[OPINION] The anger toward the ‘Elcano & Magellan’ film is unjustified

Jorge Mojarro
[OPINION] The anger toward the ‘Elcano & Magellan’ film is unjustified
The film is not about the Philippines, even though some of the most important events of that incredible journey happened in this archipelago


 Philippine schoolbooks of history seem to be written not to understand the past nor to stimulate critical thinking, but to feed the students with tones of blind patriotism. If young Filipinos were learning properly the history of their nation, they would have not gotten so angry on social media with the new Spanish cartoon entitled Elcano & Magellan: The First Voyage Around the World, especially considering that nobody has seen it yet.

I will go right to the point: the film is not about the Philippines, even though some of the most important events of that incredible journey happened in this archipelago. The film is about the first circumnavigation of the world. And given that this is a film for children and teenagers, there are several stereotypes in order to create an engaging plot – among them, the typical division of characters between heroes and villains. Needless to say, the circumnavigators had to be necessarily the heroes. (READ: CrystalSky Multimedia to ‘reevaluate’ the release of ‘Elcano and Magellan’ film in PH) 

In connection with the historical events recreated in this film, there are 3 issues that people seem to forget:

One: The plan was not to circumnavigate the planet. The Treaty of Tordesillas was signed between Portugal and Spain in 1494. Ridiculous as it must sound today, both nations agreed to divide the new territories and waters of the planet according to an imaginary line situated a few hundred leagues at the East of the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, they did not plan to circumnavigate the planet, because that would have meant crossing Portuguese waters.

The solution was actually improvised in the Moluccas islands. They had two remaining ships: La Trinidad, led by Gómez de Espinosa, would fail in attempting to cross the Pacific back to New Spain (today’s Mexico). La Victoria, whose captain was Elcano, would unlawfully enter in Portuguese waters in order to arrive in Europe passing near Cape of Good Hope (today’s South Africa), and eventually succeeded. So I need to insist: Magellan never planned to circumnavigate the planet. It was decided along the trip after his death.

Two: The seamen who took part in the expedition were not mandated to conquer any land. Therefore, they were not colonizers. They were looking for spices. They wanted to trade, and actually they did. Once they arrived in the Moluccas, they did not attempt to conquer. They negotiated and paid the inhabitants of Tidore the right price of a few hundred kilos of cloves.

Certainly, the expedition spent too many weeks in the Philippines, and the reasons seem open to speculation. Pigafetta talks about the Catholic devotion of Magellan, and his strong desire to convert people. Another source is the account of Ginés de Mafra, who suggested that people were really fed up with Magellan because they knew the cloves they were looking for were not in Cebu or its surroundings, and they thought they were wasting time in Cebu.

The Battle of Mactan, therefore, was not aimed at conquering anything. Magellan wanted to gain the trust and friendship of Rajah Humabon of Cebu, who had – falsely – converted to Catholicism, by helping in a fight against Humabon’s enemy. So, I need to insist again: Magellan and his crew were not colonizers. They wanted to trade spices.

Third: Lapu-Lapu was not fighting for the Philippines because, in the first place, Filipino people, as we understand it today, did not exist. Prehispanic Philippines was populated by dozens of chiefdoms who engaged in tribal wars quite often. Philippines as a nation is the result of an accident of history: early European imperialism. And the process of becoming Filipino was a long one.

Lapu-Lapu was fighting against a foreign intruder to protect the people of his island, and he did it very rightfully, since Lapu-Lapu and the people of Mactan did not do anything to deserve an attack from the European intruders. Therefore, considering Lapu-Lapu a national hero is as anachronistic and senseless as the Italians considering Marcus Aurelius – from the Roman Empire – a national hero. There was no Italy there, not yet. It would be more rightful, I believe, to consider Lapu-Lapu as a symbol of resistance against foreign intrusions and interferences.

I am not surprised that Lapu-Lapu is depicted as the villain: this is a necessary and probably unfair counterpoint of the narrative. But I have to confess that I would be extremely dissapointed if Cebuanos were portrayed in a bad way. I will wait until I watch the whole film to confirm this.

Lastly, I would like to remind the ones offended by this Spanish cartoon how the Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands were portrayed in the Filipino film Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir (2013). I remember perfectly that the natives of the Marianas were, according to this film, uncivilized and cruel barbarians who mercilessly killed a Visayan missionary catechist who wanted to bring them the light of faith. Chamorros looked and behave as deeply evil and unthankful people. Unsurprisingly, the film was immediately and unanimously praised in his native land as “a valiant effort to dramatize the life of our second Filipino saint,” but very, very unwelcomed in Guam. – Rappler.com 

Jorge Mojarro, PhD, has lived in the Philippines since 2009. He is professor of literature at the University of Santo Tomas and specializes in history of the book, Philippine colonial literature, and Philippine literature in Spanish. He is a supportert of the Azkals, a self-proclaimed lover of Philippine gastronomy, and has travelled extensively in the archipelago. Any opinion stated in this piece is his, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the organizations with which he is affiliated.

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