Cebu City and the Cross of Magellan

Perhaps one of the most iconic artifacts in the Philippines is the remains of the wooden cross that Ferdinand Magellan planted along the shoreline of Cebu on April 21, 1521. Once on shore Magellan and his crew began a systematic conversion of the inhabitants to the Spaniards way of thinking that included the elimination of all native religious beliefs. Of course, this involved a great deal of killing and enslavement of the indigenous people of the Philippines. But hey, it’s all in the name of Christianity, and the price you have to pay to become part of this religious organization. However, some native people of these tropical islands thought otherwise.

Ferdinand Magellan

This story, although about the actual cross that Magellan planted in Cebu, is also about Lapu-Lapu, the leader of the Mactan region when Magellan arrived there. And one of the first things that you will notice when you arrive at the Santa Niño church, where the cross of Magellan is located, is that there is nothing about Lapu-Lapu. But there are a lot of candles, religious objects and a lot of plastic streamers and helium-filled balloons that vendors are selling.

Datu Lapu-Lapu


But let me be honest, the actual cross of Magellan is supposedly encased inside a large wooden cross and you really cannot see the actual relic. Attempts to find photographs of the actual remains of the cross could not be found and considering the obvious controversy that surrounds the cross and the actual location and even the date when it was supposedly planted, well, I have my skepticism.

You can see a cross, one that is made of native Tindalo wood which supposedly holds the real cross and you can be either awestruck or simply underwhelmed. Or you can buy a candle from one of the nice ladies and light it for the intention of someone as a prayer.

But let’s get back to Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who was sent out by King Charles I of Spain to search for a westward route to the spice islands of Maluku, in eastern Indonesia. On March 16, 1561 Magellan’s fleet of four of the five ships that had left Spain on September 20, 1519 reached the Philippines. Magellan and his crew, about thirty of which had died on voyage, remained for around five months befriending Rajah Humabon, the king of that region, who he converted from Muslimism to Christianity.

On March 31, 1561 the Spanish padres under Magellan held the first Mass in the Philippines and set about converting the natives to Christianity. Over the course of the next few weeks, Magellan had converted some 2,200 inhabitants to Christianity, including Rajah Humabon and other local leaders.

After Magellan converted Humabon and his wife and family to Christianity, he gave them a token gift of a replica of the Santo Niño.

Several other leaders of the islands around Cebu resisted the conversion, including the Mactan leader Datu Lapu-Lapu. And although some of the inhabitants readily accepted this new one-God religion, many resisted. Angered by the inability to convert and subdue the natives of Mactan by force, Magellan waged war against them. A battle ensued on April 27, 1561, the Spaniards were overpowered by Lapu-Lapu, and Magellan and many of his men were killed.

Lapu-Lapu, also known as Çilapulapu, was the ruler of Mactan in the Visayas when Ferdinand Magellan landed in Cebu. He is regarded as a national hero in the Philippines, and recently President Rodrigo Duterte signed an act declaring April 27 as Lapu-Lapu Day or Adlaw ni Lapu-Lapu. Sadly, most Filipino students learn little about their national hero other than he killed Magellan on April 27, 1521 after the latter tried to colonize that region of the Philippines.

So, what do we know about the man who ended Magellan’s plans to occupy the Philippines? Very little actually which would explain why so little is taught about him in schools. Apparently Lapu-Lapu was the first Filipino to resist Spain’s plan for colonization and world dominance. He is best known for the Battle of Mactan where Magellan was killed ending his attempt to be the first to circumnavigate the Earth. The battle also effectively delayed Spain’s occupation of the islands by over forty years.

According to legend, Lapu-Lapu came from Borneo, arriving near the harbors of Sugbo which were known as sinibuayng hingpit (meaning the place for trading). This was later shortened to sibu or sibo (which means to trade) and eventually to the more recent name of Cebu. It is said that Lapu-Lapu asked Rajah Humabon, the king of that region, for a place for him and his people to settle. Humabon offered him the region of Mandaue including Opong Island in the hope that Lapu-Lapu’s people would develop and improve the land. The relationship between Lapu-Lapu and Rajah Humabon improved as the formers people cultivated the land which enriched the trade port of Sugbo with an influx of farm goods.

