Chief Lapu-Lapu - Warrior and Hero of the Philippines
In the early 16 th century, Spain was becoming a global superpower due to innovations in navigation and seafaring. At the end of the previous century, Christopher Columbus, whose voyage had been funded by the Spanish Crown, arrived in the New World, ushering in a period of Spanish colonization in the Americas.
About 30 years after Columbus’ voyage, another navigator serving the Spanish Crown, Ferdinand Magellan, would discover a passage at the southern tip of the Americas leading to Asia. During this expedition, Magellan would reach the Philippines, and claim it for the Spanish Crown. Although his arrival was welcomed by some of the island’s rulers, Magellan made enemies too, one of whom was a local chief named Lapu-Lapu.
The bronze statue of Lapu-Lapu in Mactan. Wikimedia Commons
When Magellan arrived in the Philippines in 1521, he got involved in the rivalries of the local rulers, and managed to secure the allegiance of some of these men. One of the most important of these chiefs was the Rajah of Cebu, Rajah Humabon.
Near the island of Cebu was the island of Mactan, which was home to two rival chiefs, Zula and Lapu-Lapu. The former submitted to the Spanish and agreed to pay tribute, while the latter refused to submit to either the Spanish or Rajah Humabon. The defiance of Lapu-Lapu seemed to have made it impossible for Zula to send tribute to Magellan, causing him to request Spanish aid to defeat his rival. This resulted in the Battle of Mactan, in which the Spanish were defeated by Lapu-Lapu and his warriors, and Magellan himself lost his life.
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An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century. Public Domain
As a historical figure, not much is known about Lapu-Lapu, as the only written source for him is found in the journal of Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian explorer and scholar who accompanied Magellan on his voyage to the Philippines. It is through Pigafetta that we learn about Lapu-Lapu and his rival Zula, as well as the Battle of Mactan, the Spanish defeat and the death of Magellan. Although there are no known written accounts on the Philippine side, there are numerous folk stories about Lapu-Lapu.
According to folk tradition, the story of Lapu-Lapu may be divided into two sections. The first part of Lapu-Lapu’s story concerns the petrification of Datu Mangal, a chief of Mactan Island, said variously to be Lapu-Lapu’s father, uncle, or friend and right-hand man.
In the folk stories, Datu Mangal is said to possess supernatural powers and magical talismans. On one occasion, Datu Mangal lent a talisman to his friend, Capitan Silyo, who promised that he would return it after he had used it. Capitan Silyo, however, reneged on his promise, and did not return the talisman to Datu Mangal. As a result, Datu Mangal is said to have placed a curse on Capitan Silyo which turned him into stone. Before being turned completely into stone, legend has it that Capitan Silyo was able to place a counter curse on Datu Mangal, turning him into stone as well. As he was being petrified gradually, Datu Mangal had a vision of the arrival of the Spanish, and sent for Lapu-Lapu at once. Datu Mangal warned Lapu-Lapu about the impending danger, urged him to resist the invaders, and gave him other instructions.
Depictions of the tattooed indigenous people the Spanish encountered in the Philippines. “Pintados of the Visayas” Boxer Codex (c. 1595) Public Domain
The second part of the story deals with the Battle of Mactan. In some versions, it is said that Lapu-Lapu and his men defeat the Spanish, and the chief personally kills Magellan. In other, more elaborate versions, various sea creatures attack the legs of the Spanish as they wade across the shallow sea, leaving them vulnerable to Lapu-Lapu and the islanders. Thus exposed, the Spanish were easily defeated by Lapu-Lapu, and the story comes to an end.
Pigafetta’s version of the Battle of Mactan agrees that the Spanish had to wade in shallow water, as the boats could not land on the beach due to the rocks protruding from the seabed. Pigafetta also provides more information about the battle. For instance, he mentions that the ranged weapons of the Europeans were also said to be ineffective against the islanders, and that Lapu-Lapu had 1,500 warriors, while the Spanish force consisted only of 60 men, 49 of whom participated in the battle, while the rest remained behind, guarding the boats.
Regardless of the way the Battle of Mactan actually played out, Lapu-Lapu is remembered as a hero who resisted and defeated the Spanish who invaded his land. Indeed, as the defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of Mactan is viewed as a significant event, the transformation of Lapu-Lapu into a folk hero, and subsequently a national hero, was almost guaranteed. As of today, Lapu-Lapu is still a major hero in the Philippines. Among other things, Lapu-Lapu is commemorated in two films about his life and a giant bronze statue of him on the island of Mactan.
Angeles, J. A., 2007. The Battle of Mactan and the Indigenous Discourse on War. Philippine Studies, 55(1), pp. 3-52.
Gloria, H. K., 1973. The Legend of LapuLapu: An Interpretation. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 1(3), pp. 200-208.
Mojares, R. B., 1979. LapuLapu in Folk Tradition. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 7(1/2), pp. 59-68.
Pigafetta, A., The First Voyage Round the World, by Magellan [Online]
[Lord Stanley of Alderley (trans.), 1874. Pigafetta’s The First Voyage Round the World, by Magellan.] Available at: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_First_Voyage_Round_the_World
Sabornido, L. R., 2014. 14 Things You should Know about Lapu-Lapu and the Battle of Mactan. [Online]
Available at: http://rise.ph/14-things-you-should-know-about-lapu-lapu-and-the-battle-of-mactan/