What If Magellan Had Survived Mactan?

 Ferdinand Magellan (Source: biography.com)

Ferdinand Magellan (Source: biography.com)

My good friend and academic colleague Dr. Michael Gonzalez dared me to take an “alternative” perspective and give my “take” on Philippine history based on published facts. Being a good sport, I took his dare. I will therefore take a known historical fact that is part of the canon and then ponder the possibilities of what could have happened had it gone differently.

WHAT IF Ferdinand Magellan had lived after that decisive Battle of Mactan on that auspicious day of April 27, 1521?

The explorer Magellan’s Capitulacion or contract with the King of Spain specified that he would be appointed to the position of Vice Roy or Adelantado for life of the lands that he would discover. The Archipelago de San Lazaro that he eventually discovered for Spain could have been known also as Magellanland. We would not be Filipinos but maybe Magallanes. Perhaps even Lazarians.

The title of Adelantado would have passed on to his heirs and descendants for all times. His wife, Beatriz Barbosa, bore him a son, Rodrigo. But the infant died a few years later. Doña Beatriz could easily have been ennobled, perhaps as the Duquesa de Moluccas. However she passed away three years after her son died. Magellan’s fleet (Trinidad, the flagship, San Antonio, Concepcion, Santiago, and Victoria) was collectively named the Armada de Moluccas. By sailing westward they were expected to find the waterway leading to the Spice Islands.

Why westward? The answer can be traced to the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1493 when Pope Alexander divided the world into two spheres of influence. This demarcation line was drawn due north and south in mid-Atlantic at 370 leagues off the Canary Islands, by the Azores. Areas east of the line became the discovery hemisphere of the Portuguese, while those in the west were relegated to Spain. Eastward-bound Bartolome Diaz had reached the Cape of Good Hope, while Vasco de Gama rounded the cape and went further on to the Indian Ocean. Columbus going west had discovered America for Spain. In the early days of discovery, the Philippines was called Islas de Poniente (Islands of the West) because Spanish ships arrived in the Philippines by sailing west.

 Magellan's expedition around the world (Source: wikimedia.org)

Magellan's expedition around the world (Source: wikimedia.org)

As stipulated in Magellan’s Capitulacion, he must choose the first six island groups for the Spanish sovereign. He was allowed to keep for himself the next two island groups. Counting six, I have come up with Guam, Leyte, Samar, Cebu, Negros and Panay for Charles II. Wily and knowledgeable Magellan’s next choice for his own personal two island groups would have been Mindanao and Luzon. His term of service indicated that Magellan would earn one-fifth of the profits from the whole expedition. A very wealthy man he would have been indeed!

Mindanao would have become a fine spice island country within the Spanish realm had Magellan made a run for it. He would have brought and cultivated various spice plants from Moluccas to Mindanao. The climate condition and volcanic soil are the same. In fact when Magellan arrived, cinnamon and pepper were already produced and traded in Mindanao. Magellan could have developed it into a richer and more profitable international trade center.

At the time, Butuan, on the north eastern part of Mindanao, was already the greatest harbor-wealthy entrepot. Trade from nearby Spice Island and gold from its own placer mines had made Butuan the pride and envy of the South East Asian region.

From Cebu, Magellan would have proceeded on to the Moluccas. He learned from local pilots that the Moluccas was directly only a few hundred nautical miles due south. This Spice Island group was after all, Magellan‘s primary goal. He just accidentally stumbled into the Philippine seas.

Earlier, his friend, Francisco Serrano, had written to him from Tidore, Moluccas. They served together in Admiral Alfonso Albuquerque’s fleet in the sacking of Malacca in 1511. Serrano was living high in the land of cloves, nutmeg and mace. He pictured his life as the local king’s adviser, enjoying a most elegant, luxurious, high-end lifestyle with his local wife and children. He urged Magellan to come while the reigning king was pro-Spanish and most likely would have welcomed him.

Cebu, blessed with a large industrious population, most likely would have been Magellan’s capital city. Manila at the time was a small, swampy, palisaded fort by the mouth of the Pasig River. A primary city is described as ten times larger in terms of economy and infrastructure than the next biggest city. Cebu is where Magellan would have constructed his Intramuros and Fort Santiago.

Mactan Island, facing Cebu, would have been his port of call. Magellan’s freestanding bronze statue instead of Lapulapu’s would have been erected there on the harbor. Magellan’s crew would have enjoyed a grilled grouper fish named after their brave Capitan General. Some culinary Lapulapu fish sinigang sa sampalok dish for them.

 Illustration of Lapulapu

Illustration of Lapulapu

He would have freed and empowered his slave interpreter, Enrique Magalona. Enrique, sold as a captive slave in Malacca, was taken to Portugal and Spain and was facile in both languages. He accompanied his master on all the encounters during the voyage of discovery. If Enrique had initially come from the Visayas, by going back to Cebu he would have been virtually the first man to circumnavigate the world. Magellan would have been given the honor of being the first white man to circumnavigate the world, not Sebastian del Cano. (Remember Enrique did it first, but his achievement has not been recognized for having being born kayumanggi).

It was believed after the Cebu massacre that Magellan’s slave and interpreter jumped ship and lived among his own people. I remember a Philippine Senator Enrique Magalona (Philippine version of “Magallanes”) in the 1950’s. Could the senator have been a descendant of Enrique? Today, in Negros, the Enrique Magalonas are currently members of the powerful provincial and national political clan. Today, the patronymic Enrique Magalona is passed on for generations. Why is there always an Enrique in the Magalona clan? Are they keeping a secret lineage we do not know?

Magellan had traversed the whole wide ocean he named Mare Pacifico. He established that this ocean is extraordinarily more distant and far beyond what Ptolemy and the early cartographers had mapped out. His portulan (chart) would have been the prized wonder of all navigators of the European world. His voyage of discovery had added an additional one-third to the world’s circumference.

Magellan had discovered a passageway at the southern tip of the American continent, now named the “Strait of Magellan.” The importance of this strait naturally made more ships travel regularly to and from the Philippines and Europe. This interactive process must have contributed much to the cultural development of the society. Rizal once observed that in the 19th century, the Christianized Filipinos, by their living style and demeanor, were a clean copy of early Europeans.

Magellan would most likely have made himself the archipelago’s representative to Madrid’s Royal Cortes. For the remainder of the colonization period, the country would have continued this political parliamentary representation. Hence, José Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Juan Luna, Pedro Paterno and their other compatriots in Madrid would not have needed to advocate for Cortes representation in their fortnightly newspaper, La Solidaridad. The propaganda movement would have been irrelevant. Dr. José Rizal would have become a disappointing ilustrado bureaucrat, although basically, he would have been just an exceptionally great writer/physician/ophthalmologist/revolutionary leader instead of becoming the foremost Philippine national hero.

 Some of the members of  La Solidaridad,  Jose RIzal, Marcelo H. Del Pilar and Mariano Ponce.

Some of the members of La Solidaridad, Jose RIzal, Marcelo H. Del Pilar and Mariano Ponce.


 Penelope Flores

Penelope Flores

Dr. Penelope V. Flores is Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University.


More articles from Dr. Penelope V. Flores