The Life of Lapulapu, The Filipino National Hero

Elliot tells the story of the Lapulapu and The Battle of Mactan, in which the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed.

He describes how the Spaniards were met with resistance from the locals, who were not keen on conversion to Christianity.

The European's were eager to make an example of this apostate, but things would not go the way they'd planned...


Lapulapu is the national hero of the Philippines and is celebrated yearly on 'Lapulapu Day'.



Its 1521 and the world is abuzz with exploration. Tall ships from Portugal and Spain whizz around the globe in search of spices,trade routes or slaves, only to discover that the French or the Dutch had beaten them there.


From the coasts of America to the misty isles of Indonesian - customs, traditions, and even religions were being tossed aside, in an effort to assimilate with their powerful new invaders as quickly as possible.


But not all were so keen to throw away their way of life.


In the middle of a group of islands we now call ‘the philippines’ lay the tiny island of Mactan.


Despite their small population, the people of Mactan were proud of their traditions and their chieftain , Lapulapu, was in no mood to change anytime soon.

He knew the vague story these Spaniards talked of.


A long time ago someone was killed, nailed to a wooden Cross,and now they worship him.


Lapulapu had kept his thoughts to himself when other chieftains had converted and had held his tongue when they had tried to pressure him to convert.


But when their ambassadors had arrived on his island. Well, that was where he drew the line.

Now, the time had come to bear the consequences.


As the first few rays of the dawn sunrise crept above the horizon, He and his band of warriors lined up on the rocky beach of Mactan, watching the Spanish boats row closer and closer.


 Armed with their shining new muskets, and portable cannons; it was clear that they were not coming to talk.


Today was the day, when they would settle once and for all, whose God was really all powerful...


You’re listening to Anthology Of Heroes - the podcast telling the stories of national heroes or, sometimes, villains from every country of the world.


And this is the story of Lapulapu  The Apostate Of Mactan 

This episode is dedicated to Angel, Maria and of course, Anna and her lovely family that together made my time in the Philippines so enjoyable. Thanks for showing me around your lovely country!

A few years ago, I was based on the Fillipino island of Cebu for work. As I had my  weekends free I thought I'd try my land at scuba-diving, something that was very popular in the area due to the beautiful wildlife and sunken Japanese ships from world war two.

 One morning as Si, my diving instructor drove me to our dive site


I noticed the roadside was lined with colourful orange masks- when I asked what was the deal with them Si told me, ‘they're meant to be Lapulapu, he’s a kind of a folk hero around this place’


Not thinking much more on this,  The next weekend, I was strolling through Rizal Park; when a freak storm caught me off guard, and I ducked under the alcove of the nearby Anthropology Museum.


As the strong winds and heavy rain cleared the park of people, a huge, bronze statue in the middle of the park drew my eye.


It was a statue of a shirtless man in the traditional filipino dress. He stood straight up with his hands in front of him resting them on the hilt of a traditional filipino sword, the point of which stuck into the ground between his feet.


I knew immediately it was Lapulapu, and found out it was named ‘The Sentinel of Freedom’.


I’m not much for believing in fate, but as the Filipino Chieftain stood unmoved as the storm shook the tree’s and flooded the park , I knew I had my hero for the Philippines.


Sorry Jose Rizal, I'm sure your story is told elsewhere.

Like so many heroes we cover from smaller nations that relied less on written history and more on oral storytelling, there are few hard facts known about Lapulapu. I'll be trying to piece his story together from what is available.


The story of Lapulapu, is not well known in the west. 


But, his rival - and the other main character of our story is almost a household name, especially in Spain and Portugal.


Ferdinand Magellan was a Portugese explorer employed by The Spanish King Charles I. He is best remembered today as the first man to circumnavigate the globe.


Magellan’s voyage started in 1519 in Seville Spain. At the time of his departure, the territory of ‘the new world’ had been split into spheres of influence by the Pope.


Under what became known as the ‘the treaty of Tordesillas’ a line was drawn vertically through the atlantic ocean intersecting with the corner of Brazil. Anything to the left of the line belonged to Spain, and anything to the right belonged to Portugal.


This left Spain with almost all of the American continent, and Portugal with India, Africa and the islands of Australasia.


If the idea of dividing the entire world up between two European powers seems strange to you, that makes two of us; and the effects of this are still visible today when looking at South America where almost every country speaks Spanish, except for Brazil which speaks Portugese.


Officially, the goal of the expedition was to find a western route to the Indonesian islands, AKA - the Spice islands.


