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Cebu Philippines Historical Background
Cebu Philippines Basilica del Santo Nino Church Argao Cebu Philippines Church Dalaguete Cebu Church Philippines
Basilica del Santo Nino Church Argao Church Dalaguete Church

In the summer of 1521, five ships and 237 men that had been sailing from Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain for year and a half arrived at Limasawa, a sliver of land at the tip of Leyte, a neighboring island. The contingent was led by Ferdinand Magelland (Fernso de Magalhanes), a native of Sabrosa, Portugal who, despite his noble lineage and being raised as a page in the court of Queen Leonor, had switched allegiances to the Spanish King after the green monster of envy thwarted his chances at promotion. He was bent on finding a westward sea route to the Spice Islands.

Unimpressed by the tiny island of Limasawa, they sailed on upon the local chieftain's redirection to arrive on April 27, 1521 at the port of Sugbo, which was mistranscribed by Pigafetta, Magellan's Italian scribe and chronicle, into Zubuth, Zugbo, then Zubu, and finally Cebu. This propitious mistake was etched forever in what is widely considered to be the beginnings of the Philippines' written history.

Highly civilized as they were, the natives played gracious host to the new arrivals, led by the local chieftain of the port area Rajah Humabon and his queen, Juana. They were used to traders arriving and engaging in business with them, not unlike the joint international ventures of today's booming economy. The Spaniards were wines and dines, and Pigafetta noted the use of Chinese and Thai porcelain service.

A mass was celebrated by Magellan's chaplain, Father Pedro Valderrama, OSA. The first mass drew a mixed crowd: on one hand the armored Castillian newcomers with curious vestments chanting in a new tongue, and on the other the g-strings clad tattooed natives gazing in awe at the grandiose spectacle. The ubiquitous symbol of Christianity, a crucifix, was hastily fashioned and planted on the site on April 14, 1521, claiming the land in the name of Christ. Centuries later, the same spot is now synonymous with Cebu, as the monument of Magellan's Cross.

A decidedly Spanish kiosk was built in 1834 to house it, octagonal in shape with lime-plastered walls and an ondiola-tiled roof. The present day cross is stark and simple: unremarkable dark but larger than life. In fact, this is its outer casing of tindalo wood (bayong), built around the original bonglas (a species of narra). The outer hollow shell was necessitated to protect the original from the habit of the pious to chip off pieces of the cross, to which they attributed great powers.

One may give money to several old ladies holding cheap candles to dance in front of the cross, muttering your petitions. Once paid, they slide into a trance and with a shuffling of their feet to an ancient ghost beat, deliver your prayer to the Almighty. Amidst the noise of the motor vehicles plying the street on which it lies, aptly named Magallanes, the cross still acts as a conduit of faith, a symbol of the Cebuano's piety, weathering 400 years pf turbulent change.

A week after their arrival, 800 natives were converted to the faith of the visitors after witnessing what one account says, a tangible miracle. However, it is more plausible to attribute this to Magellan's leadership by example: he was knwon to be fair and generous. Still other speculate that the grandiose spectacle of the first mass, to the native's eyes a refreshing treat, and the idea of monotheism, a novel idea at the time, compounded to convince the early Cebuanos to bring idols for a mass burning.

The Spanish-Cebuano entente did not last for long, though, for from the across the island, a voice of dissent echoed. The warlike people of Mactan, led by their chieftain Lapu-Lapu (for whom the present-day city in the island is named), challenged the unitary order that Magellan began to impose on what was until that time a decentralized system of autonomous communities.

A man of action, and fresh from his victories in Africa, the Moluccas, and seven years in India, Magellan vowed to silence the recalcitrant chieftain. In the dawn of April 27, 1521, a better-armed Spanish force of around 60 was slaughtered by the more numerous Mactan warriors. In the resulting melee, Magellan lay dead at the feet of Lapu-Lapu, sending his once proud assemblage home, reduce now to a single ship and 18 men. They arrive at the same port from whence on September 8, 1522, quite diminished, but completing the first circum-navigation of the globe.

Lapu-Lapu, on the other hand, lived on to be regarded as the first Filipino hero, and the face on a true rarity: the one centavo coin, the foundation of the Philippine monetary stability. He is also the other face of the Cebuano's seemingly schizophrenic personality, with Humabon's pacifist mien as the other half.

The site of the battle is approximated today by a statue of the warrior chieftain, surrounded by a vintage Cebuano delight: the Sutukil, a chain of fresh seafood restaurants, and a few feet from world class hotel chains that both, ironically, welcome foreign nationals with much gusto.


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