Lapulapu, the Filipino chief turned national hero who killed Magellan

The death of Magellan/Image: Nmcast on Wikimedia Commons

On August 10, 1519 began the expedition that circumnavigated the globe for the first time. We all know the names of several of its protagonists: Magellan, Elcano, Pigafetta, Charles I…

Today we are going to see the story of another whose casual participation in this adventure had a decisive impact: Lapulapu, the chief of the tribe that ended Magellan’s life.

The Portuguese sailor was in command of a fleet of five ships whose objective was to open an alternative route to the Moluccas, the spice islands, for the Spanish Crown; an itinerary that would avoid the African coast, since in 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas had left it in Portuguese hands.

Ferdinand Magellan/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Since Núñez de Balboa had discovered the existence of the South Sea, that is, the Pacific Ocean, Magellan’s idea was to round Cape Horn. He first proposed it to the Portuguese King Manuel I, but the latter was not interested in financing a voyage he did not need, so the young Charles I emerged as the new option.

To the Spanish it did seem a promising investment, since, as had happened before with Columbus, it promised a great profit for its moderate cost: to find a way to compete with the Portuguese in a trade, that of spices, which brought in a great deal of money. Magellan was appointed captain general, as well as governor and adelantado of the lands he discovered, and his fleet, which had 239 men on board, set sail from the port of Seville on the date mentioned above. It was composed of the ships Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción and Victoria, from the largest to the smallest tonnage, plus the caravel Santiago.

After the usual stopover in the Canary Islands, they crossed the Atlantic and reached the Brazilian coast four months later. The crossing was turbulent, not only because of storms and the sighting of the ever-feared Saint Elmo fire, but also because the overseer of the navy wanted to match the Portuguese in authority and was arrested. They then set a southerly course, had to turn back when they mistakenly entered the estuary of the Río de la Plata, left Patagonia behind and, fighting against the harsh weather of the South American tip, managed to cross to the Pacific through the strait that today bears the name of Magellan.

Passage through the Strait of Magellan Route/Image: Shakki on Wikimedia Commons

By then there were only three ships left, as the caravel Santiago was shipwrecked and the nao San Antonio had mutinied and returned to Spain. Although the ocean they were sailing was now calmer, they did not sight land for three months, and the crew was decimated by hunger and scurvy. The situation was already desperate when they finally sighted Guam in March 1521. After being robbed by the natives, they named the archipelago Islas de los Ladrones (Thieves’ Islands) and, once they had recovered, they resumed their voyage until they reached what they christened the San Lazaro Islands, which were the Philippines.

They befriended the natives of Cebu and secured the conversion to Christianity of their ruler, the rajah Humabon, who embraced Catholicism along with his family and hundreds of subjects, adopting the name Carlos in honor of the King of Spain (his main wife was renamed Juana). To extend that trust, Magellan accepted his request for help against his mortal enemies, two datus (chieftains) from the neighboring island of Mactan with whom he had long been at war for control of trade in the area.

Location of Cebu and Mactan/Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is where Lapulapu comes into the picture, as one of them was him ( the other one was called Zula). Also known as Çilapulapu (this is how Pigafetta wrote it), Si Lapulapu (according to José Rizal), Salip Pulaka and Kali Pulako (these last two would be closer to honorific titles than to the name), the truth is that we hardly know much about this character. It is estimated that he was born around 1491, but in the absence of written documents – those of Pigafetta were the first ones – the oral tradition was often based on legends, all of them dating from later times.

According to popular stories, he came from Borneo and asked Humabon for a place to settle with his people, and was given the region of Mandawili (present-day Mandaue), including an island, Opong or Opon. It was assumed that they would live there cultivating the land and, indeed, they prospered in such a way that trade began to shift to that place. Lapulapu then discovered that piracy was more lucrative than the land, and they began to raid their neighbors’ ships, weakening their economy in favor of their own. The island became known as Mangatang (“those who lurk”), from where it became Mactan.

In this story, historical elements are intertwined with other legendary ones, as is often the case. The fact is that piracy in those latitudes was shared among Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Muslims, and according to some sources, Lapulapu belonged to the latter religion. In reality it is not known for sure and many anthropologists believe that Islam had not yet reached that part of the Pacific, where some customs (scarifications, piercings and tattoos – hence the Spanish called them pintados – as well as the consumption of pork and dog meat, in addition to palm wine) were incompatible with that faith, so the datu would be rather animist or even Hindu.

Statue dedicated to Lapulapu in Cebu/Image: Alpapito on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in his work Relazioni in torno al primo viaggio di circumnavigazione. Notizia del Mondo Novo con le figure dei paesi scoperti, Pigafetta himself distinguishes the Cebuanos and other natives from the “Moors” he saw on other islands and specifies that the latter are more difficult to convert to Christianity; instead he speaks of simple pagans. In any case, Magellan sent him an ultimatum to cease his activity, pay tribute to Humabon and pay tribute to Charles I. Lapulapu refused (Zula, on the other hand, accepted) and the Spanish prepared for a punitive operation.

