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Finding Magellan on the island of Cebu

Was Lapu-Lapu, legendary Filipino hero and killer of the Portuguese explorer, a notorious pirate?

Sinulog festivities at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu.
Sinulog festivities at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu. (Alamy)

The ferry sped over the rolling swells of the Sulu Sea, past little tropical islands that appeared on the horizon and fell away unknown, towards the port city of Cebu and its twin township of Mactan in the Philippines. The islands are still the same but life on them has changed beyond recognition from that day in 1521 when the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, captaining a fleet of five ships, sailed in, the first expedition to have ever crossed the Pacific Ocean. There, on the islands of Cebu and Mactan, Magellan and his men halted, but rest was perhaps not in his nature.

The Portuguese mariner embroiled himself in a local rivalry and led 60 of his men, mostly Spaniards, into battle on the shores of Mactan in a clash with around 1,500 locals led by a mysterious man named Lapu-Lapu. The odds were stacked too heavily against them. Magellan was killed in what is now known as the Battle of Mactan. The remainder of his crew escaped; in the end, only one of his ships, the Victoria, limped back to Andalusia with 18 survivors out of the 251 who had started the journey. They made history. They were the first humans to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.

It was an overcast morning when our ferry drew into Cebu port. We disembarked and walked out, towards the remains of an old fort called San Pedro, one of the earliest sites of Spanish settlement in the Philippines, a short distance away. The small triangular fort, with its medieval cannons pointing towards Cebu port, is now a tourist attraction for the hordes of mainly Chinese tourists who line up there for photographs. It is built on the site of the first Spanish fort on the Philippine islands, a wooden structure built by Miguel López de Legazpi, the first Spanish governor of the Philippines, around 1565.

The colonization of the Philippine islands had begun from this spot. The current structure was built from stone in stages from 1600-1738. It has rooms whose walls are now lined by oil paintings of far more recent provenance, depicting scenes from the history of Cebu. There are paintings showing Magellan, and, next to him, Lapu-Lapu, a figure who in the artist’s imagination has become a fit, tattooed Filipino man in a loincloth with a bandana tied around his head. The painting below shows him striking a falling Magellan with a massive sword.

Little is known about the historical Lapu-Lapu, apart from the fact that he was the chief of the natives of the island of Mactan, which is separated from Cebu by a narrow channel of water. He was referred to as Si Lapu-Lapu in the earliest records, those of Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of Magellan’s expedition, and one of the 18 survivors of that epic journey. The “Si" is possibly a version of the Sanskrit honorific Sri, as used in India.

The San Pedro fort. Photo: Alamy
The San Pedro fort. Photo: Alamy

The islands of Cebu and Mactan, and those around them, show signs of a Hindu and Buddhist past. Among the oil paintings in the fort of San Pedro is one on religious life before the arrival of Magellan. It refers to the worship of beings called diwatas, derived from the Sanskrit devtas, who inhabited natural formations, ancient trees and rivers.

Along with colonization, Magellan also brought Christianity to the Philippines. Hardly half a kilometre from the fort of San Pedro is the spot where he planted the first cross on these islands. It is called Magellan’s Cross, and it is a place of worship to this day.

A few worshippers, all locals going by their appearance, were offering candles and silent prayers in the little shrine with a painted ceiling depicting the scene of Magellan, looking rather saintly, planting the cross. A notice at the base of the cross, which towers over the worshippers, announces, “This cross of Tindalo wood encases the original cross planted by Ferdinand Magellan on this very site, April 21, 1521." This claim, however, is not universally believed; sceptics suspect it is a replica, albeit a very old one.

The statue of Lapu-Lapu at the Mactan shrine on Mactan island. Photo: Alamy
The statue of Lapu-Lapu at the Mactan shrine on Mactan island. Photo: Alamy

The cross stands next to the oldest church in the Philippines, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, which was established in 1565. The original structure was destroyed by fire, and the current structure of handsome grey stone dates back to 1737. Statues of saints stand outside its entrance on pedestals, as high as a building’s second storey, peering down at visitors. Inside, under an arched ceiling painted with frescoes, is the grand altar where the central deity is a statue of Santo Niño, the child Christ. This statue is believed to be the very same one that was gifted by Magellan to the chief consort of Raja Humabon, the animist Hindu ruler of Cebu, during their christening in 1521.

The annual festival of Sinulog, held every January in honour of Santo Niño, is a massive affair, with well over a million people turning out to participate in the masses, parades, dances and feasts. The highlight of the feasting is undoubtedly the pork dish that the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, in one of his shows, called “the best pig ever".

The typical Filipino preparation called lechon, done in the local Cebuano style, is basically one whole roast pig. If you have read the Asterix comics, think of the wild boar on Obelix’s plate. It is prepared by stuffing the pig with spices and herbs and roasting it on a bamboo or steel skewer. After eating a spicy lechon lunch in Cebu, I, for one, realized with the clarity of enlightenment that Asterix and Obelix were living life just right. It tastes just like Bourdain said: the best pig in the world.

Filipino cuisine also features a variety of fish—some popular dishes are escabeche (fish with pickled vegetables), sinigang na isda (barramundi in tamarind broth), pritong isda (fried fish), paksiw na isda (fish in vinegar) and inihaw na isda (grilled milkfish).

The name of one type of fish has lately become a matter of dispute. It is called lapu-lapu. This August, The Manila Times reported that a political leader and former mayor of Lapu-Lapu city had filed a Bill in Parliament for “rectifying the dishonourable use of a great Filipino name Lapu-Lapu to a fish species Plectropomus leopardus". The Cebuano language is different from the standard Filipino Tagalog language spoken on islands further north. The former Cebu mayor, naturally, wanted the Cebuano name of the fish, pugapu, to be used in order to avoid “disrespect to a patriotic Filipino forebear".

A serving of ‘lechon’. Photo: Alamy
A serving of ‘lechon’. Photo: Alamy

There is a shrine to the patriotic Filipino forebear in Lapu-Lapu city, also named after him, across the Mactan-Mandaue bridge that connects the island of Cebu to its neighbour. It houses a tall statue of a very ripped Lapu-Lapu holding a scimitar. Behind the statue is an older structure of stone, an obelisk with “Glorias Espanolas" written on it. It is the Spanish colonial memorial to Magellan, who is believed to have been killed by Lapu-Lapu at that very spot. In front of these two memorials to the explorer and his killer flutters the Philippines flag. Beyond are the mangroves, and the uncaring sea.

Nation-building is a great feat of collective imagination, one that uses the flag, the myth and the mythic hero to tie together disparate communities. The Filipinos have discovered their earliest national hero in the mythic figure of Lapu-Lapu but they are yet to ascertain, with any degree of historical certainty, whether he was Hindu, Buddhist or animist, and whether he was in fact the young, ripped warrior of modern imagining who killed Magellan in battle. Pigafetta’s records suggest he was probably an old man at the time of the Battle of Mactan who may have looked nothing like his paintings and statues. Even Lapu-Lapu’s real profession remains a matter of debate—was the great modern icon of the Philippine nation a pirate in his own lifetime as some accounts suggest?

Samrat is an author, journalist, and former newspaper editor.

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