Bit O' History: Magellan and the Battle of Mactan

Bit O' History: Magellan and the Battle of Mactan

Today, we take a look at a part of history that is far less remembered in the West than perhaps it should be. The exploration of the Pacific, the establishment of alliances of a newly discovered foreign power and the arrogance of one European. This is the story of Magellan's last voyage. 



You may have heard that Ferdinand Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the Earth back from 1519-1522. If so, then whoever told you that was wrong. It is true that Magellan’s voyage traversed the entire planet, but the man himself did not. Magellan was actually killed in 1521 in the Kingdom of Mactan – which is now a part of The Philippines – and it was his second in command who completed the voyage.
Ferdinand Magellan begin his voyage west of the Americas in order to establish a pacific trade route to the Spice Islands in August 1519. After mooring up for the winter in Argentina, Magellan discovered the route that allowed his ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans (what is now called, ‘The Strait of Magellan’) in November of 1520 and by November the 28th of that year, they became the first Europeans in history to enter the Pacific Ocean. They travelled on and by March 1521 they became the first 'westerners' to reach the Philippine Islands.


The Strait of Magellan


There, Magellan found an ally, Rajah Humabon – the ruler of the Rajahnate of Cebu. Humabon was impressed with the Europeans and he and his wife converted to Catholicism. The Rajah then sent out an order throughout his whole kingdom that every tribal chieftains had to convert to Catholicism and send food and supplies for Magellan’s ships.

Most chiefs obeyed the order. However, Datu Lapu-Lapu, one of the two chiefs within the island of Mactan, was the only chieftain to show his opposition. Lapu-Lapu refused to accept the authority of Rajah Humabon in these matters and outright refused to help the Europeans in any way.


Daty Lapu-Lapu


Rajah Humabon suggested that Magellan go to the island of Mactan and force his subject chieftain Datu Lapu-Lapu to comply with his orders. Magellan saw an opportunity to strengthen the existing friendship ties with the ruler of the Visayans region and agreed to help him subdue the resistant Lapu-Lapu.

​It is widely believed that Humabon and Lapu-Lapu bore grudges toward each other and were constantly fighting for control of land. Some historians say that Magellan went to Mactan to subdue Datu Lapu-Lapu who refused to pay tribute to the Spanish colonizers.

According to the accounts of Antonio Pigaffeta, Magellan’s voyage chronicler, the Portuguese sea captain deployed 48 armoured men, less than half his crew, with swords, axes, shields, cross-bows and guns. Filipino historians note that because of the rocky outcroppings and coral near the beach, he could not land on Mactan. Forced to anchor far from shore, Magellan could not bring his ship’s firepower to bear on Lapu-Lapu’s warriors, which gave them a huge advantage.

The Death of Magellan

Spain did eventually conquer the Philippines around 40 years after this, but this is a story that is widely known in the Philippines but has been lost in the memory of Europe. Records don’t tell us what happened to Lapu-Lapu, but in Cebu tradition it is believe that when he died he turned into a human shaped rock, and fisherman to this day through coins into the water around it to thank Lapu-Lapu for letting them fish in his waters. 

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