500 of Christianity: Battle of the Sword and Cross in Mactan, Part 1



“We learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from history.” Cicero


Nowadays, the Philippine mainstream media is increasingly becoming critical of the escalating presence of Chinese fishing fleet in the South China Sea. Retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio opines that it could be a prelude to Chinese occupation. His and the media’s paranoia of course is understandable and reminiscent of the Leftists argument in the 70’s about the presence of U.S. troops in the country.


This “escalation” is factually understandable with the 2022 presidential election on the horizon. These developments including a resilient pandemic, have overshadowed a grand religious undertaking that spanned years of preparation for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the country.


The pandemic has brought the Church to its knees with the government telling the bishops to limit religious activities during the Holy Week after months of restrictions. Was this pandemic a divine intervention to temper the grandiose religious undertaking and give people time to reflect on what the last 500 years looked like in the eyes of poor Filipinos wallowing in poverty?


The presence of foreign troops on Philippine soil is nothing new that goes back to the Stone Age when Indigenous Peoples (Negritos, Igorots, Aetas, etc.) were the first settlers of ancient Philippines. Then the Chinese came followed by the Moros, Spaniards, Americans, Japanese, Americans again, and now the Chinese redux. The Philippines has always been a battleground for these foreign forces who covet the country’s natural attraction as the “Perla del Mar de Oriente.”


Foreign forces come to the Philippines for conquest and exploitation. Throughout the history of the Philippines, one can say that when Philippine nationalism is aroused (“Ang mamatay ng dahil sa’yo”) as it is unfolding now to defend the country’s sovereignty, is relative depending on the colonial master on the altar. In the context of the dominant South China Sea (SCS) issue, the colonial master is the United States as shown by the mentality of Filipino politicians in the current realm.


Many speculate, albeit validly, that the main reason for the Chinese incursions in the SCS is the rich natural resources underneath it. But on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the value of the SCS and the Philippines for that matter, is its strategic value. Meaning, it is a valuable possession to have because it serves American national interests: commerce (unimpeded navigation of trade) and military advantage (he who gets the oil rules the world). From China’s point of view, the South China Sea has always been theirs and now wants them back.


There is no real Filipino point of view if done in the name of a colonial master. Philippine history is replete with political leaders capitulating to a foreign interest. Every president that served the republic has served their colonial masters well to advance the foreign country’s national interests. In more recent historical contexts, China’s ascendancy to superpower status has once again placed the Philippines as the center of their attraction.


China’s fascination with the Philippines, vis-à-vis, the South China Sea started long before Xi Jinping became president of the People’s Republic of China. In 971 AD, the Huangdom (kingdom or territory) of Ma-I during the Song and Ming Dynasties, was established as part of the South China Sea domain that covered Mindoro, Pangasinan, Tondo, among other places. The Chinese rulers harvested local products and exported them to China.


Then came the Moros who invaded not only the Chinese territories in the Philippines but included other areas as well and established their own sultanates throughout the archipelago. The Moros called the Philippines as the biblical Ophir for its wealth of gold and other precious metals, pearls, ivory and exotic animals (peacocks, apes) that the Chinese coveted as well. The sultanates back then were extensions of the Ottoman Empire based in Constantinople, Turkey.


When Ferdinand Magellan and company landed in Cebu in March 1521, he was a foreign invader trying to conquer the locals who happened to be the Moros and to effect the overthrow of the Sultanates in the name of his king, as a secondary goal. This is the important context that is missing in the 500th year celebration. The Moros used the Sword and Cross (Islam) metaphor as well, as a tool for an invading army.


Historians should explore the impact of these invasions in the context of the country’s long history of subjugation under a foreign ruler. Filipinos belong to the Malay race, yet the pervading colonial mentality continues to hamper Filipinos’ quest for a truly independent state akin to the Moro’s Bangsamoro. Is there such a thing as a “holy” alliance between faith and force?


Was the country the site of a proxy war of religions between the Islamic Empire and Spain? If Lapu-Lapu succeeded in defeating a superior army, why did the rest of the country fold under Spain? Was Lapu-Lapu not named a national hero because he was a Muslim defending Islam in favor of a Western educated Jose Rizal?


Understandably, the focus of the celebration is 500 years of Christianity and Catholicism for that matter, but it bears repeating that the significance of such amphibious landing should evolve around the two pivotal characters in the Philippine conquest: Magellan representing the Cross, and Lapu-Lapu holding the fort with his sword to protect his own cross of Islam.


The Philippines was not Magellan’s final destination. The stop was routine much like Guam, but Magellan’s declaration claiming the territory for the King of Spain was far-reaching and allowed waves of Spaniards (military and religious components) to come later!


Magellan’s campaign ended in Mactan courtesy of Lapu-Lapu but his stoicism in search for the Moluccas Spice Island unknowingly imported a far more potent export to the Philippines in the guise of peaceful intentions – Christianity.


Magellan was not a religious man but religion was part of his tool set to effect the diplomacy of bluffing. This proved effective when he began negotiations with the local ruler, Datu Humabon, who agreed to follow the Christian God. Hundreds more would follow his lead after Magellan cured the datu with herbal medicine.


Despite Magellan’s huge ego, he was determined to use force to deliver his message believing that no puissant pagans were going to stand between him and his God. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and has from time to time deserted His followers in their hour of need. Magellan was to be no exception, but he served his purpose.


Today, Magellan has the dubious privilege of being the namesake of a search engine, and is an enduring reminder that great men can make great mistakes, even with the hand of God to lead them. But his mistake would become his legacy that endured for the next 500 years after his death. The Vatican should make him a saint for the Philippine conversion into 80% Catholics. (To be continued …)