PNP Seal and Badge features Lapu-Lapu
Photo courtesy of the Philippine National Police
April 27, 1521 (April 28 if adjusted to fit Philippine Standard Time, because Magellan and his crew were unaware of the existence of what is now the International Date Line, and thus kept their calendars one day behind) is regarded as a momentous date in Filipino military history. For the first time in Western historiography, the Philippines has been included and what was recorded is actually our victory. In 2021, the battle would be commemorating its 500th anniversary. This article aims to put the famous Battle of Mactan in perspective, from background to aftermath.

Ferdinand Magellan and the Spanish agenda

In 1519, the Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (Spanish name: Fernando Magallanes, 1480-1521) was authorized by the Spanish King Carlos I (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) to commence the first recorded circumnavigation of the world. At this point, there were two first-rate naval powers in the world, Portugal and Spain. When Magellan saw no support from Portugal, perhaps the obvious choice to turn to is Spain. Magellan has been in Malacca (Maluku) at least once, which was conquered by Portugal. This is where he met Enrique, who he would have baptized and made a slave. This time, he goes to the neighboring Spice Islands (Moluccas/Melaka), but through the other way around (going west to reach the east). Magellan may have been confident to complete the voyage with his trusted slave Enrique to interpret for him once they get across the Pacific Ocean (a name attributed to Magellan, who saw the ocean as peaceful).

Reenactment of Magellan's landing
Photo courtesy of GMA
On March 16, 1521 (March 17 if adjusted to fit Philippine Standard Time, because Magellan and his crew were unaware of the existence of what is now the International Date Line, and thus kept their calendars one day behind), they landed on what is now the Philippines, particularly Samar (Zamal). As for Magellan, who thought he discovered a new land, named it Archipelago of Saint Lazarus (or San Lazaro). When they encountered inhabitants in the islands, Magellan had to rely heavily on Enrique for translation and interpretation. However, no translation is perfect and something may be lost in the process. In addition, Enrique was supposedly from Malacca, and by April, they are in what is now Cebu (Sugbu or scorched earth). Even if Malay and indigenous Philippine languages such as Cebuano has similarities, there are still differences to overcome. Had not been the local rulers been fluent in other languages such as Malay, or had interpreters as well, the initial contact may have floundered early on. Meanwhile, the rulers of Calagan (Limasawa) and Zuluan (Butuan), Rajah Siani (Rajah Siagu) and Rajah Calambu (Rajah Kolambu) respectively, had performed the ritual known as casi casi (peace ceremony). Then, when asked of a port which may prove helpful to the Spanish, they suggested three, and the Spanish decided on going to Cebu for it reputedly had the most traffic. By this time, Cebu is a thriving polity of around 2,000 people (a large number considering polities then, known as barangay, usually had populations of 100). The Spanish agenda was clear: claim the islands for the Spanish crown before the Portuguese could make any moves, and then be rewarded by the Spanish king. One of the first rulers they met proved quite accommodating. He was Rajah Humabon (according to Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan's chronicler) or Sri Hamabar, grandson of Rajah Muda (Rajamuda) Lumaya or Sri Lumay (according to Cebu folklore). On April 15 (April 14 in Spanish accounts), Humabon and his people were baptized into the Christian faith. Humabon acquired the Christian name Carlos, which is from the Spanish king's name. Apparently, Humabon enjoyed the renaming process, as he gave each of his people new names. The Spanish, in turn, presented an image of a child Jesus (Sto. Niño) to Humabon's wife, baptized as Jehanne (Joanna), which was said to be "put in the place of her idols." Perhaps the choice of the child image was also a conscious choice by Humabon's wife? A small image like that seemed similar to the size of an anito, and it was even an image of a child. In the following eight days, Humabon went around Cebu Island and persuaded neighboring villages to accept the Christian faith. It is even recorded that when one village refused to follow Humabon or Magellan, it was burned down.

Monument of Rajah Humabon in Cebu
Photo courtesy of Zee Lifestyle
Rajah Humabon and the contest for Cebu

At least in the Spanish accounts, Humabon seemed the paramount ruler of the island. Thus, the epithet Rajah, as applied to fellow island rulers Siani and Calambu. However, the incident of one village ruler refusing Humabon is most likely evidence of Humabon's loose hold beyond his domain in Cebu. It can be inferred that he is the strongest in the island, but not its paramount ruler. Indeed, after the Battle of Mactan, Pigafetta and the remaining crew had the chance to see the rest of the island. Pigafetta lists them down as follows:

  • Cingapola: the chiefs are Cilaton (Laton), Cimaninga (Maninga), Cimaticat (Maticat), Cicanbul (Canbul)
  • Mandani: the chief is Aponoaan (Noaan)
  • Lalan: the chief is Teten
  • Lalutan: the chief is Japau
  • Lubucin: the chief is Cilumay (Lumay)
  • Matan: the chiefs are Zula and Cilapulapu (Lapu-Lapu)
  • Zzubu: the chief is Humabon

