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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese role in the history of the Philippines

Updated: Jan 6

I just returned with my family from a year-end vacation in Cebu, in the central part of the Philippines. While we spent most of the time enjoying the natural environment (snorkeling and diving in the reefs, canyoneering along a mountain river), we had an afternoon to visit the historic sights of Cebu City, where the colonial history of the Philippines as part of the Spanish Empire started. I was struck by the degree to which historians, and even the Philippine government, acknowledge the role played by the Portuguese in the first phase of this colonial history, primarily in the figure of the navigator Fernão de Magalhães, better known in English as Ferdinand Magellan.

Magellan's Cross encases the original cross planted by Magellan on this very site on April 21, 1521

A skilled sailor and naval officer from a noble family in northern Portugal, Magellan first enlisted in 1505 to sail to Portuguese India, where he took part in important battles including the historic Battle of Diu in 1509. He participated in the 1511 conquest of Malacca and returned to Portugal after that accompanied by an indentured Malay servant who was named Enrique after being baptized (and, some say, enslaved). Magellan became convinced that it was possible to access the Spice Islands (the Moluccas in today's Indonesia) from the east, that is to say sailing westward from Europe and avoiding having to go around Africa to get to India first. Unfortunately, he had by this time acquired a rather poor reputation, and even quarrelled with King Manuel I who resisted his attempts to lead an expedition to prove his theory. Miffed, Magellan left for Spain and pitched his idea to the young Spanish King Charles I (then a teenager). Perhaps youth made Charles more open to new ideas (King Manuel was in his late 40s), even if they were proposed by someone from Spain's archenemy, Portugal. It is likely that Charles was well aware that Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa had crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and became the first European to see the sea on the other side. In any case, on September 20, 1519, five ships with a crew of over 200 men from all over Europe set sail under Magellan's command from Seville, causing scandal in Portugal where around 40 crew members came from.

16th century Portuguese astrolabe, a Philippine National Cultural Treasure.

Magellan's voyage has too many details for this blog post, including the complex considerations around the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the newly discovered lands between the Portuguese and Spanish Empires, but it is interesting to note that Magellan's Spanish ships first reached what is today Rio de Janeiro in December 1519. While Portugal had already claimed Brazil as its territory in 1500, the city of Rio was not actually founded until 1565. The ships continued south looking for a passage to the west, and in October 1520 reached the strait that would lead them to the Pacific Ocean with Tierra del Fuego still farther to the south. That strait became known, naturally, as the Strait of Magellan. Perhaps the weather was good and the winds favourable at the time, or perhaps Magellan was simply (and understandably) in a good mood, but Magellan decided to name the new ocean, the same as the one seen seven years before him by Balboa, the Mar Pacífico, meaning the 'peaceful sea' in both Portuguese and Spanish.

Fast forward a few disastrous months and Magellan's expedition, now down to three ships from the original five, sailed into the port city of Cebu on April 7, 1521. They had already picked up some intelligence from encounters in prior weeks with local people on smaller islands, including chiefs from Mindanao to the south who were on a hunting expedition to this part of today's Philippines called the Visayas. One can speculate that these rulers directed Magellan to Cebu, the region's largest trading port, knowing that this might create issues for the King of Cebu, Rajah Humabon.

