“The little armada’s 12,600-mile crossing of the Pacific, the greatest physical unit on earth, is one of history’s imperishable tales of the sea, and like so many others it is a story of extraordinary human suffering, of agony so excruciating that only those who have been pushed to the extremes of human endurance can even comprehend it…. By completing the circuit of the globe, the expedition had provided the first empirical proof that it was a sphere.”
William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire
THE Visayan singer Yoyoy Villame, who was more hilarious than melodious, had more historical sense than the Philippine Congress and many presidential administrations. He recognized the great achievement of Ferdinand Magellan and memorialized it in song.
Today, the 16th of March, it again saddens and puzzles me that this country does not officially remember the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, whose 1521 expedition was the first to circumnavigate the world, and who discovered the Philippine islands on March 16, 1521, and who is acknowledged by scholars and historians as the greatest explorer in history.
It is as if the nation fell asleep, and woke up with amnesia.
Yoyoy did not forget what he learned in school. The lyrics of his song, “Magellan”, tell the story memorably. The song intones:
On March 16, 1521
When Philippines was
discovered by Magellan
They were sailing day and night across the big ocean
Until they saw a small
Magellan landed in
Limasawa at noon
The people met him
very welcome on the shore
They did not understand the speaking they have done
Because Kastila gid
at Waray-Waray man
When Magellan landed
in Cebu City
Rajah Humabon met him,
they were very happy
All people were baptized
and built the church of Christ
And that’s the beginning
of our Catholic life.
PH jolted awake soon
In just a little over four years, on March 16, 2021, our country and the world will mark the quincentennial, the 500th anniversary, of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.
In four years, we will lead the world in the celebration. And naturally, the world will come to visit. This country will have more visitors than it ever dreamed.
And our preposterous ambivalence toward Magellan will be forever cauterized from the records.
Ambivalence towards Magellan
Let me briefly address the supposed reasons for this ambivalence.
Some say the Arabs and the Chinese, and maybe the Polynesians, discovered the archipelago earlier than Magellan. So, what? Did they also circumnavigate the globe?
Others contend that we should not be enthralled by the coming of Christianity to the islands, because Islam and the Arabs came here first. So, what? Which religion became the religion of choice of the great majority of our people?
Sure, if Magellan did not come, Islam would almost surely have come to dominate the entire country as it did our neighbors in Indonesia and Malaysia. But nations do not chart their history on the basis of what might have been. They chart it by what has happened and what they have become.
The greatest disservice to Magellan‘s memory has been done by our official institutions for remembering the past. I refer to the National Historical Commission and some of our institutions of learning.
Turning our back on Magellan is a metaphor for what is missing in our country, and how we may have lost our way.
To many Filipinos, today, the16th of March is just like any other date on the calendar. It is ordinary, nothing special.
But there was a time when this date was committed by every schoolchild and student to memory. We all knew who Magellan was. Where he made landfall and when. And where the first Mass was celebrated in the Philippines.
Not one authentic date
In his essay, “Culture and History,” national artist Nick Joaquin writes of a conflict between “a history with dates and a history without.” He wrote: “Before 1521, there is not one single authentic Philippine date.”
Joaquin’s Culture and History (Solar Publishing Corporation, 1989) singlehandedly impelled many of us to take national history and dates as seriously as we keep tabs on our lives.
It was after reading Joaquin that I discovered that in our official calendar, we do not honor or commemorate Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation of the world with his expedition’s discovery of the Philippine archipelago on March 16, 1521.
I realized as well that as we stumbled all over ourselves in preparation for Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines in January 2015, we also do not in recall in our history books and calendars the precise dates when Christianity was first implanted here, when the first Mass was celebrated in the islands.
William Manchester knew. When Magellan made his landfall, it was Holy Week, Semana Santa. On Easter Sunday, March 31, the first Mass was celebrated in the archipelago in the island of Limasawa.
According to Pigafetta’s account, the celebrant was Fr. Pedro Valderrama. Kings Kolambu and Siagu were in attendance, together with Magellan, and about 50 of his men. Pigafetta narrated what transpired in detail.
I found more information about Magellan’s visit in another book, Leyte, The Historic Islands, by Francisco Tantuico, Jr. (Leyte Publishing Corporation, Tacloban City, 1964). Tantuico wrote that after mass, King Kolambu addressed his people. He told them “Let your honored guests, the white-skin strangers, hear our songs and see our dances.”
Magellan, happy at such hospitality, ordered his swordsmen to stage a European-style fencing tournament.
At sundown, Magellan, in a solemn ritual, planted a Cross on top of a hill overlooking the sea and took possession of the whole archipelago in the name of Spain.
“After the Cross was planted,” wrote Pigafetta, “each of us repeated a Pater Noster and Ave Maria and adored the Cross, and the kings did the same.
Battle of Mactan
Magellan accepted the king’s proposal to proceed immediately to the bigger kingdom of Sugbu (Cebu). The king there was a relative of the king of Limasawa. Magellan and his men arrived in Cebu on April 7.
On Saturday, April 27, 1521, the great adventure came to came to an end on a beach in Mactan island, where Magellan tried to pacify a native chieftain Lapu-lapu. A battle ensued.
Magellan fell in the battle between spears and swords. Pigafetta, who was at the side of Magellan, recorded it all in his account. The captain-general fell in battle.
Of all the tributes to Magellan, says Manchester, the Magellanic Clouds are the most appropriate. “Like them, his memory shines down upon the world his voyage opened, illuminating it from infinity to eternity.”
Day of discovery and circumnavigation
I hoped when I started to write this column, that I would be able to persuade our government to do two things:
1. In the case of the Congress – that it will pass a law that would declare March 16 of every year as Magellan or Discovery Day, an official holiday, to commemorate the discovery of the Philippine archipelago and the circumnavigation of the globe.
2. The President – that he will consider this early the constitution of a Philippine Quincentennial Commission, that will lay the ground and organize the celebration and commemoration of Magellan’s epic voyage.
Events like this are planned and designed in fitting dignity and splendor by countries that prize their history and culture, and their place in the community of nations.
Now that we are clearly a country with a history with dates, we should not balk at celebrating this date in our history – March 16, 1521.
We celebrate every year many dates in our country, but none are surely more worthy than this day of discovery and circumnavigation.