On 16 March 1521, Magellan sighted the islands of Philippines becoming the first European to reach the archipelago. Magellan landed on the island of Homonhon and befriended the chieftains of Limasawa. They then introduced Magellan to Rajah Humabon, the Rajah of Cebu, who was promptly baptized into Catholicism along with his wife and his subjects.

The beach at Magellan Bay, the site of the Battle of Mactan

Humabon acquired the Christian name Carlos, in honor of King Charles of Spain. His wife took the name Juana, in honor of King Charles’ mother. Apparently, Humabon so enjoyed the renaming process that he went around Cebu Island giving each of his people new names. Eventually, many nearby chiefs agreed to convert to Christianity except one, Lapu-Lapu.

Rajah Humabon convinced Magellan to go to war against his rival, Lapu Lapu. Lapu-Lapu, who ruled Mactan Island just across the waters from Cebu, had become a threat to Humabon. Humabon figured if he could get Magellan to defeat Lapu Lapu, he could rule over both Cebu as well as Mactan Island.

But Magellan was too arrogant to see Humabon’s true motives. On the contrary, he tried to impress Humabon by instructing the chief not to intervene in the imminent battle. Magellan believed that he could win the battle unassisted because of his superior weapons-guns and crossbows, against primitive spears and bows the tribal army used. This was despite the fact that Magellan was staggeringly outnumbered—only forty nine men against fifteen hundred, if contemporary account is to be believed.

Ferdinand Magellan’s Death historical marker (Magellan Shrine)

The battle that followed was unsurprisingly one-sided. Lapu-Lapu’s men managed to stay beyond the range of Magellan’s guns and crossbows while showering them with arrows. Firearms were a relatively recent development and loading them took from ten seconds up to a full minute. During this time, the Spanish remained vulnerable as the beach offered little cover. Outnumbered and encumbered by their armor, Magellan’s forces were quickly overwhelmed. Many of the warriors specifically attacked Magellan.

Nothing of Magellan’s body survived. Humabon tried to persuade Lapu-Lapu to return the body but the victorious chief refused.

 

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