Political map of Cebu
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
To this day, one can only speculate what Pigafetta meant with all the place names, as foreigners tend to corrupt indigenous words. For instance, Matan is most likely a corrupted form of Mactan, which actually had two contending rulers, Zula and Lapu-Lapu. Another is Mandani, which is likely to be Mandaue. However, what is Cingapola? Lalan? Lalutan? Lubucin? Pigafetta earlier mentions a place called Singapola, which is in the Moluccas. This is likely to be Singapore. What about Cingapola? Is there a place in Cebu which may coincide with these names? A quick look at the map of Cebu may not give one an idea, but here are some guesses to begin with: Cingapola (Sibonga), Lalan (Minglanilla), Lalutan (Liloan). For Cingapola to have a lot of rulers contending for power, it must have been an area quite far from Humabon's Cebu. If we are to believe Pigafetta, the areas near Humabon's Cebu have single rulers, and have developed well even before the Spanish period. In addition, Pigafetta reports that when they arrived in Bohol, they have traveled a distance of 18 leagues (100 kilometers) from Cebu. If one travels straight from Cebu City today, Bohol will be reached in less than 50 kilometers. However, if one journeyed south from Cebu City to Sibonga, and then went to Bohol, it will be around 100 kilometers, which matches Pigafetta's account. This also matches the expedition's reported direction going south to reach the Moluccas. Of course, there is also Cebu folklore, which mentions Singhapala, a neighboring polity now part of Cebu City (as Barangay Mabolo). Cingapola may be a corruption of Singhapala. However, this would mean Pigafetta's figures on distance are wrong, which is also a possibility.

As for Ci (Si), it is considered a derivation of Sri, which is a title of respect. Of course, it is observed that Filipinos commonly use Si to introduce names, which the Spanish seemed unaware of then.

Enter the Spanish. Humabon treated the foreigners well, but is there a hidden agenda as well? Probably so. Humabon may be Cebu's strongest, but not its overall ruler, and his immediate rival is just across the waters. If we are to believe Cebu folklore, Lapu-Lapu is a migrant to Cebu. Even his name has different variations: Salip Pulaka (from W. H. Scott), Cali Pulaco (from the 1898 Philippine Declaration of Independence, and adopted by Filipino diplomat Mariano Ponce as his pseudonym), and Lapu-Lapu Dimantag. He comes from Borneo, and when he arrived, he asked for land to develop. Humabon offered him Opong (Mactan), but Lapu-Lapu preferred Mandawili (Mandaue). However, the Spanish encountered Lapu-Lapu as ruler of Mactan, not of Mandaue. If we are to analyze both accounts, it can be inferred that when Lapu-Lapu became a threat to Humabon, the latter installed a new ruler in Mandaue, and forced the former to accept his offer to settle in Mactan. Could Aponoaan be the one Humabon installed as Mandaue's new ruler? If this is so, then Lapu-Lapu may have not forgotten what Humabon did. Besides, Lapu-Lapu may have known that Humabon himself was foreign. If we are to believe Cebu folklore, Humabon's grandfather, Sri Lumay, was a migrant from Sumatra, and was even half-Tamil. Of course, there is also the claim that Lapu-Lapu did not rule Opong, but an island further north (that is, based on the travel time as recorded by the Magellan expedition). It is now known as Camotes Islands.

Lapu-Lapu Shrine in Cebu
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
In this context, it may be seen that Lapu-Lapu's decision to fight Magellan is not mainly the desire to expel the foreigners (as mentioned earlier, Lapu-Lapu himself was a foreigner), but primarily to oppose Humabon in every way. We can look at it this way. Humabon wanted to eliminate threats to his expanding power in Cebu, and then the Spanish arrived. He thought of having the Spanish work with him, instead of working against him. For being ruler of a thriving polity, Humabon may have heard of news the world over that foreigners such as the Spanish have been invading areas which opposed them. Humabon also seemed knowledgeable about the difference of the Portuguese and the Spanish, as Pigafetta tried to show as well. However, Humabon would also require a sufficient excuse to attack Mactan with the Spanish. He must appear strong but he must not appear as the aggressor, nor must he appear dependent on foreign aid. Foreign relations at this time relied heavily on perception, which has both physical and spiritual implications. If the other village chiefs see one chief stronger than most, then they will tend to pledge allegiance to him. Otherwise, they are quick to shift their loyalties. Alliances are loose, and are usually made only to accomplish a common goal. Fortunately for Humabon, Mactan's Zula appealed for Spanish aid against Lapu-Lapu on April 26 (if adjusted, April 27), who reasoned out that he cannot pledge full allegiance to Spain because of his rival. Thus, Humabon need not to make the first move against his rival. Pigafetta says Zula is one of Mactan's rulers, but he may seem unsure as well. In particular, he says of Zula, "one of the principal men or chiefs" of Mactan. For one, Zula did not have any title to add to his name. Could Zula be Humabon's choice for ruling Mactan, but at the time, was unable to assume the position of chief with Lapu-Lapu around? Do Humabon and Lapu-Lapu have spies acting as "fifth columnists"? Of course, the Spanish seemed glad to help, as it sent thrice more than what Zula requested - three boatloads of men, numbering sixty, with Magellan himself leading. This is already a considerable fraction of Magellan's forces, because at the time they landed on the Philippines, only around 150 of his original crew of 276 remained, and more of his men were also lost in the month leading to the battle. Thus, the request to Humabon to allow them to bury their dead.

