Memory and the meaning of history
By Jon Malek
An historian once wrote that history is often re-written because every generation has new questions and interpretations of the past.
On the island of Mactan, across from Cebu City, is a monument marking the encounter between Ferdinand Magellan and Lapu-Lapu. The date of this encounter, 27 April 1521, is agreed upon, however the meaning of this event has changed over time. In 1941, during the period of American administration, a plaque was placed that read, “On this spot Ferdinand Magellan died on April 27, 1521, wounded in an encounter with the soldiers of Lapulapu, chief of Mactan Island.” The plaque also notes that a ship from Magellan’s fleet went on to be the first to sail around the earth. Ten years later another plaque was placed stating that “Here on 27 April 1521, Lapulapu and his men repulsed the Spanish invaders, killing their leader, Ferdinand Magellan. Thus Lapulapu became the first Filipino to have repelled the European aggression.”
These are two very different interpretations of the same event, one celebrating Magellan and the other celebrating Lapu-Lapu. The first, from 1941, does not refer to the event as a battle, but rather an “encounter.” It also refers to a major event in European history, the first time a European had sailed around the world. Thus, the larger importance of this “encounter” is about European expansion and exploration. The second plaque, however, refers to the Spanish as invaders and calls Lapu-Lapu the first Filipino who fought against European intruders. The event, now remembered as a repulsion of European invasion, is placed in relation to the Philippines and the development of Filipino nationalism. It also refers to the dark forces of imperialism and colonialism, which Lapu-Lapu is praised as battling against.
Nick Joaquin, a Filipino historian, questioned in 1979 how Lapu-Lapu would react to the interpretation that he was a Filipino hero, a word that he would not have known because it did not exist when he was alive. It is well known that the Philippines was named in honour of King Philip II of Spain, and that until the late 19th century the term ‘Filipino’ did not refer to those native to the islands. Previously, the Spanish had referred to them as either indios (those native to the land) or mestizos (those whose parents were Spanish and Filipino). Yet, even though Lapu-Lapu would not have called himself a Filipino, most histories accept him as a Filipino.
What the Lapu-Lapu memorial on Mactan Island suggests is that history is more than a collection of dates, events, names, and places. It is also about the meaning societies give to those “facts.” How Lapu-Lapu is remembered – as the one who killed the man who would have been the first to sail around the world, or as the one who was the first to defend what would become the Philippines – depends on who is telling the story. The first plaque had been placed in 1941, before the Pacific War and during American colonial rule. Those in power would want to avoid celebrations of Filipino resistance to foreigners such as Magellan, because it would remind the people of the American imperial presence. But in 1951, just years after the defeat of the Japanese occupation and the end of American administration, the Filipinos were in charge of their memory and Lapu-Lapu was celebrated as the first anti-colonial hero by the new Filipino republic.
History and memory can show what a society values, and this is why history can change. How Lapu-Lapu is remembered today is different than it would have been in 1521, because today he is seen as one of many Filipino freedom fighters – how could he have known that the Spanish would control much of the Philippines until 1898, and that his was one of the first attempts at resistance? Or that the United States would occupy the islands for almost fifty years, except for the brief period of time that the Japanese occupied the territory? These things are well known today, and this affects how Filipinos remember Lapu-Lapu’s resistance.
The same goes for our own memories as individuals. Hindsight, being able to see what has happened, affects our memories. Things we have done in the past, such as deciding to move or to change jobs, can have both good and bad results that continue to affect our lives today. Many Filipinos living in Winnipeg, for example, have a shared experience of leaving the Philippines to live in Canada, either temporarily or permanently. To some, leaving was painful and hard for obvious reasons. To some, it was an opportunity for their families to have a better life. To some, it has meant being reunited with family in Canada. For most, though, it means many things at once and those who have immigrated to Canada might remember it very differently depending on their experiences and the meaning they give them. The memories we have of our past actions and decisions may change as time goes on, and the stories we tell will change depending on what we believe is important. As we continue to experience life, we will continue to rewrite our histories as individuals and as societies to answer new questions and to give new meaning.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at email@example.com.