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It's All History by Jon Malek

Reckoning with Memory – Part 1

by Jon Malek

The months of April to June of 2021 saw three significant anniversary dates in the history of the Philippines that, in a way, encapsulate the history of the archipelago. The first, in chronological order of the original event, was the Quincentennial commemorations in the Philippines to mark the 500th anniversary of both the introduction of Christianity to the Philippines and the conflict between Ferdinand Magellan and Lapu-Lapu, datu of the island of Mactan. The second was the 160th birthday of Jose Rizal, who was born on 19 June 1861. The third was the 123rd anniversary of Philippine Independence, declared on 12 June 1898. The recognition and celebration of anniversaries give us a chance to reflect on events and people in our lives that, for one reason or another, merit such recognition. The three anniversaries that were celebrated this year provide a unique opportunity to reflect on these events and why they’ve been given meaning in the first place. Over the course of my next three columns, I will look into each of the three events and explore the landscapes of memory that each take us into. I will begin with quincentennial commemoration of Magellan, an event which, in some ways, began the period of Spanish colonization in the Philippines.

On 16 March 1521, Ferdinand Magellan landed on the island of Homonhon, east of the island of Leyte in the Visayas region of the modern Philippines. Starving and dehydrated from their voyage across the Pacific Ocean, which Magellan had called the mare pacificum, or the tranquil ocean, Magellan’s crew was relieved to find natural springs and food, although the island was uninhabited. He was spotted by men of the Rajah Culambu of Limasawa Island, Southwest of Homonhon and just off the southern tip of Leyte. There, Magellan held the first Catholic mass in the islands that would become the Philippines on 31 March 1521. On April 7th, the Rajah guided Magellan to Cebu Island, west of Limasawa.

Humabon and his wife were baptized into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos and Juana. In honour of their conversion, Magellan gifted the couple the Santo Niño, a holy image of the Child Jesus, which remains on display in Cebu. On April 14, Magellan erected a large wooden cross on the shores of Cebu. As a result of this close relationship with a Rajah who was very powerful in the region, surrounding chiefs were instructed to supply Magellan with supplies and to convert to Christianity. All surrounding chiefs followed this order except for Datu Lapu-Lapu, who was in competition with Humabon for control of trade in the region and refused to submit to his commands.

A fortnight later, on April 27th, Magellan would engage the men of Datu Lapu-Lapu on the island of Mactan, during which time he would perish. As recorded by the expedition’s historian, Antonio Pigafetta: “The captain [Magellan] did not wish to fight them, but sent a message to the natives to the effect that if they would obey the king of Spain, recognize the Christian king as their sovereign, and pay us our tribute, he would be their friend; but that if they wished otherwise, they should wait to see how our lances wounded. They replied that if we had lances, they had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire.”

When the decision to attack Lapu-Lapu’s settlement was made, Magellan was prevented from bringing his vessels close enough to the shore to use his cannon, and he and his forces were forced to wade through the shallow waters to the beachfront. He had a large contingent of Humabon’s men on their way, but instead of waiting for them, Magellan left with 49 Spanish soldiers to face 1500 men of Lapu-Lapu, according to Pigafetta. The fighting was at a deadlock. The guns and crossbows of the Spanish were not inflicting damage at the distance, and the spears and darts of Lapu-lapu’s men were useless against Spanish armour. The tide turned after a poisoned dart reportedly hit Magellan and he was swarmed by warriors swinging their large indigenous sword known as a kampilan.

