A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Tracking Magellan’s ill-fated journey (1)

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 06 March) — Five hundred years ago today, on March  6, 1521,  Magellan and his crew sighted land after 14 months of being out in the sea when they reached the vicinity of  Guam.  His expedition – made up of five ships (Trinidad as flagship, Concepcion, San Antonio, Victoria and Santiago) sailed from San Lucar in Seville, Spain on 20 September 1519. That would have been roughly almost 18  months of travelling from San Lucar to Guam.

This expedition of 256 officers and men  led by Magellan consisted of close to two hundred Spaniards, upwards of twenty Portuguese (who were mainly the officers – that is, kababayan ni Magellan –  and experts in navigation), a dozen Italians, some few Greeks, Germans and Flemings. Before reaching Guam, they had passed through Brazil (where they anchored on 13 December 1519) and San Juan off the Argentinian coast on 31 March 1520.

They anchored someplace in Guam which they experienced was not a hospitable place as they encountered trouble with the natives, and were frustrated in their desire to find food and be able to rest. Part of the problem was that Enrique, Magellan’s would-be translator, was not familiar with the local language so apart from short moments of peace when they could barter goods for food, they met with a lot of violence. So they left Guam as they further journeyed towards the Moluccas.

Finally at dawn on 16 March 1521 (which we will commemorate on Tuesday, 16 March 2021), they sighted the islands of Leyte Gulf. Sailing towards Leyte, they could see Samar to the north and Mindanao to the south, the first islands of the archipelago that they would have seen. For safety’s sake, they decided to land on an isolated, uninhabited island named Homonhon. Once the ships got anchored, their first movement was to set up tents so the sick and the weak, especially those dying of scurvy, could be given fresh food and drink.

A day later, a boat with nine men on board arrived in Homonhon. Magellan hoping for a relaxed and friendly first encounter went to meet them and presented them with food and presents (including caps, mirrors and combs). The natives delighted with the visitors’ show of goodwill return to their localities and spread the word of these friendly strangers. Naturally, others followed the first batch and again were not threatened by the new arrivals. Pigafetta’s claim was that their first meeting was one of immediate, mutual cordiality. As their arrival here coincided with the feast of St. Lazarus, these islands were named the Archipelago of San Lazaro. While in Homonhon, Magellan naturally checked if there was enough food supply in the island along with spices and if they knew where  the Moluccas was. To his disappointment, the responses were negative. So they decided to find other islands.

From these first encounters, one can easily see the tactics of colonizers like Magellan when they arrive in a strange land.  There is always the attempt to be friendly and cordial through the distribution of gifts which were new to the natives and thus delighted them. This was contrary to former colonizers who would take on an aggressive position assuming that the natives are violent and need to be subdued. It was also the custom at that time of colonizers – a manifestation of a superior attitude – that they can just name a new place in the manner that they would their own localities. Instead of finding out if there are already local names to the place they reached; they decide to name this place according to labels they preferred.

After one week in Homonhon, they left and then landed in Limasawa, south of Leyte. As they approached the island at night, they saw there were lights so they concluded that the island was inhabited and thought it would be a good place to dock. Once more, as soon as they reached the place (which was a Holy Saturday), a native boat approached.  Again, they offered gifts to the natives which eventually led to the chief welcoming them. This time, Magellan ordered a mock battle between soldiers in armour, which could have easily intimidated the chief and the  natives. But as Magellan assured them of his friendship, no troubles erupted. In fact, a blood compact ceremony took place between Magellan and the chief named Kolambu. Present was the chief’s brother Awi who was visiting from Butuan (where he was the chief who owned gold mines).

So was there a Mass officiated in Limasawa around this time? How come they proceeded to Cebu? And what happened in Mactan?  These questions will be answered in Part II of this series – Tracking Magellan’s  Ill-Fated Journey.

This excerpt is from my book Handumanan (Remembrance) – Digging For The Indigenous Wellspring.  An online book launch will take place on March 10 at 3 PM. You will need to pre-register at this link.  To do so, fill up the form which you can access in this link:

https://forms.gle/bPVUcEkN1mCiDUcj9. Then email to ccfiiadspromo@gmail.com.

Online book launch is also livestreamed here:


[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles.” Writing as Melchor M. Morante, his book ‘Mga Lumadnong Sugilanon nga Mahinuklogon” was launched online on December 30, 2020. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]