Battle of Mactan mural
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Lapu-Lapu and the road of resistance

Engaging in battle is not a matter of last resort. Instead, for rulers like Humabon and Lapu-Lapu, it is an opportunity to increase one's prestige and prove himself to the people. At midnight of April 27, the Spanish met with Humabon and his men, divided into 20 to 30 balangays. If we are to estimate the number of Humabon's troops with Antonio de Morga's estimate of how many a single balangay can handle, then it will amount to as much as 3,000 oarsmen and 900 soldiers. Magellan, perhaps learning a bit on how diplomacy is done through perception of strength, wanted to impress Humabon and told him not to intervene in the imminent battle. Whether or not Humabon saw this as advantageous to his bid for ruling Cebu, he followed Magellan and watched from a distance. Of course, if both Humabon and Magellan faced defeat, Lapu-Lapu will emerge as the strongest in Cebu, and the rulers will soon shift their support. However, if Magellan alone lost, Humabon can save face, and say that he was only a spectator to the event, not an active participant. Then they arrive three hours before the sun rises, which may be around 3 AM. Magellan, however, did not want to engage without a final warning. A Moorish (Moro) merchant was sent to negotiate with Lapu-Lapu the recognition of Humabon as their king, and obedience to the King of Spain. Pigafetta made it a point that Humabon and the rest who were converted to Christianity were not Muslims, while Lapu-Lapu is. Of course, the conditions were rejected, and gave only one request - do not attack before daylight. Magellan and his men thought this was psychological warfare. If they attacked before daylight, which may be around 6 AM, traps may have been set up and they would easily fall for them. Thus, they decided not to attack until then.

This choice observes a protocol in battle observed in the Philippines. Attacking at night is seen as a treacherous act, and Magellan may have not wanted to lose Humabon's trust. Nevertheless, there is also some tactical advantages to be considered. Pigafetta mentions that their boats cannot land on shore, and these remained "two crossbow shots" away. The distance a crossbow may reach varies, so twice this distance can range from 180 yards (165 meters) to 1080 yards (988 meters). Regardless of how far it actually was, Magellan and his men had to cross the waters to get on shore. Perhaps one reason why they cannot land is because of the low tide, which is evident in early morning. They might have not noticed it for being seaborne since midnight, and at this time, it would have still been high tide. The low tide may have also helped Lapu-Lapu and his men, as they seemed to charged against Magellan when they reached the shore and pushed them back as far as "the distance of a crossbow shot," which may range from 90 yards (82 meters) to 540 yards (494 meters).

Francisco Pizarro and his men in Lima
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Whether or not Pigafetta exaggerated his count of Lapu-Lapu's men, he says there were 1,500 fighting against them. Not all of Magellan's men landed on Mactan. To face Lapu-Lapu's force, there were only 49 on the Spanish side. This may have a sort of heroic effect to some readers, since the ratio in terms of manpower is much greater than 3:1. However, if one is to observe the Spanish experience in the Americas, it may seem that Magellan did not face that much of a disadvantage. For instance, Francisco Pizarro and his 200 troops faced an Inca army of 50,000. Hernan Cortes, meanwhile, faced an Aztec army of 300,000 with only 1,000 troops of his own. Magellan had 1:25 disadvantage in manpower, Pizarro 1:250, and Cortes 1:300. So, where is the problem? Why has Spanish success elsewhere not replicated in the Philippines in 1521?

