The Debate

Considering History and Narratives as Spain and the Philippines Approach 500th Anniversary

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The Debate

Considering History and Narratives as Spain and the Philippines Approach 500th Anniversary

At the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Spain in the Philippines, which narrative do we celebrate?

Considering History and Narratives as Spain and the Philippines Approach 500th Anniversary

An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century

Credit: Public Domain

On March 16, 2021, we will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Philippines. It is a day that means different things to different countries and their peoples.

To the Philippines, that first contact meant an introduction to the Western world, the impetus in the eventual formation of its territorial identity — often a common consequence of empire building — and the beginning of its journey toward nation-building.

To Spain, whose monarch commissioned the voyage that set sail in 1519, this means a celebration of its role in the technological development of nautical science and the will of its leaders to reach previously unknown lands and recreate world geography. It marked the beginning of one of the most powerful empires in history, defined by its maritime force and Catholicism, and one that was to last four centuries.

To the rest of the world, this was arguably a key milestone in the history of globalization; thereafter, the exchange of cultures, ideas, and technology was spurred to unprecedented heights.

Not surprisingly, an eventual disconnect in the narrative surrounding Spanish arrival in the Philippines developed as each country went on to construct their own national identities. In the practice of national myth making, historical events are perused, selected for exclusion or inclusion by storytellers, in this case the states, and then told and retold — proselytized, really — to their respective peoples.

One such example of this is the marked difference in the retelling of the story of Ferdinand Magellan’s death. Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian scholar who kept a detailed journal of the events of the voyage, wrote of how Magellan was besieged by natives in Cebu while attempting to help Rajah Humabon, a recently Catholicized local ruler convert others to Catholicism and loyalty to Spain. Magellan believed that his display of force would be enough to accomplish those tasks. That fateful decision and his miscalculation of enemy forces, led by Lapu Lapu, resulted in Magellan’s death. He was struck in the face by a Mactan warrior using a local scimitar. After, the Spanish ships retreated from Cebu.

Forty-four years later, Spain would be back to successfully establish its first settlement in the islands, but that very first encounter in 1521 was marked by indigenous resistance. Of course the story is much more complicated — there was discord and rivalry among local rulers, and Magellan likely and unwittingly paid the price for getting in the middle of local politics. But it hardly changes certain facts — the superiority of indigenous forces in this battle and local leaders’ determination to eliminate threats to their rule. These factors speak to native resistance and intolerance toward interlopers.

Few mainstream Spanish reading materials make mention of how Magellan died. The Spanish institution Real Academia Historia, reporting on the first circumnavigation in the April 2019 edition of Diplomacia magazine, noted only that Magellan died in Mactan, an island in the Philippines. In the quincentenary, the Spanish are keen to underscore the role of the Basque captain Juan Sebastian Elcano, who took over from Magellan, who was Portuguese. Technically, it was Elcano who completed the first circumnavigation in 1522.

Should you ask Spaniards what they know of how Magellan died, they would tell you that as taught in school, he died from a poisoned arrow. The emphasis on poison — in literature, a gendered weapon, associated with cowardice and the disempowered — alludes to the rejection of the narrative that a larger-than-life character like Magellan was killed by indigenous peoples living in a far-away land.

In contrast, in the Philippines, Magellan’s arrival in the country is presented as the arrival of a foreign subjugator. Magellan’s story begins upon arrival, and quickly ends in his death at the hands of a local warrior. This credit has traditionally been given to Lapu-Lapu, though according to Pigafetta, it was a joint effort by native fighters.

Constantly highlighting Magellan’s defeat has served as a persistent reminder of that first and rare victory against imperial Spain. This is rooted in Filipino nationalism that has largely been shaped by the colonial experience, and often meant the purging of foreigners from Philippine history textbooks. Unlike in Latin America, it is rare to find in the country a public monument of a non-religious, political, historical figure with Caucasian features.

Filipinos are immensely proud of the fact that Magellan was killed in the Philippines. It is not the death of Magellan that is celebrated, but that Filipinos, through Lapu-Lapu, resisted. Lapu-Lapu the hero and Magellan the villain is a story that every Filipino child can retell by heart. Five hundred years of history has created a narrative that glossed over the complexities of warring tribes, of a fractious and intricate network of allegiances that Magellan stumbled upon.

