“Before 1521, there is not one authentic Philippine date.” Thus did the inimitable national artist Nick Joaquin launch his remarkable book, Culture and History (Solar publishing Corporation, 1989), which singlehandedly impelled many of us to take national history and dates as seriously as we keep tabs on our birthdays.
In the book, Joaquin presents and discusses his thesis that until we Filipinos made the transition from “a history without dates” to a “history with dates,” we were a people without a sense of history and a sense of national community.
I looked up my copy of the book when I realized that in our national calendar, we do not officially honor or commemorate Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation of the world with his expedition’s discovery of the Philippine archipelago on March 16, 1521.
It dawned on me as well that as we are stumbling all over ourselves and quibbling about preparations for Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines on January 17-22, we do not in fact, 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 and when the first baptisms were performed.
Events told and retold in books
The omissions are remarkable because the events are faithfully recorded and told by the great Italian chronicler of the voyage,Antonio Pigafetta, in his classic account of the epic expedition.
It is told and retold in countless books, mot especially by William Manchester’s magnificent book on the Renaissance, A World lit only by Fire, which hailed Magellan as the greatest figure of the Renaissance.
Manchester says of the voyage: “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 of the 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.”
Of the captain-general who commanded the expedition, Manchester writes movingly: “Magellan became what, as a child he had yearned to be—the era’s greatest hero.
“The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth or love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge. La Rochefoucald, not always a cynic, wrote of him that ‘he does without witnesses what we would be capable of doing before everyone.’ ”
“Guided by an inner gyroscope, he pursues his vision singlemindedly, undiscouraged by rejections, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude.
“In the long lists of history, it is difficult to find another figure whose heroism matches Magellan’s.”
First Philippine Mass
Of the first Mass in the Philippines, Manchester wrote:
“Easter’s arrival on March 31, their first Sunday at Limasawa, had provided an opportunity which, the devout Magellan believed was God-sent. He had seized it by entertaining his hosts in Limasawa with a theological version of bangles and beads – a flamboyant Mass.
“Padre Valderrama was asked to celebrate the services with flair, and the flota’s officers were ordered to provide him every possible assistance. Their commander wanted a show and he got it. An altar having been brought ashore, a glittering cross was attached to it. The priest, wearing his vestments, performed Eastertide rituals, after which the Captain-general and his men approached in twos, kissed the crucifix, and received the host while gunners aboard the ships fired volleys and all hands cheered.
“The armada’s guests that morning had been Rajah Kolambu and his brother Siaui. Already Magellan was singling out influential chieftains who could rule in the king’s name until royal administrators arrived from Spain.
“The Easter spectacle served its purpose admirably.
“After Valderrama’s Mass, the two guests of honor knelt before the altar, imitated the movements of the supplicants who had preceded them, and then, according to one account, they ordered native carpenters to build a cross so large that when it had been ‘set on the summit of the highest mountain in the neighborhood, all might see and adore it.’ ”
The sword and the cross
The transition to a history with dates, according to Joaquin, was triggered by the mass arrival in the islands during the 16th and 17th centuries of revolutionary tools that wrought radical changes in the culture and societies then existing in the archipelago.
One of these tools was plainly Christianity, whose proselytizing was as critical to the success of the expedition as the conquest of the islands itself.
The sword and the cross, it has been called. And they were fittingly the symbols of Spanish possession and dominion over the islands.
Filipino recollection of these key events in national history is riddled with holes unless it incorporates them into the national memory.
Six years to quincentennial
Within six years, on March 16, 2021, the world will be commemorating and celebrating the quincentennial of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.
Within six years also, the Roman Catholic Church will be commemorating and celebrating the quincentennial of the Christianization of the Philippines.
In Spain and Portugal, preparations are already underway for these epic commemorations. No doubt, something is also already astir in the Vatican.
We Filipinos would be dumb and insensate not to join in the chorus of anticipation and preparation.
For it was here – in this country and these islands, where the map of the globe was first completed. And it was here where the international date line was discovered by Pigafetta, through his painstakingly accurate logs and journals.
The 16th Congress, which has been notable mainly for servility to President Aquino and for doing funny things to the national budget, must not shirk this service to the nation by enabling us to remember and treasure these great events in Philippine history.