For one, Magellan did not, or was unable to, use his superior arms against Lapu-Lapu. They did not seem to have artillery pieces to use, but they had crossbows and arquebuses (Europe's primary firearm at the time). Since Lapu-Lapu's men were waiting on the island to engage them in battle, the Spanish fired at them when they reached the shore. However, since they already crossed water prior, the automated weapons may have suffered some malfunction. A crossbow's range is already mentioned before, and an arquebus's range goes from 400 yards (366 meters) to 1,100 yards (1,006 meters). If the weapons are not performing well (they may backfire or for firearms, even explode), the Spanish were tired of walking on water, and Lapu-Lapu and his men stayed within the maximum range of the weapons (if they were not in range, the Spanish would have not fired anyway), then no wonder their shots made "little or no harm." At their maximum ranges, the crossbows and the arquebuses are not exactly deadly, and their wooden shields are probably hard enough to deflect them. Soon enough, the warriors of Mactan were able to gain on the Spanish, avoiding their shots and when in range, threw javelins, spears, and lances. Firearms were relatively a recent development at this time, and loading them takes ten seconds up to a full minute. If one runs fast enough, you can cover the range of a crossbow (494 meters) or an arquebus (366 meters) within that single minute it takes to reload. In addition, while a javelin does not have the range (less than 100 meters), it is definitely as deadly as the crossbow or the arquebus. The javelin is also easier to reload. Pigafetta notes how they just pick up the javelins as they move forward. Since the beach offers little cover, the Spanish were vulnerable when they reload their weapons.

Genoese crossbowmen
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Lapu-Lapu was also the tactician representative of his time. In Southeast Asia in general, people are more important than territory. Thus, whether battles are fought in close range or not, agility and speed determines the winner. Retreat is also a tactical move. Defeat comes to the one who loses the most manpower. Evidently, Magellan was unaware of this military perspective. As they once burned a village which refused to accept Christianity, they also burned Lapu-Lapu's village. Pigafetta noted that some 20 to 30 houses were burned, and the village they burned was called Bulaia. Instead of Magellan's intent to disperse the enemy, it actually seemed to raise their morale. Since Lapu-Lapu and his men knew the Spanish only had armor on their upper bodies, they aimed at their legs. Magellan was among those who were hit, and it is evident that they were actually targeting him. Do they know Magellan by face or does his military outfit stand out from the others? And so, Magellan was killed in this battle, and his body was taken to Mactan. Eight Spanish were killed, while 15 died on Lapu-Lapu's side. It was said that Humabon sent his men to recover the remaining Spanish, and he cried when he learned Magellan was dead. The reason behind this act is unknown. There is another account of the battle besides Pigafetta's. A Genoese pilot, who also dates the battle at April 27, estimated that the enemy was as many as 3,000 to 4,000 men. Furthermore, Magellan was killed with six of their men. One can only speculate how the battle would have been if Humabon and his men joined in. Meanwhile, Miguel de Loarca in a 1582 census counts only 1,600 inhabitants in Mactan, and 2,000 in Cebu. Assuming the numbers are not exaggerations, then where and how did Humabon and Lapu-Lapu acquire such troops?

Artist's impression of Enrique
Photo courtesy of  The Voyage of Balangay
After Mactan

Enrique, the interpreter of the crew, was also wounded in battle, and so he chose not to work anymore. Besides, Magellan's will stated that Enrique shall be set free when Magellan dies. It was one of the remaining commanders, Duarte Barbosa, who refused to set him free as he found fault in him. When he was threatened to be flogged, it was said that Enrique went back to Humabon, but not to do the work assigned to him by the Spanish. According to Pigafetta, he warned Humabon that the Spanish would soon leave but if he overcomes them, the ships and its goods are his to take. There is also the notion that Humabon may have seen the Spanish as a threat, for they may turn against him for not helping in the battle. On May 1 (May 2), Humabon invited the remaining crew to a dinner (two commanders and 24 others came), only to have them massacred. When one of the wounded, Juan Serrano, informed the Spanish of the incident and warned them to leave quickly if they do not want to be killed as well, they immediately sailed off. Apparently, Serrano is the only source of the incident. He told Pigafetta and the others that only Enrique was not attacked. Did Enrique really turn his back against the Spanish, especially since his master is gone? Did the Spanish had misgivings of the interpreter in the first place? Surely, the wounded Serrano would not lie about their only interpreter? Whatever happened to the interpreter Enrique, we may never know as he was not mentioned again.

As they sailed, they reached Bohol, where they were received well, and then Palawan (Palaoan). From there, they sailed onward, seeing Sulu (Zolo) and Taghima (Basilan). After that, they leave the Philippines for good and goes on to complete the circumnavigation of the world. Of the original 276 crew, only 18 survived to tell the tale (Enrique is not included in the list). As for Lapu-Lapu, he seemed to remain in rivalry with Humabon, but with this feat, he has become entrenched as one of our nation's heroes. Even President Rodrigo Duterte recognized this, and created the Order of Lapu-Lapu in his honor. Folklore claims nobody saw him die. Instead, he became a stone statue, still watching over Mactan. Doubt and trust - these are two sides of diplomacy and relations between parties. The initial contact with the Spanish showed that unlike in the Americas, where they treated the Spanish as gods, we treated them as our equals. With this in mind, our first encounter was a victory, and perhaps an anomaly in the early years of Spanish colonization.

See the references here.