The Spaniards Discovered the Philippines – Part 1

The archipelago’s recorded history began half way around the world in a small, dusty town in southwestern Spain. The Treaty of Tordesillas was signed on June 7, 1494, dividing the yet-unexplored world between Spain and Portugal. To the east of meridian 370 leagues (unit of length) west of the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic, every land would belong to Portugal and to the west the every land would belong to Spain.
The Portuguese set off to navigate Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in search of the riches of the Spice Islands, while the Spanish headed across the vast Pacific in search of new trade routes to the Orient and its spices and to convert the natives to Catholicism.
Photo Credit: Compton’s Encyclopedia
The captain of Spain’s search was a Portuguese who had taken up the flag of Castile and the Spanish name Hernando de Magallanes. To the English-speaking world, he is Ferdinand Magellan, the son of a Portuguese nobleman, who early on served in the Indies and Morocco with distinction.
Magellan believed that the Orient could be reached by sailing west. After the king of Portugal rejected his plan to search the route and believing his king had not rewarded his services justly, he renounced his nationality. He then approached King Charles V of Spain who agreed to finance an expedition. This ruler, remembering the discoveries of Columbus and other bold sailors finally accepted Magellan’s proposal.
On Aug. 10, 1519, Magellan together with his men and a large wooden cross set sail from Seville in command of five small vessels (Trinidad, the lead ship, San Antonio, Conception, Victoria and Santiago) on what was to be one of the greatest single voyages in history. In Sept. 1519, they crossed the Atlantic and just over a month, they reached the coast of South America. They sailed until very cold and stormy weather forced him to seek winter quarters. They stopped at Port San Julian where the crew mutinied on Easter Day in 1520. Magellan quickly quelled the uprising, executing one of the captains and leaving another mutinous captain behind.
Magellan's ship by
Magellan’s ships – Photo credit:
Sailing on again in the spring, (September in the southern hemisphere) Magellan’s fleet rounded a promontory. On October 21, 1520, he sighted what he guessed to be the sought-for-strait. Two ships went ahead and reported that the strait led to an ocean beyond; so the fleet proceeded. The “oceans” proved to be only a large bay in the strait; but at a council held with his navigators Magellan declared his purpose of going on.
For over a month he battled his way through this stormy 360-mile treacherous passage known today as the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America to cross into the Pacific Ocean. Santiago was shipwrecked during a terrible storm and San Antonio stole away and sailed back to Spain; but still Magellan persevered.
On Nov. 28, 1520, he reached the ocean that Balboa discovered seven years before, and which Magellan named the Pacific Ocean because it looked so calm.
At first, the voyage on the Pacific went well, save for monotony. But after a month of sailing, terrible hardships assailed the fleet. The provisions ran low, and rats and leather were choice foods. The drinking water turned thick and yellow, and dozens died of scurvy.
After 14 more weeks of hunger and disease, they reached Guam, where they took on fresh supplies before continuing west. Somehow, he managed to miss every island in this vast body of water, save the tiny atoll of Poka Puka and Guam. In all, the fleet sailed 93 days before discovering Guam and a week later the Philippines.
On March 16, 1521, the Day of Lazarus, Magellan sighted Samar. The following day, he and his Spanish crew made a landfall on the tiny island of Homonhon, an uninhabited island in Leyte Gulf, calling the new lands Lazarus, after the saint’s day on which he first sighted them. After a few days rest, Magellan sailed on through the Gulf of Leyte to Limasawa, an island south of Leyte.
While Magellan was credited with the discovery, it was his Moluccan slave, Enrique de Molucca who uttered the first greeting between the Spaniards and the Filipinos. Friendly natives greeted the Spaniards with offerings of fish, bananas, coconuts and tuba, a kind of palm wine. Its ruler, Rajah Kolambu, was being visited by his brother, Rajah Siagu of Butuan at that time, and they welcomed Magellan.
Magellan explored other islands and then sailed to the flourishing trading port of Zubu (now Cebu). There he was greeted by another friendly chieftain called Rajah Humabon whom he established friendly relations. Magellan told Rajah Humabon that he had a gift for the queen and asked Antonio de Pigafetta, the chronicler of the expedition to present the queen with a statue of the Christ Child. At first, Rajah Humabon was skeptical but seeing that his queen’s eyes brightened upon seeing the statue, he shook hands with Magellan and welcomed him to his island. The queen promised that the little one, Santo Nino of the Spanish people, would replace the anitos (idols) of her people.
A week later, Humabon, with his family and 800 of his followers, converted to Roman Catholicism. Magellan erected a large wooden cross and celebrated mass and baptized all the natives. At the end of the mass, Magellan claimed the land for Spain and called the new lands Islas de San Lazaro in honor of the saint’s day when he first sighted the island. The first mass was celebrated on Limasawa, the first one in the Philippines’ history on an Easter Sunday. A controversy had arisen over whether the mas was actually held over Butuan, which was then called Masawa, a name sufficiently similar to Limasawa to have possibly confused a Spanish chronicler.

Inside Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel
Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes
Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia

Until next time. The Philippine story continues.

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