At this point in history, the world of culinary cuisine had recently exploded onto the Europe plate;

 for first first time…. ever - people were bedazzling their taste buds with bold new flavours derived from spices that prior to now had been almost impossible to get in Europe.


For spices like Pepper, Cinnamon, Cumin, Anise and Nutmeg - the demands, and prices skyrocketed.


But it wasn’t all about jazzing up foods, 

many of these herbs had medicinal properties - that were known of, or at least speculated about:


Cardamom was said to be a Digestive aid, that could also fix bad breath, headaches, fevers, colds


Ginger could help you with chronic flatulence, stop anaemia, improve liver health and ward off colds.


And Safron, the most expensive spice in the world, then and now:it could be used as

  • A stimulant to wake you up; 
  • cure your headaches
  • reduce your heart palpitations
  • hold back dropsy 
  • and reduce gastric ulcers


The upper class  were willing to pay big bucks to get their hands on these. So, if there was a quicker way to harvest them; it meant big bucks for the Spanish King and for Magellen. 


So Magellen set off, and after dealing with a mutiny and sentencing a man to death after catching him in the act of sodomy - he and 5 ships made their way down the west coast of africa and through the indian ocean.


Meanwhile over in the west, things haven't exactly been standing still either. The 7,640 islands that make up the country we now call the philippines were, an incredibly diverse collection of different cultures, languages and religions. 


The islands sat on the outer perimeter of many larger empires, and over the millenia as these empires rose and fell - different islands would retain different elements of that empire.

And over time, these mixed and shifted  into something would become distinctly…... Filipino - even though that term did not exist yet.


A blend of hindu buddhism had taken hold on the northern islands as early as 100AD


While Islam had become the main religion of some of the western islands in around 1500AD


And across the other islands, all manner of animistic or shamistic rituals were practised.

You could say there was something for everyone

The technological advancements of the islands too - were fairly advanced 

Martial arts had made their way over from China, shipbuilding techniques had come from Borneo and weaponsmithing from Japan.

Culturally, the Philipino people would be deemed progressive, even by modern standards.

Generally, women held just as many rights as men, if not - a little more. 

They could become heads of state

There was little taboo on them being unmarried

Divorce was common and accepted

In some cases men even took on their wives name after marriage 

Even abortion’s were nothing too far out of the ordinary.

Of course, all this varied from island to island

Smack bang in the middle of this cultural melting pot lay the island of Cebu, then called ‘Sugbo’.

History gets a bit murky here, but summarised: 

The name ‘Sugbo’ comes from a short-hand form of a local language

Which translates to “that of Sri Lumay's great fire"

Sri Lumay was the founder of the kingdom, he was a harsh disciplinarian, and when he could not stop the yearly raids from pirates, he ordered that next time the pirates were sighted - the townsfolk were to burn their entire town down, and take shelter in the mountains.

In other words - scorch the earth - the direct translation of the word Sugbo became the new name.


The name Sugbu comes from a phrase meaning ‘scorched earth’ - a reference to a ruler who periodically had the town burnt down if pirates were sighted, in an effort to deny them plunder.

For the sake of simplicity, i’ll be sticking with the modern name of ‘Cebu’ for this story.

When Magellen set off from Spain in 1519, Cebu was ruled by a guy called Humabon; known formally as Rajah Humabon.


Humabon’s family may have come from Sumatra, but that's about all we know about him.


Whoever he was, he ruled over almost the entirety of the island of Cebu and even had some settlements on the neighbouring islands paying tribute to him.


But off the southern side of Rajah Humabon’s domain lay a small, vocal nuisance.


The island of Mactan.


Mactan was tiny, compared to Cebu, only 65KM squared from coast to coast; but it was ruled by a stubborn local lord, known as a ‘Datu’.

This Datu’s name was Lapulapu.

We only have speculative oral history about where he came from or really anything about his early life. 


No sources are 100% reliable, with some stating that he had several wives, and 11 children, others that he had just one wife Bulakna - who he loved dearly


Likewise his lineage is debated - with some saying he was a native of Mactan, while others say that he emigrated from Borneo.

The latter story goes that Rajah Humabon allowed him to settle on Mactan, but eventually Lapulapu turned to piracy which damaged the Rajah’s trading profit. 


According to this story this is where the name for the island ‘Mactan’ comes from - the old Cebuano translation meaning ‘bandit’ or literally ‘those who lie in wait’.

