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Opinion: Finding Common Ground on the 500th Anniversary of Spain’s Arrival in the Philippines

Guest Opinion Writer

This article is available in Spanish.

The 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Philippines on March 16, 2021 means different things to different countries and their respective peoples. For Spain, the expedition in 1518 signified a celebration of its role in the wonders of nautical science, its amazing vision of reaching previously unknown lands and the beginning of a glorious empire that endured for four centuries.

For the Philippines, the first contact was the beginning of its opening to the rest of the world, whether intentional or not, the impetus for the eventual formation of nationalism — a common consequence of imperialism — and the beginning of its path towards the process of nation building.

To the rest of the world, it is undoubtedly a fundamental milestone in the history of globalization and, subsequently, the drive for the exchange of cultures, ideas, technologies, among others to unprecedented levels.

Not surprisingly, the eventual disconnect in the narrative about the arrival of the Spanish in the Philippines developed as each country constructed its own national identity. Certain events are highlighted by the storytellers and disseminated to their respective local audiences. An example of this is the marked difference in the narration of the story of the death of Ferdinand Magellan. Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian scholar who kept a detailed diary of events during the expedition, wrote of how Magellan was besieged by natives in Cebu while trying to help a newly Catholicized local ruler convert other rulers to Catholicism. Magellan believed that his show of force would convince the chiefs to convert to the Catholic faith. That fateful decision and his miscalculation of the enemy forces, led by Lapulapu, resulted in his death when he was struck in the face by a Mactan warrior with a local scimitar. Consequently, the Spanish ships retreated from Cebu.

Forty-four years later, Spain would return to successfully establish its first settlement in the islands, but that first encounter in 1521 was marked by indigenous resistance. Few reading materials in Spanish make mention of how Magellan died. A book on Spanish history found in a souvenir store in a popular museum in Madrid, for example, notes that “he died on the way.” If you ask a Spaniard what they know about Magellan’s death, they would say he died from a poisoned arrow as is taught at schools in Spain. The emphasis on poison — often associated with cowardice — seems an allusion to the impossibility of an imposing character like Magellan being killed by indigenous peoples living in a distant land.

On the other hand, in the Philippines, Magellan’s arrival is presented as the arrival of an intruder. His story begins upon his arrival and quickly ends in his death at the hands of a local warrior. The Filipinos’ highlighting of this fact is a constant reminder of their unlikely victory against colonial Spain and is rooted, of course, in nationalism that, in turn, has been shaped in large part by the Filipinos’ colonial experience. Unlike in Latin America, a public monument to a historical, political and non-religious figure with Caucasian features is rare in the Philippines. Filipinos are very proud of the fact that Magellan was killed in the Philippines. It is not Magellan’s death that is celebrated but the resistance of the Filipinos through Lapulapu. Lapulapu the hero and Magellan the villain, this is a story that any Filipino child can tell by heart.

The difference in telling of a single story highlights what both countries should keep in mind in celebrating the Spanish-Filipino encounter in 1521. It is a story that, as it reaches 500 years, has a number of iterations. The two main ones, narrated by the Spaniards and Filipinos, should be reconciled.

From the Philippine perspective, it is important to remember crucial elements in this history that have often been overlooked by Western historians over the past 500 years. When Magellan arrived in the archipelago, the island of Luzon as far north as Cebu was already home to local societies for almost 17,000 years. Several “Datus” in Cebu who worked with the Europeans clearly operated in their own network — of trade and family relationships — that allowed them to interact with Magellan and his crew with confidence. From the 10th to the 13th century, the archipelago had societies that were able to cultivate the talents of goldsmiths who handcrafted jewelry, badges and other artifacts made of gold.

These recent discoveries of pre-colonial antiquity in a country, whose climate and seismic geography often do not allow for the preservation of artifacts and architecture, evoke the pre-colonial past that Filipinos continually seek as the basis for a national identity free of colonialism.

For this reason, Filipino nationalists get angry when Westerners refer to Magellan’s arrival as the “discovery of the Philippines.” This fallacious and biased phraseology has been repeated so many times in history textbooks that it will take several generations to suppress such language in educational materials but also, crucially, the national mentality that this presentation of events helped shape.

There is perhaps no stronger evidence of the strength of pre-colonial identity than in the continued existence and use of Filipino languages.

Unlike Latin America, the Philippines has never been a fully Spanish-speaking country. Perhaps, this is another fact that makes the country different from the rest of Spain’s former colonies. People like to say that Spain never really taught Spanish to the natives, but this can only be partly true.

Interestingly, Pigafetta wrote a glossary of the Butuanon and Cebuano languages, with most of the words still widely used to this day by native speakers of those languages. The fact is, after 333 years under Spanish rule and almost 30 years of U.S. mandate, the Philippines can still account for more than 175 of its languages. Therefore, it can be argued that Spanish did not become a lingua franca. Just as Tagalog is not widely spoken outside Luzon and in parts of Mindanao dominated by Tagalog settlers, local languages were more than sufficient to communicate with each other effectively.

The Philippines is a country that has had different conquerors and policies over time, but what remains constant throughout is its local languages. It is worth noting that the Philippines has only been independent for 120 years compared to 333 years of Spanish rule from 1521 to 1898. There is so much in the Filipino psyche, language and traditions coming from Spain that Filipinos are little aware of as they have become irrevocably entrenched in the Filipino way of life. It is also difficult to talk about the Spanish-Filipino relationship without mentioning Catholicism, which was enthusiastically embraced by Filipinos much more than the Spanish language.

The 500-year ties between the Philippines and Spain are long, enduring, prosperous and complex.

As Spain and the Philippines celebrate 500 years of their first encounter, it is important to take stock of the defining aspects of this relationship and find relevance and common ground of this crucial and decisive moment in world history. Understanding the reasons behind certain narratives through a pragmatic view of history will surely allow both sides to learn more from each other. From there, they may continue to develop bilateral and personal relationships with a vision for the future but with full acknowledgement of the past.

A version of this article originally appeared in Spanish on Revista Diplomacia in October 2018.

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