The Inside Story: Lapu-Lapu was an Old Pirate (Part I)

Published May 17, 2021, 12:53 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

Looking west over Rizal Park is the statue of Lapu Lapu, “the Statue of the Sentinel of Freedom.” Standing proudly with a sheathed kampilan, sculptor Juan Sajid Imao sought to depict the Mactan chief as “a strong and peace-loving man, who is also ready to defend himself against those who threaten his freedom.”

Lapu Lapu entered the pages of Philippine history 500 years ago on April 27, 1521, in a battle between Mactan braves and men of Ferdinand Magellan, the newly arrived explorer who was looking for a westward route to the Spice Islands, avoiding the established eastward route around Africa that was controlled by Portugal.

Magellan’s expedition left Spain in September 1519 consisting of five ships and 270 men. Only one ship and 18 to 19 men returned to Spain after two years, in November 1521, though with enough spices and goods aboard to cover the cost of the entire voyage.

ARCIPELAGO DE S LAZARO Detail of the Ramusio-Gastaldi Terza Tavola map drawn in 1548. It shows the name given the islands by Magellan, “Arcipelago de S Lazaro” and islands named Zuluan, Abanen, Humunu, Zubut, Candigar identified in accounts of Magellan’s voyage. It also shows for the first time the name Filipina given to Leyte and islands in the Pacific Ocean seen by the 1543 expedition of Ruy Lopez de Villalobos.

The voyagers reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1520, expecting that Asia was a mere four to five days away. It took them three months and 20 days of hunger, sickness, and death before sighting the Samar shoreline on March 16, 1521. They anchored by the small island of Suluan near Guian, Samar. It was a thickly forested, “the trunks stand almost as close to the fingers of the hand.”

The arrivals were welcomed with food and drink, unlike their experience in Guam that Magellan named Isla de Ladrones. Suluan’s chief Si Oni “was old, and had his face painted [tattooed], and had gold rings suspended from his ears.” Communication was through Enrique, Magellan’s slave bought in Malacca. Si Oni apparently spoke or understood Malay, Enrique’s language.

From Suluan the Spaniards proceeded to the larger Homonhon, where villagers were “tawny, fat and painted and … anointed themselves with the oil of coconuts and sesame … Their hair is very black and long, reaching to the waist.”

They crossed the Surigao Strait and proceeded to Limasawa at the southern tip of Leyte where they found gold and met the handsome Chief Kulambo with black hair reaching to his shoulders, large gold earrings and pegs of gold on his teeth. He was tattooed, wore cloth worked with silk from waist to knees, and bore a dagger decorated in gold.

From Limasawa, the ships headed for Sugbo (Cebu), passing Bohol and places along Leyte’s west coast recorded as Ceylon (probably Hilongos), Canighan, and Baibai (Baybay); Satighan (one of the Cuatro Islas); and the Camotes group of islands Polo (Poro), Ticobon (Pacijan), and Pozzon (Ponson).

Sugbo was a prosperous trade center with ships from Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and elsewhere bringing goods to exchange for local products, e.g. cotton, gold, sugar, rice, ginger. Incoming vessels were charged anchorage fees, a sizeable revenue source of Sugbo’s ruler Rajah Humabon.

Magellan and his crew were again hospitably received and proceeded not only to trade but also to claim the archipelago for Spain and to convert the population to Christianity. Among those baptized were Humabon and his young wife.

Humabon is described as 50-60 years old, fat and short, his stature proclaimed by ornate tattoos, gold adornments, including a heavy gold necklace and earrings, and most importantly, numerous wives, including a sister of Lapu Lapu of Mactan. The young woman who was baptized Juana as Humabon’s wife was evidently a secondary wife.

Notes: (a) This article is based on a presentation and a book written by Danilo Madrid Gerona, faculty member of the Universidad de Santa Isabel Graduate School, Naga City. He spoke at a Webinar organized by the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX) Culture and Arts Committee headed by Domingo Go; and (b) Magellan remained several weeks by small islands near Samar and Leyte recuperating from the long and difficult journey, staying aboard ship for safety.  They were also unsure where they were and had only a vague idea where the Spice Islands were.

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