Mactan was not an impressive place in the 16th century. As late as 44 years after Magellan’s stay, Miguel López de Legaspi found Mactan “swampy, largely inhospitable, and sparsely inhabited” by “some 300 indios in four or five small settlements.”
It was strategically located across the narrow channel from the bustling port of Sugbo, however, and Mactan became known as nest of pirates who preyed mainly on vessels going to and coming from Sugbo. It was a way of life, not only as a materialistic pursuit but also as mark of power, prestige, and authority. (Doesn’t this sound familiar, BTW.)
When Magellan arrived in 1521, Lapu Lapu of Opon was the most powerful Mactan chief, described as “… so much esteemed for being an excellent man in the art of war, and being more powerful than all the rest of the residents.” His leadership was acknowledged by other Mactan chiefs except one—Sula who happened to be a brother-in-law. Lapu Lapu was also described as viejo, about age 70, an agile and fierce warrior no longer, but a wise and respected elder.
Mactan’s piracy obviously affected Humabon’s revenues. Recall too that one of Humabon’s wives was a sister of Lapu Lapu but a young woman, probably a secondary wife, was baptized as Juana. The piracy and the sidelining of Lapu Lapu’s sister help explain the bad blood between the two chiefs.
The prevailing political dynamics was tricky. Magellan was interested in claiming the islands for Spain and in helping spread Christianity. He was also reportedly hoping to eventually settle down to the good life in Cebu. For his part, the newly baptized Humabon aimed for supremacy over Lapu Lapu, the thorn on his side. As a fellow Christian, Magellan was on Humabon’s side and demanded that all chiefs pay homage to the King of Spain and to Humabon as a brother Christian.
Lapu Lapu rejected Magellan’s demand, saying he had no problem with the King of Spain but drew the line at doing homage to Humabon. Magellan thereupon decided to teach Lapu Lapu a lesson, sacking and burning two villages preparatory to invasion. Humabon was instructed not to intervene—with superior armament, Magellan was confident in quickly subduing the Mactan chief.
As it turned out, terrain was against Magellan. He and his men arrived before dawn on April 27 but shallow water coupled with low tide prevented ships from coming close. Magellan’s men, burdened with weapons and armor, were forced to wade slowly to shore over rocks and coral where they were vulnerable to the lightly clad natives. When the battle ended, Magellan and 12 men were dead, including four Sugboanon converts vs. about 15 Mactan locals.
None of the battle accounts mention Lapu Lapu as a direct participant. At his age, he may have been in the background strategizing, monitoring, and commanding.
In the days after the battle, Sugbo and Mactan chiefs conspired to get rid of the remaining Spaniards. The reasons for the sudden turnaround are unclear. One version has it that the warring leaders reconciled. Senior citizen Lapu Lapu supposedly promised to make Humabon his heir and to give him a daughter as another wife, or else. Another is that Enrique de Malacca was treated shabbily by Magellan’s successor—he had been promised freedom and an inheritance but Duarte Barbosa, Magellan’s successor, declared that that would not happen. The resentful Enrique persuaded Humabon that the Spaniards intended to oust and kill him, hence Humabon’s pre-emptive act. A third version is that the sex-starved Spanish sailors violated the wives and daughters of their Sugbo hosts.
Maybe all three happened but whatever the reason, officers and crew were invited on May 1 to a feast supposedly for the formal turnover of a promised gift of jewels for the Spanish King. Those who attended were slaughtered. The official report listed 28 officers and crew dead, including Enrique de Malacca who was attired like a Spaniard and was mistaken for one. Other accounts, however, say that eight survived and were sold as slaves and that Enrique was spared and was able to return to Malacca. Humabon was reported stabbed to death by a dying Spaniard.
The crew members who had prudently remained aboard their ships promptly lifted anchor and sailed away. Headed by Sebastian de Elcano they eventually found their way to the Moluccas and loaded up on spices. One ship, the Victoria, made it back to Spain after numerous encounters along the way with hostile natives and the Portuguese.
Notes: (a) This article is based on a presentation and a book written by Danilo Madrid Gerona, director of the Partido Studies Center and the Magellan-Elcano Studies Center at the Partido State University in Camarines Sur. He spoke at a webinar organized by the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX) Culture and Arts Committee headed by Domingo Go; (b) Antonio Pigafetta wrote a detailed account of the voyage, as did a number of others. Other survivors were debriefed on their arrival in Spain. The various accounts are not always consistent and their totality helps in understanding the full story of Magellan’s adventure; and (c) Only three out of the original five ships that left Spain reached the Philippines. One of them was in poor condition and the remaining crew was not enough for two ships, so just one made it back to Spain.
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