The Philippines’ National Quincentennial Committee, tasked to oversee celebrations in the Philippines for the commemorations of 1521, has chosen to emphasize the natives’ hospitality and generosity to the expedition crew. After all, there might not have been a circumnavigation without the natives’ offer of food and water to the Europeans at Homonhon Island, and the replenishing of the ships’ provisions from local sources.

The focus on hospitality — a perceived, innocuous national character trait of Filipinos — adds another layer to the national myth-making that could perhaps inform the next 500 years of the Philippine narrative.

The divergence in our retelling of a single history brings to the fore what ought to be underscored by both countries as we mark the Spanish and Filipino encounter in 1521. This is a story that, in reaching 500 years, has been reborn in a number of iterations. The main versions should be explored and reconciled.

From the Filipino perspective, it is important to recall crucial elements in this story that have often been overlooked in Western narratives in the past 500 years. When Magellan reached the archipelago, the islands were already home to societies with varying degrees of sophistication. Several “Datus” who allied themselves with the Europeans were clearly operating on their own network of trade and familial relations that enabled them to interact with Magellan and his crew confidently. From the 10th to 13th centuries, the archipelago was home to societies that cultivated the talents of goldsmiths who crafted jewelry, regalia and other artifacts made from gold, to be discovered later in 20th century Surigao.

In earthquake and typhoon-prone Philippines, the preservation of artifacts and architecture is near impossible. It is easy to believe that everything we had, we learned from Spain. No wonder, then, that the occasional discoveries of pre-colonial antiquities and prehistoric remains, some dating as far back as 60,000 years ago, have evoked the precolonial past that some Filipinos sentimentally seek asa  basis for a national identity that is free of colonialism.

Until recently, March 16, 1521 was often, aggravatingly, marked as the date of the “discovery” of the Philippines. This fallacious, Western-centric phrasing has been repeated so many times in history textbooks that it will take several generations to expunge such language from educational materials. It would take longer to change the national mindset that the presentation of this event helped to mold. Arguably this has created a conviction of inferiority among generations of Filipinos, told through Western-oriented social science classes that their country was discovered by a European, and that their heritage began from that moment of discovery.

Yet the ultimate evidence of the strength of Filipinos’ pre-colonial identity thrives to this day in the existence and uninterrupted use of Filipino languages. Unlike Latin America, the Philippines has never been a fully Spanish-speaking country. This is another thing, perhaps, that makes this country different from the rest of Spain’s former colonies.

Remarkably, Pigafetta wrote a brief glossary of the Butuanon and Cebuano languages, with most of the words still widely used to this day by native speakers of those language. The fact is, after three centuries of Spanish, and almost half a century of American rule, the Philippines can count more than 175 languages. One may therefore argue that Spanish did not become a lingua franca because in the same way that Tagalog is not widely spoken outside of Luzon and parts of Mindanao dominated by Tagalog settlers, the local languages were more than sufficient in communicating effectively among each other.

The Philippines is a country of passing conquerors and politics, but what remains constant through it all is its languages. Unlike the physical markers of culture, language is disaster-proof.

It is important to note that the Philippines has only ever been independent for 120 years, versus the 333 years of Spanish rule from 1521-1898. There is so much in the Filipino psyche, language and traditions that come from Spain, unknown to Filipinos, as they’ve been entrenched so irrevocably in the modern Filipino way of life. It is also hard to speak of the Filipino-Spanish relationship without mention of Catholicism, which was wholeheartedly embraced by Filipinos much more so than the Spanish language.

The scars of history are long and deep for both sides, but the 500-year-old ties that bind the Philippines and Spain are long, enduring, rich and very complex. Our understanding of these ties is certainly worth rediscovering and long overdue for updates.

As Spain and the Philippines celebrate 500 years of knowing each other, it is important to take stock of the things that define this relationship and find relevance and common meaning from this crucial, watershed moment in world history. Understanding the reasons behind certain narratives through a pragmatic view of history will surely allow both to learn more from each other, and from there, further develop bilateral and people-to-people relations that are forward-looking but knowingly carry the burden and the glories of the past.

Narratives, after all, can be deliberately shaped and both countries have to be precise and measured in coming up with new ones, as we celebrate the quincentenary of Philippine-Spanish encounter in two years’ time.

Raisa Mabayo serves as Third Secretary and Vice Consul at the Philippine Embassy in Madrid, overseeing Cultural Diplomacy, with a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

A version of this article first appeared in Spanish in Diplomacia Magazine’s October 2018 issue.