Today is the day that Ferdinand Magellan, that intrepid Portugeuse adventurer funded by Spanish coin out to find his fortune, first landed on what would eventually be Philippine soil. It was on the uninhabited island of Homonhon. At the time, they were in desperate straights: starving, dehydrated and more than a little bonkers after being at sea for months. They had journeyed across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, knowing that there was something on the otherside, but little understanding how to get there. Of course, the landing on Homonhon was not even the first time that Magellan stepped foot in the region. He spent a some time in the Malaccas, there picking up the mysterious figure who would become the legendary figure of Enrique; a man who even journeyed to Europe with Magellan. Legendary for us, of course, since we seem hell-bent on claiming him as a Filipino. Thus, subverting the ‘idea’ that an Iberian discovered our archipelago, instead being able to argue that a ‘Filipino’ discovered Iberia. Oh, and went around the world first.
It’s kind of hard to discover what already is known to exist. And that’s the part that we sometimes forget about the Philippines pre-1521: It was already known. There are some who even argue that Magellan was not even the first Iberian to step foot in the Philippines. Instead, there is some evidence that Iberian Muslims made it as far as Borneo and the surrounding countries after their expulsion from Spain. In other words, the exiles from the Reconquista may have ended up in Asia. There was limited trade between Philippine tribes and settlements and trading kingdoms, such as Borneo. Traders in trinkets and natural fibers were known by the Chinese; as a matter of fact when Martin de Rada arrived in Manila in 1566 there were three Chinese junks. Those connections to the rest of Asia were limited to only small areas of the archipelago; mainly settlements along waterways and coastal areas. Inland traded (limited) with the coast and, on occasion, they traded with others from the region. This wasn’t a country, but a territory made up of hundreds of tiny fiefdoms and tribal entities.
Almost five hundred years after, I suspect we do not quite know how to commemorate, or even value March 16, 1521 (if we should at all). In popular history it has become a date that is either ignored or infamous: The date when the ‘conquest’ of the Philippines began, when Eden fell. A sense that is inaccurate (especially with ‘Eden’). More to the point, what necessarily were the Spanish ‘conquering’ when they arrived in the archipelago? More to the point, were they actually conquering a nation?
One seminal ‘nationalist’ revision of the period is the idea of Lapu-lapu as Philippine hero; striking a blow on behalf of a soon to be tortured and visciously colonized people. Wholly inaccurate sentiments all the way around. For Lapu-lapu to strike a blow on behalf of a colonial state, there would need to be a nation in the first place.
There was none to be found. No matter how hard some of the ‘historians’ try, there never will be either.
Curiously, we consider Lapu-lapu a hero, but ignore Humabon. You know him right? He’s the guy who put the seed of attacking Lapu-lapu in Magellan’s mind. He made a pact with a potentially new power in the region. One of the weaknesses in our historical narrative is the continual relegation of pre-Hispanic natives to a state of ignorance and naivete. They were not that by any means.
Magellan, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity to not only cement the friendship of a potentially powerful ally, but a chance to demonstrate the superiority of Spanish arms and force. He failed to heed the warnings of his advisors and died for it. Humabon saw weakness in the new interlopers and, soon after, killed the rest of the leadership during a feast. The remainder fled the islands and Juan Sebastian Elcano piloted the Victoria back to Europe, completing the world’s first circumnavigation. In fact, though most died, the Magellan expedition was far from a financial disaster. What Elcano brought back in the holds was more than enough to turn a profit. Thus, fueling other expeditions to the Philippines in the following years.
If Magellan’s approach to the Philippines did not necessarily ‘discover the country’, if he did not, in fact, begin the process of colonizing the Philippines under the cross, and really he failed in his attempts to gain a foothold in the territory (ignoring the Santo Nino for the moment), then of what importance is remembering today? If the Philippines did not exist in any sort of form (and we weren’t even named ‘Philippines’ by Magellan), then how does today reconcile with the more ideologically nationalist revisions of our history? In other words, what is today other than a footnote in history?
That is all March 16 is: A footnote in our historical narrative. It’s a moment, that first sighting of land, that means little, other than in the historical sense as a ‘beginning’, and meant much more for dirty, bedraggled and starving sailors hundreds of years ago.
But, it also harbingers something greater: the consolidation of a nation. The archipelago was not, in truth, uncolonized prior to 1521. Islam was spreading throughout regional tribal-states. While there was little consolidation, there was a bit of connecting to greater Asia. That this process accelerated rapidly with the coming of the Spanish in 1565 is another a story. But, there were points of contact, limited though they may be, in this fractured territory. What Christianity and the Spanish empire ended up doing was supplanting and far outstripping Islam as the dominant colonial impetus in the archipelago. It eventually created a nation.
What is today? We can’t remember, without having a reason for memorializing. March 16 is the arrival of Magellan, that much is true. It isn’t the ‘discovery’ of the Islands, that much is true as well. What today is, more than anything, is an encounter. A meeting, not the first by any means, but an important one because it signified that the East and West could be connected via the Pacific. What Magellan started, Urdaneta finished in 1565. The Philippines was destined to become one of the most important entrepots in world history. And that, in the grand scheme of history, really does mean something. When Magellan and his crew glimpsed Homonhon on March 16, the world grew just a smidgen smaller.