Above, modern day Cebu, still a major trading center of the Philippines

As trade in the region increased so do the merchant ships that plied the surrounding waters. At some point Lapu-Lapu turned to piracy, which some suggest may have been his former occupation before arriving in Cebu. His exploits began to affect trade with Sugbo as he raided merchant ships that passed near the island of Opong. The island would soon receive the name Mangatang (meaning those who lie in wait), which later evolved to “Mactan.”

In the Philippine archipelago the title of Datu is given to rulers and chiefs. Datu Lapu-Lapu was one of two datus of Mactan when the Spanish arrived, the other being Datu Zula. Upon his arrival in the archipelago, Magellan insisted that Lapu-Lapu and Zula pay a “tribute” to the King of Spain. Datu Zula paid a tribute however Datu Lapu-Lapu refused which greatly upset Magellan.

Apparently, Magellan, blinded by his lust for power over the native inhabitants of the region, mistakenly thought that since Rajah Humabon was the King of Cebu, that he must also be the King of Mactan. However, the island of Mactan was under the protectorate of Datu Lapu-Lapu and Datu Zula which made it easy to intercept trade ships that tried to enter the harbor of Cebu, which was Humabon’s dominion. Magellan thought that Humabon was over Lapu-Lapu, but it is believed that most likely Lapu-Lapu was in actuality more powerful than Humabon. Ironically, Rajah Humabon was married to one of the nieces of Lapu-Lapu. Since King Humabon had submitted to Magellan and had been converted to Christianity, he demanded that Lapu-Lapu swear fealty to Humabon or be attacked. Lapu-Lapu refused the demand and the conversion to Christianity.

Magellan repeated the demand on Lapu-Lapu that he either swore fealty to Rajah Humabon, become a loyal subject of the King of Spain and pay a hefty tribute. All of which were rejected. Upset that his demands were ignored Magellan resorted to what had become the standard operating procedures of the subjugating Spaniards in their lust to control every land they stepped on– brutal force. And so, on the evening of April 26, 1521, Magellan in an apparent attempt to impress Rajah Humabon with his superior weaponry and armor over the natives primitive weapons, insisted that Humabon and his warriors remain in their village while he and his men would take care of the business at hand.

At around midnight of April 27, 1521, Magellan and about sixty Spanish troops took off for Mactan. Along with the Spanish force there were about 25 karakoa war boats that held Humabon’s warriors from Cebu. The small armada arrived in Mactan about three hours before the sun came up, but they could not land due to the numerous coral reefs and rock outcroppings. Magellan’s ships had to anchor some distance from shore where some 1,500 of Lapu-Lapu’s warriors waited with bows, poison arrows, spears and iron swords.

Impatient, angry and confused, Magellan and some 50 of his men, heavily armed with lances, swords, crossbows, and muskets, jumped into the surf, waded ashore and set fire to houses along the shore. The slash and burn tactic failed and only served to enrage Lapu-Lapu who immediately attacked the invaders.

Two of the Spanish conquistadors were killed in the initial stages of the fighting. A poison arrow found its way to Magellan who was wounded in the leg, and he immediately ordered his troops to retreat. Unable to run, Magellan and a handful of his men attempted to hold off the charging natives who recognized the leader and concentrated their attack on him.

Magellan and his troops were severely outnumbered and overloaded with their heavy armor were soon overwhelmed. A few of Magellan’s men managed to escape in their ships however, Magellan and most of his men were laying dead.

What we do know is that the remaining crew of Magellan, following their betrayal by Rajah Humabon, their former ally, led by co-commanders Juan Serrano and Duarte Barbosa took the remaining fleet of two ships and headed back to Spain. In November of 1521, the crew eventually found their way to the Moluccas where they filled their ships with spices. But when they attempted to sail back to Spain in December, they found that only one of their ships, the Victoria, was capable of completing that voyage.

The Victoria made it to Spain on September 6, 1522, captained by Juan Sebastián Elcano, completing the first circumnavigation of the earth. The journey had taken three years and of the five ships that left Spain, only one made the full expedition. Initially about 270 officers and crew members left on Magellan’s voyage but less than 20 completed the passage back to Spain.

