Brace yourself for the quincentennial

The  quincentennnial of Magellan’s ill-fated voyage is two years away and already a national committee has been formed to plan all kinds of celebrations from inevitable re-enactments , international and local conferences where  eminent scholars may share the fruits of their knowledge with us ordinary mortals.

Historian Dr. Resil Mojares (National Artist for Literature) will surely be the comet of the quincentennial, if only for the research he has done on Lapu-Lapu. Aside from Pigafetta’s memoir of the ill-fated voyage and other European sources, Dr. Mojares evaluated folklore, stories that have been in circulation for centuries , superstitions and symbolisms. One of the tales is that Lapu-Lapu did not kill Magellan with his own hand (or pestle nor sword); he marshalled an army of crabs, clams, octopi, trepang, seaweeds, and sea urchins to attack the Spanish invaders. Here there is a rich array of motifs that the creators of the monument can play around with.” I could not help but burst out laughing and as I looked up from the page I was reading ( House of Memory by Mojares), I was still laughing rather uncontrollably, I saw strange faces staring at me. I was at a doctor’s waiting room, I had forgotten. After a bout with incipient bronchitis and obediently recumbent for eight days, I was summoned by my doctor.  Laughter suppressed, I continued reading in silence.

Spain, Portugal, the Philippines seen to be competing with each other already; the Philippine Embassy in Lisbon had an early start when the ambassador invited a group of Filipino historians headed by Dr. Rene Escalante, chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. Thinking globally, the quincentennial will necessarily  be about the circumnavigation of the world,  a  navigational feat that affirmed  a  number of  theories and debunked many assumptions. Sailing from the West to East and finding their way home again was immutable evidence about the shape of the world even as the Catholic Church insisted it was flat.

However, as a local phenomenon, the quincentennial could be  bloody, the celebration could further divide this already fractured republic. Already, sabers are drawn between those who affirm that Lapu-Lapu defended his country against the Spanish invaders and those who point out that the country, the Philippines, did not exist when Magellan cast anchor somewhere in Sugbu. It was not an invasion; they were looking for the spice islands.

Lapu-Lapu has always been the bone of contention, perhaps because there is fragile data from an eye witness, Antonio de Pigafetta, who witnessed the battle from a distance and did not even leave  a rude sketch of what Lapu-Lapu may  have looked like. Dr. Mojares calls him “a hero in search of a monument” because through the years, various representations of him have been sculpted and cast by artists and artisans guided only by “ennobling thoughts , rumor, and low humor.”

Dr. Mojares relates that in 1979, during martial law, a 27-foot monument was erected in Barangay Mactan on the very site of a 19th century monument to Magellan. The intention was to correct the “neglect” of Lapu-Lapu,  but “ the juxtaposition of the classic , dignified European obelisk of Magellan’s monument and the almost- comic- book representation of a huge and brawny ‘Malay’ hero resulted in something discordant and anti-aesthetic. “

There were a number of other attempted representations of Lapu-Lapu, never puny, especially the most recent at the Rizal Park, erected by then Secretary of Tourism Richard Gordon, with Korean funds. Recently, someone posted a  hitherto overlooked phrase of Pigafetta that Lapu-Lapu was an old man. Could  an elderly warrior have fought in Mactan ? While there are plans for “the mother of all monuments.” Lapu- Lapu  may yet be represented  like   the fabled Colossus of Rhodes.

There are other issues that will surely be acrimonious. Enrique de Malacca is one. The veracity of mass conversions via baptism will be another. Where was  the first Mass held, was it in  Limasawa or Butuan, or father north in what is now Pangasinan way before Magellan cast anchor? A host of historians, men and women of letters and the law, have been researching and discussing this pivotal issue for almost a century. I was informed that THE verdict will soon be announced. Brace yourselves,  that could really  ignite a civil war.