One of my very first articles for the Pilipino Express in October 2013 dealt with the memorialization of this event. In that piece, I noted that there were two competing historical plaques on the island of Mactan, one celebrating Magellan and the other celebrating Lapu-Lapu as the “First Filipino to have repelled the European aggression.” I also wrote how noted Filipino writer Nick Joaquin wondered how Lapu-Lapu would have reacted to being called “Filipino,” a term not used to refer to those indigenous to the Philippine Islands until the latter half of the 19th century. My conclusions in 2013 remain firm today, that the celebration of the Quincentennial as a national event in the history of the Philippines is the product of social memory. In reality, it was a highly localized conflict between Humabon and Lapu-Lapu, into which Magellan injected himself. In historical retrospect, it certainly did hint at coming changes, but even the presence of Spanish colonialism in the islands would take several decades to transpire. Indeed, were it not for the historical writings of Europeans connected to the voyage of Magellan, the event may have disappeared from local memory entirely. And yet, for all of this, the event has taken on significant meaning, especially in the postcolonial climate of the Philippines.

Commemoration is on the minds of many Canadians these days, as we deal with the legacies of the Residential School System and the remains of the victims that continue to be recovered. Recent actions in Winnipeg have seen the tearing down of the statue of Queen Victoria on the lawn of the Provincial Legislature. While to many, Queen Victoria was a symbol of the virility and strength of the former British Empire, of which Canada was a part, to many (inside and outside of Canada) she is a symbol of imperialism and oppression. Indeed, after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, she took direct control of the colony of India from the British East India Company, and was crowned the Empress of India.

The removal of a statue will not remove the individual from history, and removing a statue is not really an attempt to erase history. It is an attempt to change the narrative being told. On this note, I’ve often noted how closely statues of Miguel de Legazpi and Lapu-Lapu are situated. In Manila, at Burgos and Bonifacio Drive, there is a Spanish-era monument memorializing Legazpi and his navigator, Andrés de Urdaneta, which in many ways stands as a symbol of Spanish colonialism. Legazpi was the first governor of the colony and while he was given instructions to bring friendship to the local peoples, he also engaged in warfare such as when he seized Manila in 1570. His construction of the initial settlement of Intramuros in 1571 laid the foundation for the walled city that would also symbolize the colonization of the Philippines and would, centuries later, be the site of Rizal’s imprisonment and execution. (Note, too, how Intramuros is today touted as a tourist attraction.) Not far from this Legazpi-Urdaneta Monument, is a towering statue of Lapu-Lapu in Rizal Park, known as the Statue of the Sentinel of Freedom. This towering statue depicts an idealized and fictionalized image of Lapu-Lapu who, according to Philippine historian Ambeth Ocampo, was elderly during the encounter with Magellan at Mactan and would not have had the physique of a “gym-toned warrior”.

It seems odd, perhaps, to have memorials to two opposites: one a figure of colonization, the other a “sentinel,” defender of Philippine freedom. And yet this is the complexity of historical memory, which itself represents how messy history can be. Many Filipinos who have spoken on the subject would say that, for better or worse, the Spanish period of colonization left a mark on the Philippines in the realms of religion, language, diet, and culture that define it today. Yet, at the same time, there are genuine attempts to rediscover the pre-Hispanic pasts of the Philippine Islands to reconstruct what was before the arrivals of Magellan and de Legazpi.

Returning to recent events in Canada and its own reckoning with its imperial histories, we can note a stark contrast. Canadian society has become, in many ways, torn over the debates surrounding the memorialization of those who were responsible for injustices against Indigenous peoples. To put it another way, there is a growing resistance to celebrating those figures in Canadian history, but in the Philippines, there appears to be an ongoing appetite to remember Spanish colonial figures. A major difference is that Canada remains to this day a settler colony. That is, the colonizers never left and the Indigenous peoples in Canada remain colonized. In the Philippines, though, there is more control over the narrative as the Philippines has its political independence. The Philippines is thus able to memorialize and acknowledge its colonial past while celebrating its long history of colonial resistance with statues like the Sentinel of Freedom.

The different ways in which societies remember their past reminds us of how history works. Not only is it complex, but the histories that we tell are edited. Certain elements are included, others are not; events may be over-celebrated, while others diminished in their importance. These decisions really tell us more about the society that is remembering and celebrating more than it does about the figures and events themselves. In my next column, I’ll pursue this thought in relation to the life and memory of José Rizal.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.