Portuguese breech-loading swivel gun with two reloading chambers

Communication was facilitated by Magellan's servant, Enrique, as he spoke Malay, the lingua franca of the region, but it is possible that much was still lost in translation. In the European version of events, Rajah Humabon submitted to both the King of Spain and the Catholic faith and was baptized Carlos, marking the start of the Christianization of the Philippines. Rajah Humabon lost no time in requesting Magellan's help with eliminating his enemy, the chief Lapulapu of the neighbouring island of Mactan (where Cebu City's airport is now located). In order to impress his new ally, Magellan took 48 of his men to take care of business, and even refused Rajah Humabon's offer of a hundred of his own men to join the fight. Unfortunately, the dawn attack on April 27 was ill-timed as it was low tide, and the Spanish galleons were too far away from the shore for their cannons to be of any use. The Europeans had to march to the beach in heavy armour, and before long Magellan, identified as the leader, was killed by Lapulapu and his men. Some say the first blow was a poisoned arrow on his right thigh, others that he was first wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. Whatever it was, just three weeks after his historic arrival in Cebu, Magellan died before reaching the Spice Islands. Some would say this was the result of his overconfidence in inserting himself into local politics, and that Rajah Humabon was merely taking advantage of the gullible Europeans. With Lapulapu's victory, Spanish rule over the Philippines would be delayed by over forty years, giving more time to the Portuguese to further establish themselves in Asia, which they continued to reach via Africa and India. After three other Spanish expeditions to the Philippines, it was the the fifth one led by Miguel López de Legazpi that led to the first Spanish settlements being established in 1565. This was only eight years after the Portuguese finally secured Macau as a permanent trading base in a formal arrangement with the imperial court of the Chinese Ming dynasty.

The Battle of Mactan by Filipino artist Elmer Borlongan, finished in 2021 for the 500th anniversary of Magellan's arrival in Cebu.

To complete the story of Magellan's expedition, the European survivors met with more murderous intrigue and managed to escape with just two ships under the command of the Portuguese João Carvalho. The expedition went on not only to meet the Sultan of Brunei, it also successfully acquired spices from the Moluccas.

On September 6, 1522, just one of the original five ships, the Victoria, under the command of the Basque navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano, made it back to Spain via Africa almost three years after setting sail toward the west. Officially, the 18 survivors (none of them Portuguese) of the original crew of 260-270 were the first people in history to circumnavigate the world. However, many historians concede that it is possible—if not likely—that this honour belongs instead to Magellan's Malay servant, Enrique. According to his master's will, he was supposed to be set free after Magellan's death, but as the interpreter for the expedition he was too valuable to be let go. Angered by this breach of faith, Enrique is said to have encouraged Rajah Humabon to kill a party of expedition officers during a feast onshore. Enrique escaped and was never heard from again. Given that he was already in a region that spoke his language, it is conceivable that Enrique made the relatively short distance from the Philippines back to Malacca or perhaps Sumatra where he was said to be from. If he had, he would have gone around the world, via Portugal, on a ten-year odyssey.

Monument on Mactan island, near the airport serving Cebu City.

Postscript: thanks to the comments, always well received, of a very knowledgeable reader of this blog, Ricardo da Silva, I have to add that there is a third possibility, namely that Magellan himself completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth. This is based on two premises: first that this would not be because Magellan ended back at the same place where he started, but rather that he had crossed all the longitudes in the same direction (a "latitudinal circumnavigation" if not mistaken). The second, much more contentious, is that Magellan had already reached the Spice Islands while in the service of the Portuguese Crown, sailing east from Malacca with fellow explorer (and possible cousin) Francisco Serrão. Although Cebu is to the north of the Spice Islands in today's Indonesia, it is farther west of them, meaning that Magellan would have gone around the world starting with his westward return from the Moluccas to Malacca and then Portugal.

The challenge with this is that there appears to be no definitive proof that Magellan joined Serrão's journey from Malacca to the Spice Islands. What is known is that Serrão ended up marrying a local woman (most likely from Java, but some sources say Ambon), and then became a military advisor to the Sultan of Ternate, the island that was then the world's largest producer of cloves along with Tidore. Serrão wrote letters to Magellan providing detailed information about this spice-producing region, which surely contributed to the latter's quest to reach these islands. Magellan even used these letters to help persuade the King of Spain to back his expedition, and does not seem to have boasted about having been to the Spice Islands himself. When the 500th anniversary of the start of Magellan's expedition was celebrated in 2019, the Spanish government went out of their way to highlight Juan Sebastián Elcano as the person who completed the first circumnavigation of the world, patently upset that the Portuguese Magellan is far more famous in the rest of the world. However, if anyone has sources that can confirm that Magellan did travel with Francisco Serrão in 1511 from Malacca to the Moluccas, please let me know!

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