Wherever he came from  there was no love lost between Rajah Humabon and Datu Lapulapu and, when Spanish sails were sighted on horizon - The Rajah smelled opportunity…

Magellan and his crew had an incredibly rough time crossing the pacific ocean. 


Having no concept of just how big it was, they drifted through the endless blue abyss for weeks, completely exhausting their supplies of food and water - which had only factored for a few days


The journeys chronicler; a man called Pigafetta - unfortunate name - says this of the journey quote:

“We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. 

We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days. ….

…often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece, and even then we could not get them….

end quote


He then goes onto describe the crew members dying in mass from what we understand as vitamin C deficiency - quote:


“The gums of both the lower and upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so that they could not eat under any circumstances and therefore died.”

End quote


At this point in history, scurvy was not well understood,even though ships had advanced to handle long sea voyages, the crew members had not.


Magellan and members of the officer corps - fared better than the stock standard crew member because part of their rations included quince paste which contained Vitamin C. Not that they understood this.

The convoy of ships drifted tantalisingly close to many islands that - in hindsight we know - could have provided fresh water, but were probably just over the horizon, and therefore missed


Their last stop before Cebu, was one of the Mariana islands. Where locals paddled out to meet them, boarded their ship andddddd promptly stole everything that isn't nailed down


So notorious was their thievery that Magellen named the island ‘la isla de ladrones’ - the isle of thieves


But finally on the 16th March 1521, the beleaguered convey pulled into dock at Cebu


Wanting to make their presence known, Magellan ships fired all their cannons, scaring the locals.Once they docked, the two cultures met face to face.

Its here we introduce our fourth main character. 

Enrique of Malacca was a slave turned interpreter for the expedition.

It's not clear exactly where he came from, but it's likely he was a native of either Summatra (modern day Indonesia) or Malaysia. Enrique was the name given to him after his capture.

Magellan kept Enrique close when he was trying to secure funding for the expedition from the Spanish crown.


The physical presence of  a native from the island he was trying to find a passage toward, helped boost the credibility of his mission.


Though Enrique likely didn’t speak the Cebuano language, his native language was much more closely related to it, then say - Spanish was.


And from all accounts, he did a terrific job; and facilitated almost all communication between the two civilisations.

As Enrique introduced Magellen and the crew,


Rajah Humabon was understandably a bit panicked; and asked Magellen why he had fired the cannons


Magellen responded that there was no need  for concern - and that they had only done it to ‘toast’ The King.

I have my doubts, and would bet this was a not-so-subtle way to flex their military might.


‘Hear that? That was one was to celebrate you, but imagine what it could do if it wasnt right?’

Remember: The people of Cebu had been in contact with many different nations. Unlike say, the Aztecs or Inca’s - these people had seen western technology; but a ship of this size capable of making such noise, was probably quite a sight.

But just as Magellen was testing the boundaries with his new hosts, the Rajah was trying the same.


Rajah Humabon tried to charge the Spanish a fee for entering the port, afterall Cebu was a major trading port; they had visitors all the time - who were these men to flout the rules

Well, according to Pigafetta - they were the exception to the rules, quote:

“Look well, sire.These men are the same who have conquered Calicut, Malaca, and all India major. If they are treated well, they will give good treatment, but if they are treated evil, 

evil and worse treatment, as they have done to Calicut and Malaca.” - end quote

Calicut, Malaca and India - were strategically chosen here, Magellan was banking on The King having heard what had happened in the surrounding area.

The Rajah apparently took a day to think on this, but returned the next day with a good serving of food and wine, telling Magellen; that yes - he would like to be friends.


Over the next few days, Magellan and his men meet many of The Rajah’s local lords, giving and receiving many gifts and even engaging in a few blood bonds; which I can imagine the pope wouldn’t have been to happy about.


Blood pacts, known as ‘Sandugo’ were a way of formalising alliances between island kingdoms. Both men would make a small cut in their arm - drip the blood into a goblet - mix it with wine and drink it - sealing their bond of friendship with the essence of life.


This act is forever preserved in the flag of Bohol, the island just south of Cebu. It looks like the French flag with a very cool blood ritual in the middle. I'll be putting it on our website and instagram.


After guzzling a bit of blood, Magellen slowly began to push a tradition of his own on the Rajah - christianity.


Pigafetta tells us quote


“The captain told them that God made the sky, the earth, the sea, and everything else, and that He had commanded us to honor our fathers and mothers, and that whoever did otherwise was condemned to eternal fire; that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, our first parents; that we have an immortal spirit” - end quote


I want you to stop for a minute and think how nonsensical this would sound to people for the first time. The story is complicated enough for us in western cultures;


Imagine having this explained to you by someone who only speaks about one third of your language.


