We Killed Magellan
In honor of Filipino-American History month, I’m writing one post every day for the month of October. Today is Day 10, and I didn’t get to write a post on Day 9, so this is one of two posts I’ll publish today.
Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and your annual reminder that Christopher Columbus sucks. Anyway, here’s Magellan!
The only written record of this battle comes from the diaries of Antonio Pigafetta, who paid for his passage on the ship like some kind of 16th century tourist. Here’s his account of Magellan’s death:
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 rushed 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. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.
I have to admit, reading the words “our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide” almost makes me feel sympathetic. (Almost).
I also know exactly two facts about Philippine pre-colonial history. First, that Magellan died in the Philippines. Second, that the very name “Philippines” is derived from King Philip II of Spain.
The Wikipedia article of Philippine history from 900–1521 is…sparse, to say the least. I don’t know who my “people” were before the Spanish arrived.
Stanley Karnow once made an observation about Philippine history that I’ve never been able to shake, particularly since I spent most of my college years studying Chinese history, literature, and culture: There’s no unifying, pre-colonial Philippine backstory to point to, which means that it’s much harder to rally Filipino nationalism around a narrative that binds all of our islands together.
Contrast this with China, where the idea of a continuous cultural line that lasted for thousands of years — to oversimplify it—has such staying power.Mainland Chinese can point to the Qin, the Han, the Song, and the Ming (or at least their preconceived ideas about what those empires were like), and say “We used to be powerful, and then the West humiliated us for a century. Now it’s our turn to reclaim our rightful place as a world power.” This, by the way, isn’t so much a measurement of Chinese opinion as it is a brief description of Chinese nationalism.
Filipinos don’t have that story to tell ourselves. Or if we do, I sure as hell haven’t heard it. And yes, Western dominance and colonialism has surely played a role in how little pre-colonial Philippine history I was taught as a kid. But learning that history doesn’t feel as urgent as I want it to feel right now. I wish it did, and perhaps someday it will.
So until learning the full scope of that history bubbles to the top of my reading list, I’ll watch this stand-up comedy video by Rex Navarrete about how we killed Magellan: