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Ferdinand Magellan The Battle Of Mactan and Filipino Martial Arts

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Submitted by: Jay de Leon

(Photo: Ferdinand Magellan)

This event is probably one of the most bruited and bandied historical topics in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA). It is the death of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan at the hands of Lapu-Lapu in the islands of Cebu, in the Philippines.

To refresh your historical memory, Ferdinand Magellan was the Portuguese soldier of fortune and explorer who was able to wrangle five ships from King Charles of Spain in search of the fabled spices and new route to the New World.

On Aug. 10, 1519, he set sail from Seville, Spain with a flotilla of five ships, (Trinidad as flagship, Victoria, San Antonio, Santiago and Concepcion), two hundred fifty men including his son Cristobal Rebolo, his Malayan slave Enrique, and a paying passenger, a Venetian nobleman named Antonio Pigafetta, and armaments of harquebuses, crossbows, suits of armors, halberds and pikes.Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan hanging in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal.Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan hanging in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal.

The First Circumnavigation of the World

On March 16, 1521, Magellan reached the Philippines, claiming the islands for His Majesty, King Charles of Spain. He quickly made a few alliances with local datus and even baptized a few hundred converts to the Catholic faith.

On that fateful day in April 27, 1521, Magellan took a landing party and tried to bring Toledo steel and Spanish armor to the shores of Mactan in Cebu to wage war on a recalcitrant datu named Lapu-Lapu, Instead, Magellan fell to hardened stakes, spears and kampilan steel of Lapu-Lapu’s warriors.

Monument to Lapu-Lapu at the Mactan Shrine, in Cebu, the PhilippinesMonument to Lapu-Lapu at the Mactan Shrine, in Cebu, the Philippines

After Magellan's death, the survivors, in two ships, sailed on to the Moluccas and loaded the hulls with spice. One ship attempted, unsuccessfully, to return across the Pacific.

The other ship, the Victoria, continued west under the command of the Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano.

The vessel sailed across the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Seville on September 9,1522, almost exactly three years after leaving, becoming the first ship to circumnavigate the globe.

Only eighteen men including Pigafetta survived the voyage but the voyage was deemed a huge financial success.


The Battle of Mactan

Going back to the Battle of Mactan, much of this event would be subject to pure speculation but for an eyewitness account. Remember the paying passenger Antonio Pigafetta? Somehow he became the expedition’s historian and chronicler.Juan Sebastian de ElcanoJuan Sebastian de Elcano

Pigafetta survived the Battle of Mactan and the voyage, and his accounts memorialized the first circumnavigation of the world, including the death of Ferdinand Magellan in the Philippines.

Painting depicting the historic meeting between Magellan and HumabonPainting depicting the historic meeting between Magellan and Humabon
Pigafetta provides some specific and interesting details. To impress his allies, including Rajah Humabon, Magellan sailed to Mactan to punish the rebellious and defiant datu Lapu-Lapu.

On that fateful day, Humabon was part of the expedition, with about six hundred warriors. However, Magellan instructed him not to join the fray, but instead watch how the Spanish practiced the art of war.

Magellan set out with sixty men, which included his son Cristobal Rebolo and Pigafetta.

Arriving at low tide, the boats stayed out in the water because of the rocks, and 49 men including Magellan waded to shore, leaving 11 men to guard the boats. By Pigafetta’s account, one thousand five hundred of Lapu-Lapu’s warriors showed and attacked ferociously with hardened lances, arrows and “cutlasses.”

The 11 men on the boats fired harquebuses (muskets) and crossbows, but were well out of range. The Spaniards were able to burn a few houses but eventually had to retreat.

Pigafetta vividly describes Magellan’s death. Magellan fought valiantly to protect his retreating men. Already wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear and shot in the right leg with a poisoned arrow, he then killed a warrior with his lance, leaving his lance in the Mactan warrior and tried to draw his sword.

The Battle of MactanThe Battle of Mactan
He was set upon by many other warriors, one of whom struck him in the left leg with a cutlass resembling a scimitar (generally believed to be a kampilan), causing him to fall face downward. Whereupon the other warriors finished him off with iron and bamboo spears and kampilan swords.

Thus fell Magellan, whom Pigafetta calls “our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.”

Magellan’s rear-guard action must have been effective, since there were only eight reported European casualties. Unfortunately, this also included Magellan’s son, Cristobal Rebolo.

To compound the expedition’s woes, Rajah Humabon, Magellan’s erstwhile ally, shortly turned on the Spaniards and massacred about 27 of them, further depleting their numbers. He had become unimpressed with the Spaniards and became angered by a dispute over women.

 Filipino Martial Arts versus Spanish Fighting Arts?

Now, all of that seems pretty straightforward using Pigafetta’s account. It would appear therefore that Magellan lost the battle to an overwhelming force, a fact exacerbated by a few tactical errors, the weather, the tide and maybe a dash of European arrogance. Some historical pundits however caution against taking Pigafetta’s account literally, and pose some interesting questions.

Mactan Shrine in Cebu, the PhilippinesMactan Shrine in Cebu, the PhilippinesCould the one thousand five hundred warriors been a gross exaggeration?

Did the Filipinos use trickery and somehow suckered the battle-hardened Magellan, hero of several Portuguese land battles, into thinking this would be a stroll down the beach?

Why didn’t Magellan bring Humabon’s six hundred warriors with him as “insurance” just in case the battle went against him?

Could it be possible that eskrima techniques and ancient weapons really prevailed against Spanish steel and warfare experience?

The truth of the matter is that no living person really knows what happened that day.

Be that as it may, some writers have now romanticized Lapu-Lapu as the first national hero who repelled an alien invader, even though it is inaccurate to say that there was a Filipino nation then.

Others have identified Lapu-Lapu as the first eskrima warrior to use his art in defense of his kingdom, even though it is unclear his kampilan skills gave birth to the vaunted Cebuano eskrima as we now know it.

All these writers may be forgiven for exercising their poetic licenses.

For us martial artists, an interesting lesson from all this would be to internalize the combat realities learned from this fateful and fatal encounter. Let us assume Magellan knew how to wield his weapons and was appropriately armored. Let us assume his men were adequately trained.Grandmaster Ciriaco “Cacoy” Canete of “Doce Pares” of Cebu. How much of his eskrima came from Lapu-Lapu’s art?Grandmaster Ciriaco “Cacoy” Canete of “Doce Pares” of Cebu. How much of his eskrima came from Lapu-Lapu’s art?

So what went wrong?

Was his intel deficient?

Were his tactics flawed?

Was he simply overconfident, arrogant or dismissive of half-naked warriors with primitive weapons?

So the lesson learned may be that, while it is essential to know your FMA techniques and weapons well, tactics and strategy in combat are just as important. And do think twice about crossing cutlasses with those Cebuano arnisadors.





Copyright, Jay de Leon 2006

For additional information, contact Jay de Leon at

jay de leonjay de leonAbout the writer: Jay de Leon
Jay de Leon is the Commissioner for North America of the International Modern Arnis Federation of the Philippines (IMAFP), the host of Tipunan International seminars and events, a corporate financial officer, a historian, and a published writer. He is a Contributing Editor as well as a Certified Instructor in “America-in-Defense” for WorldBlackBelt. He currently lives, writes and operates Filipino Fighting Arts USA in southern California, USA.

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