinto, Jigger Cruz, and Marina Cruz give the collection a contemporary touch.

In the antique furniture section, the babaeng kamagong-made San Rafael Manila Aparador is the grand bravura piece, whose rare design features, such as its twisted, rotating posts and carved floral applique, make it a conversation piece, a headturner, a scene-stealer. 

DOORWAY TO THE SEA Untitled (Fisherman), oil on canvas, by Victorio Edades

Of course, how can we look back to 1521 without acknowledging Christianity as perhaps the most impactful legacy of our colonial experience?

Essential to this sale’s lineup are religious artifacts, such as a large 18th century ivory Santo Cristo Expirante, the dramatic Nuestra Señora del Rosario oil-on-wood painting, with Rococo urna frame made from Bohol molave, and a solid 19th century ivory Mother & Child.

These works of art are a testament to the riches inherent in the Filipino, molded by his experience and further enriched by his centuries of encounters with the larger world.

DOCTRINE ON MOLAVE A life-sized ‘Santo Tomas de Villanueva’ relieve

It’s been 500 years since Magellan’s historic arrival to the Philippines, but have we come to realize we have given him undue credit by saying he discovered us? Did he recognize how rich we were when his explorations led him here in 1521? Yes, he did—and swiftly, claiming the islands for Spain. Too bad, though he had much to gain from what he would consider his discovery, including a cut of the profits, in the hands of a Filipino, from the poisoned arrow of Lapu Lapu, in a skirmish on Mactan, Magellan would die too soon, barely two months after his arrival, to enjoy any of his rewards.  Preview ongoing.

The Important Philippine Art & Antiques sale at Salcedo Auction happens on March 13. For updates, follow @salcedoauctions and @gavelandblock on Facebook and Instagram.