I’m imagining a bunch of confused looking tribal captains raising their eyebrows at each other while Enrique gesticulates dramatically, with Magellen and the others nodding along encouragingly. 

But after gifts of beautiful silks, weaponry, promises of alliances and eternal salvation, Rajah Humabon and his captains agree to become Christians.


In thanks, Magellan gives The Rajah a big ol hug, and tells him that because he was the first to convert; he will make him the most powerful chief in the area.


He then sets up a large wooden cross in the main square of Cebu


He tells The Rajah that as Christians they need to worship at this cross daily, and burn any idols that they may have worshipped in the past, because that was sinful.


Mass baptisms take place with 500 new converts lining up to accept the faith.

But the burning of idols was a step too far,

most who were happy to pay lip service to the new faith; but weren’t ready to completely disregard their millenia old traditions on a whim.


The Rajah, his son and his wife are all given new names more … acceptable to the christian faith - for the sake of the simplicity, i'll stick with the original names


The Rajah’s wife was  so overwhelmed she wept with joy; after being gifted a small wooden idol of Jesus adorned in the clothes of a king, known as the  ‘santo ninyo’ 

After the Christian ceremonies had taken place, we have a first hand account of a distinctively ‘Cebuano’ one - the descriptions are sexually graphic - so any kiddies listening  - skip ahead 1M or so


According to our friend Pigafetta, after a large feast in which a pig is slaughtered, the men will walk around with nothing but a palm leaf covering their groin.


Underneath the palm leaf, they have their dicks pierced vertically with a gigantic bolt, about the size of a pinky finger


On each end of the piercing is a kind of a ‘spur’ so that during sex, if the penis is inserted when its soft, once the man is hard enough, the spur will prevent him from being able to pull out …….or for the other participant to run away



Be aware, this ceremony was noted by a Spaniard foot soldier, for a Spanish king - with a vested interest in painting these people as savages - so take it with a grain of salt.


But anyway - it wasn’t all dick piercing and sunshine


Two mainland settlements refused to convert so Magellan and the Spaniards made short work of them - the villages were burnt to the ground, with its citizens butchered like animals.

The Rajah was certainly making use of his new Spanish friends and Magellen was certainly being lulled into a false sense of security about how easy these people were to subdue.

With all of Cebu now under the joint control of The Rajah and Magellen, all that remained was Mactan.


A minor chief arrived with two goats for Magellen as tribute, saying he had wanted to provide more but Datu Lapulapu had forbidden it.


That was all the reason Magellen needed for war, and at first light of Saturday, April 27th,1521 - Magellan and 60 Spaniards boarded their canoes and headed to Mactan.


Meeting them halfway, Lapulapu’s messenger told Magellan that the Datu would submit to the authority of Spain; but not to that of Rajah Humabon.


But this wasn’t good enough. Magellan wanted to make the Rajah a shining example to other chieftains; an example of all the benefits that came with being a friend of spain!


And so, as dawn broke - Magellan and his Spaniards unloaded in the waters of the small tropical island.


The party had with them a cannon, which they were hoping to frighten Lapulapu’s men; but they had not anticipated the sharp rocky reef that surrounded Mactan - there was no suitable ground to unload it.


The Spaniards waded into the water, and almost immediately found themselves in a kind of mediaeval D’day landing.


From the village onshore came 1500 of Lapulapu’s finest. Armed with sharpened cane spears, and iron tipped lances they swarmed the invaders.


Screaming and hooting, fearsomely tattooed, and covered in piercings the  warriors charged into the sea to meet the Europeans.


Magellan - now realised the gravity of the situation he was in - ordered his men to form up

and from the spanish lines came volleys of bullets and crossbow bolts.


The powerful bolts easily punched right through the defenders wooden shields, while  the bullets ripped through them en masse.


The defenders shrieked in pain, and keeled over as the clear blue water slowly turned into a ruddy red mess.


The advance slowed - with many ducking behind their shields or trying to submerge themselves in the water to avoid the next round


But before long - all the Spaniards gunpowder was soaking wet - and they had run out of crossbow bolts.


Other boats had also arrived with reinforcements, but either because they were struggling to find a suitable landing spot - or because they could see the way this fight was looking - they stayed where they were.


With the battle temporarily stalled - Magellan seized the initiative and directed a few men to run ashore and start burning the huts down, and kill anyone they found.


