The argument that Lapulapu is a Filipino national hero is based on a very faulty proposition: That there was a ‘national’ (as in Filipino) sensibility extant in 1521. There wasn’t.
Since that ‘national’ identity pre-1521 did not exist, Lapulapu was not striking a blow for Filipinos. And the political and social face of the archipelago was far different and more complex than we understand.
The root of this comes from our tendency to manufacture pre-Hispanic society and ignore what is actually known (as little as that may be). As well, it also derives from our error in recasting history to reflect current conditions. We always seem to be working backwards in our understanding our history. We ignore simple historical elements like social development, acculturation and even shifts and moves in attitudes and beliefs.
The Islands in 1521, more than anything, was a region with hundreds of tribes. While in certain areas there were shared linguistic and cultural traits, the societies pretty much operated separately. They shared some loose trade relations, and in some cases intermarriage. As well, certain areas like Manila and Cebu, did have a sort of informal patronage hierarchy between the existing tribes. To some extent that same accommodation existed with regional trading empires such as Borneo (in the case of Manila) and China. Within the Islands though each tribe and group (outside of a few short-lived exceptions) maintained a separate political identity from each other.
What we frequently ignore is the other side of the Magellan/Lapulapu equation: Humabon of Cebu. If we are going to erroneously and simplistically construct Lapulapu as some great nationalist hero, the Humabon is up there with the Japanese collaborators and others as betrayers of the Filipino people. Except he was not either. The questions are: What exactly was he betraying? What exactly was Lapulapu defending?
Areas like Cebu and Mactan by 1521 were already experienced traders with other ocean-going East Asian traders. They were not naïve, noble savages exploited and confused by the dastardly Spanish (they were exploited, but that story really begins fifty years later). If anything, Magellan was the naïve one. When first introduced to datus (such as Humabon of Cebu), he erroneously translated that as ‘king’ and erroneously imbued the term with feudal European meanings (kings -> kingdoms -> power over other tribes). What is likely is that Humabon and others saw the Spanish as a new regional power and sought to bind this new power and bolster their own positions of authority in the area. If anything, the story of Magellan and his Fall is the story of how a foreign power, hell-bent on acquisition, can easily be co-opted into an existing local disagreement.
Humabon and Lapulapu were tied through marriage; Humabon was married to Lapulapu’s niece. But, it seems that there was some sort of an existing disagreement between the two chieftains. After Humabon reached a sort of cooperation with Magellan, the disagreement with Lapulapu came up. Magellan saw this is as an opportunity to accomplish three things: 1. Tie Humabon even closer. 2. Impress and cow with the military prowess of Spain. 3. To lay his claim as overlord of the area and eventually the archipelago. Naturally, Magellan saw the chance to make his fortunes, and despite vehement disagreement on the part of his officers and translator (the ever mysterious Enrique of Malacca) to get involved in a local dispute, he decided to wage war on behalf of Humabon. He even turned down an offer of ‘native’ military support from Humabon, so he could defeat Magellan on his own and prove his, and Spain’s, might.
On behalf of Humabon, Magellan ordered Lapulapu to come and pay obeisance to the chieftain of Cebu (and by extension himself). Sebastian de Elcano describes Lapulapu’s response:
“…he was unwilling to come and do reverence to one who he had been commanding for so long.”
Essentially, Humabon was attempting to utilize Magellan to change the loose patronage order of the region and Magellan was more than happy to go along. Sans any sort of confederacy or regional identity, Magellan saw this as a chance to establish himself and Spain. Humabon the same.
So, on April 27, 1521, Magellan then prosecuted a war (albeit one battle long) on Humabon’s behalf, sorely under-estimated the military prowess of Lapulapu (believing that he would be cowed by muskets and armor), engaged in strategically unsound location (and on Lapulapu’s terms), then promptly got his ass killed. Rightly so.
Soon after the defeat there was a banquet thrown by Humabon for the surviving leadership of the Magellan expedition. After lulling the Spaniards into a sense of security, he and his men promptly slaughtered some and enslaved others. The rest fled, met some additional disasters, and finally the Victoria limped into port, captained by El Cano and with a scant few survivors. But, what they brought back with them made the expedition a financial success; and Spain soon after began attempting to get back to the archipelago.
This is not an attempt to paint Humabon in a poor light, or Lapulapu in less heroic terms. What we fail to see from our current historical vantage is the internecine squabbles and disagreements that existed in the Philippines prior to the coming of the Spanish. Magellan stumbled into a local conflict and saw it as an opportunity for personal advancement. Humabon, seeing a new power, saw a similar chance. And Lapulapu was not defending a nation, or an identity that would not coalesce for almost 300 hundred years after. He was defending his position as dominant chief in the area against a local upstart and his foreign partner. We can try and recast him in other terms, but they fail in the face of known historical record.
The formation of Filipino, and Filipinas, was a process of centuries of acculturation and creation. There was no Philippines in 1521, just as there was no Filipino. Which, ultimately, makes it almost impossible to recast Lapulapu as a ‘Filipino’ hero, fighting on behalf of the Philippines. Much like some others, Lapulapu as a Filipino hero lives on in the realm of propaganda.