[OPINION] Circumnavigating the circumnavigators

Vicente L. Rafael

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[OPINION] Circumnavigating the circumnavigators
Magellan and Elcano's voyage were part and parcel of an ongoing Spanish imperial project to dominate the world

Disney recently began to put disclaimers on its classic animated movies, admitting that they contained racist depictions and offensive stereotypes. 

It made me think of the recent controversy surrounding the Spanish animated film celebrating the “first” circumnavigation of the world, Elcano and Magellan.

Some people have called for the suppression of the film. Others, especially some Spanish writers along with some Filipinos thought that the film was harmless. Filipino nationalist outrage was misplaced. (I agree with this, since there was no “Philippines” as such in 1521, and Lapulapu was less a patriot than a datu at war with a neighboring datu, Humabon, with whom Magellan had allied himself. Lapulapu, who was not even in the actual battle of Mactan, was not fighting a nationalist war, but a local one.)

But apologists for the film have also stressed that it’s merely a cartoon, an innocent adventure movie that required the usual stock figures of heroes and villains. One thinks of Rudyard Kipling children’s books like Gunga Din or The Jungle Book: racist, sure, but really just innocent fun. The film depicts Magellan and Elcano as jovial, if competitive types, nice guys bouncing around the world, like tourists. They are not really colonizers, only “spice traders.” The native women would naturally be attracted to these amiable, dashing white Europeans and were placed in the film to provide the usual romantic hook.

It’s a bit like saying Columbus was not really a colonizer and a slaver and was just doing the Spanish King a favor. This is a surprising misunderstanding of the Spanish imperial project. After all, the years of Magellan’s voyage, 1519-1521, coincided with Cortez’s war against the Aztecs and consequent colonization of Mexico; that it had been preceded by the Reconquista that brutally expelled Muslims and Jews, by the colonization of the Canary Islands, then Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama (from where Vasco Nuñez de Balboa first sighted the Pacific Ocean in 1513, not to mention the imperial control of large portions of what today is Western Europe from France, Italy, the Netherlands, etc).

It’s important to be clear: Magellan’s voyage was the inaugural moment of the Spanish colonization in the Pacific, followed by several other Spanish attempts at establishing permanent settlements in the islands culminating with Legazpi’s landing in Cebu in 1565, right around the time the Spaniards were carrying out their conquest of Peru (starting 1532-33, but continuing through the 1570s).

In other words, Magellan and Elcano’s voyage were part and parcel of an ongoing Spanish imperial project to dominate the world. It was in direct competition with the Portuguese who had established colonies on the West African coast, then across the Indian Ocean and as far out as Malacca, Taiwan, Japan, and the Spice Islands (until the temporary union of the two crowns in the 16th century). If this isn’t a colonial project, I don’t know what is. (See J.H. Elliot, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716; Henry Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763, among many other sources).

Attempts to explain the cartoon away as a harmless celebration of Spanish heroism and daring-do is problematic but not unusual for Spanish historians. Indeed, the archivists of the Archivo General de Indias still refer to the early Spanish colonizers as “quixotes of the ocean,” continuing to romanticize and nationalize Spanish imperial history. Empire continues to be a way of life for much of Spain, even if much (though not all) of its imperial holdings have been dissolved. Still, like Disney, the Spanish filmmakers might pause, and perhaps admit to tendentious rewriting of a history that obscures the cruelties of empire and recirculates the most unfortunate colonial racist stereotypes. That, of course, will never happen, just as the King will never apologize to Mexico for its past actions.

Here’s a suggestion: Perhaps the distributors (rather than the filmmakers) can follow Disney’s lead and add a disclaimer of sorts: “Warning: The events depicted here are systematic distortions of historical truth. They contain racist stereotypes that will most likely offend Filipinos for the sake of feeding Spanish nostalgia for their empire – a nostalgia that systematically evades the violent consequences that befell native peoples who came under imperial occupation.” How’s that for a compromise and a corrective? – Rappler.com

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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