One of the few survivors of the first circumnavigation of the globe were Antonio Pigafetta and Ginés de Mafra who provided written documents of the events that led to Magellan’s death:
“When morning came forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two crossbow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, those men had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries, … The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields … Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, … An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.”

Additional reports by Antonio Pigafetta and Ginés de Mafra from the time when Lapu-Lapu claimed victory over the conquistadors and the events that culminated in Magellan’s death were presented in Spain at a formal inquest:
“Nothing of Magellan’s body survived, that afternoon the grieving rajah-king, hoping to recover his remains, offered Mactan’s victorious chief a handsome ransom of copper and iron for them but Datu Lapu-Lapu refused. He intended to keep the body as a war trophy. Since his wife and child died in Seville before any member of the expedition could return to Spain, it seemed that every evidence of Ferdinand Magellan’s existence had vanished from the earth.”

After Magellan’s ragtag crew returned to Spain there was no adulation for the fallen expedition leader. In terms of human milestones, the circumnavigation was a major accomplishment and would be long celebrated, along with the exploits of Magellan. But initially he reviled in Spain and his native Portugal and especially in the Philippines, who would be eventually overridden by the Spanish colonizers. Spain discredited his accomplishments because of the critical manner in which he conducted himself on this escapade, and the methods he employed to exploit the inhabitants of the Philippines. Magellan’s native country of native Portugal considered him a traitor after he sailed for Spain, their maritime rival.

Crewmember Antonio Pigafetta offered this tribute in his later published diary of the journey and of the death of Magellan in the Battle of Mactan:
“Magellan’s main virtues were courage and perseverance, in even the most difficult situations; for example he bore hunger and fatigue better than all the rest of us. He was a magnificent practical seaman, who understood navigation better than all his pilots. The best proof of his genius is that he circumnavigated the world, none having preceded him.”

The church of the Santo Niño de Cebú where the cross of Magellan is located

After the death of Magellan, according to Aginid, a historical folk narrative that tells of both fact and fiction, Lapu-Lapu and Humabon restored friendly relations after the Battle of Mactan. It is said that eventually Lapu-Lapu decided to return to Borneo with eleven of his children, three of his wives, and seventeen of his men. After leaving the Philippines, nothing is known of the great hero, Lapu-Lapu.

The Philippine 20-centavos postage stamp featuring Lapu-Lapu

The state of Catholicism in the Philippines after Lapu-Lapu and Magellan:

In the times before Magellan the religious belief of many Filipinos consisted of polytheism, the worship of or belief in multiple deities or gods. The early native people revered a host of gods and spirits who either created or guarded the natural world around them like the mountains, forests, rivers and oceans. Oftentimes they paid homage to these deities in order to placate their sometimes-violent behavior, like typhoons, floods and volcanic eruptions. They had a belief in the afterlife and identified reward or penalty when they passed this life as being contingent on the way that they conducted themselves in their life on earth.

Although the Catholic church is the supreme religion in the Philippines, it faces challenges from Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and other religious groups like Iglesia ni Cristo which is an independent nontrinitarian Christian sect that originated in the Philippines. There are other groups like the Rizalists, who believe that Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Filipino people, is God himself. Others believe that Rizal was the second son of God and the reincarnation of Christ. The challenge is that the Roman Catholic church suffers from a lack of personnel to help foster their belief due to the ratio of priests to people being very low which makes recruiting and maintaining support. The Catholic church has stepped up its recruitment of clergy by enlisting members from the native community.

According to the latest UN statistics released for 2019, the population of the Philippines is approximately 108,120,000 people. And according to figures released from the Vatican, there are an approximate 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world today. There are nearly 86,000,000 Catholics living in the Philippines alone, which is roughly the equivalent to the number living in the United States. This makes the Philippines the home of the largest population of Catholics in all of Asia with over 80%, or nearly eight-of-ten Filipinos being Catholic. Considering that Magellan initially converted some 2,200 inhabitants, that number has grown significantly.

Whether you love him or hate him, a visit to the spot where Magellan planted his cross is one of those must-see locations if you visit Cebu. And who really knows if the original cross is actually inside the magnificent cross that is located inside the small memorial next to the church and across from the city hall. It is easy to get to, just let your taxi driver know you want to visit Magellan’s cross, or just say that you want to go to the church of the Santo Niño, they will know.

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All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.

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