No large force was deemed necessary: about sixty men supported by about thirty karakoa (indigenous war boats) from Cebu. They reached Mactan during the night, but the abundance of reefs prevented them from approaching land to anchor, remaining anchored at “two crossbow shots”. A thousand and a half warriors were waiting for them on the beach, armed with iron swords, bows and bamboo spears, as described by Pigafetta. Magellan reiterated his offer, but only received mockery and Lapulapu summoned the intruders to fight at dawn.

Pintados or inhabitants of the Bisayan Islands according to the Boxer Codex/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

When the sun began to rise, the Portuguese boarded a boat and went ashore accompanied only by 48 soldiers, who, being well armed and protected (armor, swords, crossbows, arquebuses), he hoped would be enough to impress the datu. To that end, after disembarking, he ordered the burning of some huts on the beach; but not only did he fail to frighten the enemy, he infuriated them, causing them to openly unleash hostilities: a cloud of poisoned arrows flew in their direction, killing two Spanish and wounding Magellan in the leg.

Realizing that his plan had failed, the Portuguese ordered a retreat, staying with a handful of men to protect the others. This made the native warriors identify him as the chief and focus their attack on him. Surrounded by several of them and weakened by the poison that began to run through his veins, he fell dead among the waves, pierced by spears and machetes, sharing a fatal fate with some more of his own. Others barely escaped, running through the water until exhaustion for almost a kilometer of low tide. The scene, watched helplessly from the boats, unable to use the cannons due to the excessive distance, was very similar to the one that would cost James Cook his life in Hawaii in 1779.

It was said that Lapulapu was the one who killed Magellan in a singular duel, but this is the usual myth in these cases, like that of the death of Moctezuma at the hands of Cuauthémoc. More interesting is to understand the reason for the aggressiveness of the datu and there played a fundamental role the erroneous perception that the Spanish had of the structures of indigenous power, when considering that these were developed pyramidally as in Europe and, therefore, Lapulapu owed obedience to Humabon, when in fact it was rather a question of city-states and all the datus were at the same hierarchical level. That Humabon was married to Lapulapu’s niece must have aggravated this confusion.

Itinerary of the first round-the-world trip/Image: Sémhur on Wikimedia Commons

Curiously, that minor setback was such a discredit in Humabon’s eyes that he decided to get rid of the Spanish by inviting them to a banquet of poisoned food. Perhaps the rajah wanted to ingratiate himself with Lapulapu; perhaps he had been irritated by the Europeans’ refusal to free Enrique de Malaca, a Malay slave used as an interpreter whom Magellan had promised to manumit upon his death – and who was able to turn some against others by saying that there was a plan to capture Humabon; or perhaps it was true that some soldiers were bothering the local women.

Twenty-seven expeditionaries died, among them Duarte Barbosa, who had replaced the Portuguese in command. The slave managed to stay in Cebu and the Spanish ships weighed anchor to take refuge in Bohol. There were 108 men left, too few to pilot three ships, so they burned the nao Concepción and divided among the other two, naming the chief pilot, Juan Lopes de Carvalho, as new captain, who was later removed and replaced by Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa. With the Trinidad and the Victoria, they finally reached the Moluccas and filled the holds with spices.

Then they decided to separate: the first ship, under the command of Espinosa, would try to return to Spain by making the reverse itinerary. But the ship was shipwrecked (that route would not be conquered until 1565, by Andrés de Urdaneta, in the so-called Tornaviaje, Return Trip) and the 17 survivors returned to the Moluccas, where they were taken prisoners by the Portuguese; they would not be released until 1527. The Victoria, prophetically named, was left under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano and was able to return around Africa, going through a thousand hardships and with the Portuguese threat always present, since in a desperate stopover in Cape Verde, 12 sailors who had gone down to do the provisioning were taken captive, although they were released weeks later.

Philippine one cent coin with the effigy of Lapulapu (1988)/Image: John Alan Elson on Wikimedia Commons

The remaining 18 crew members (of a curious international composition, as 9 were Spanish, 4 Greek, 2 Italian, 1 German and 1 Portuguese) disembarked in Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 8, 1522. They were starving and sick but rich, because the cargo they were carrying paid off the expenses, leaving huge profits and demonstrating the wisdom of the trip.  Nevertheless, Charles I renounced the Spice Islands in 1529, by the Treaty of Zaragoza, although he kept the Philippines, where successive expeditions were sent: those of Loaisa, Cabot, Saavedra and Rui de Villalobos, before Legazpi colonized them in 1564. Elcano, who paradoxically had been one of those initial mutineers, covered himself in glory and received the famous motto Primus circumdedisti me (You surrounded me the first).

As for Lapulapu, he accepted Humabon’s peace proposal and their peoples lived together for a while, until he decided to return to Borneo with 11 of his children, 3 wives and 17 loyal followers. Thus he disappeared from history, as he was never heard of again. According to one legend, he became an anthropomorphic stone and as such watches over the waters that bathe Mactan, being venerated by fishermen; another says that his statue, erected on the island, was so impressive that three mayors died in front of it.

The fact is that today he is honored as the first Filipino hero, the city of Opon was renamed after him and figures of him decorate squares while his effigy was on some coins in the second half of the twentieth century. In 2017, even April 27, anniversary of the Battle of Mactan, was proclaimed Lapulapu Day, founding an eponymous order to award officials.