He hoped that the natives would scatter in an attempt to protect their livelihood, but it did just the opposite  - as their property and family were put to the torch on shore,


The men of Mactan surged forward in a blind rage- picking up any spears left in the water and hurling them again at the Spanish.


As the Spanish gave more and more ground the water crept up to their chest and  it became much harder for them to manoeuvre - with their heavy plate armour they could barely turn around much less swing a sword!


Magellan yelled at his men to stand firm, but just as he did so;

His arm was slashed as he fought hand to hand with a native that may or may not have been Lapulapu himself.


Freeing himself from the engagement, he went to draw his sword, but struggled to pull it from his scabbard.


Seeing weakness, the men of the Philippines swarmed him, one bashed off his iron helmet; which he feverishly pulled back on.


But as he did so, another slashed his leg open, and as he fell to his knees; he was stabbed to death by many who now recognised him as the captain of the entire voyage.

Seeing their benevolent captain killed, any sense of order broke down as the remaining spaniards jettisoned armour, weaponry and everything else and swam to the safety of the boats


As the midmorning sun rose across the horizon, the body of Magellan - the man who had almost circumnavigated the globe, lay face down in the murky brown waters of Mactan.


I think Peter Matryr, one of our sources from the 16th century summarised this moment perfectly - stating ‘Thus did this brave Portugese, Magellan - satisfy his craving for spices’

The battle of Mactan is a……….. strange one, its one of only a few losses on Spain’s efforts of colonisation in the new world


To lose a battle to the native population was rare, but to have the captain of the expedition killed - that was almost unheard of. Far from their home, and now without a leader - things began to unravel for the Spaniards.


Having completely lost their upper hand on the bargaining table, the expedition promised all manor of gold or trinkets to Lapulapu if he would return the body of Magellen.


But he refused; telling them that he would be keeping the explorers body as a souvenir.


Meanwhile, the group's translator, Enrique (that is - Magellens slave) - had been promised freedom upon the death of his master but the remaining Spaniards now refused to allow it as they had no way of communicating without him.


Furious at this betrayal -  he began plotting against the spanish


Things get murky here with source material

But it seems like Enrique told Rajah Humabon that The Spanish were planning to return and take over Cebu - ousting him completely.


Whatever he said, the Rajah took it seriously and - under the guise of a feast - he had a large group of the Spanish poisoned or murdered during dinner - very games of throne-sy!


With their leader butchered, and tens of their soldiers murdered at the hands of their host

Its fair to say, the Spanish had overstayed their welcome. And they got the hell out of there as soon as they could.


They had so few men left they didn’t have enough crew to man the ships they arrived with, and were forced to burn a few of them.

But, the show had to go on and on the 8th of November they arrived at the much anticipated spice islands of Indonesia - proving definitively that the earth was round and confirming the existence of a western route to Indonesia.

The expedition would eventually make it back home to Seville, almost 3 years later to the day.


Of the 277 men that had been on the original expedition, 18 returned.

The expedition, though costly in terms of human life - had been a success.


The Spanish empire could finally get its grubby paws on the lucrative spice trade - with the Popes blessing.

As with so many national heroes - representatives from different groups have tried to use the symbolism of this powerful filipino hero to promote their own cause


When I was in Cebu, a particularly heated discussion I overheard was whether Lapulapu was muslim or not.


With some claiming that as the primary diet of the Cebuanos was pork - which is forbidden by Islam - he could not have been muslim.


With the other side claiming that as he had multiple wives - a more common custom of Islamic rulers at this time, he was a muslim.

Likewise is the discussion on whether or not he was a native cebuano - or an immigrant. This is something i’m not going to speculate on; as my research gave me no clear direction either way.

We have only rumours of what happened to our main characters, but the consensus is that 

After taking his freedom back by force, Enrique made his way back to his homeland and disappeared from the historical record.


Quite possibly as the first person in history to complete a full circumnavigation of the world.

Rajah Humabon and Lapulapu buried the hatchet and eventually came to an alliance that benefited the both of them.


Some say that Lapulapu made his way back to his home island like Enrique, others say that he lived on a mountain for the rest of his life, while an urban legend says he turned to stone - to guard Mactan forevermore.

But Lapulapu and Rajah Humabon had only delayed colonisation.


Cebu was a perfectly located stopover point between the spice islands; it was valuable real estate.


So, 44 years later, the Spanish returned and this time, local resistance was easily crushed.

The coastal towns of Cebu were raised to the ground.


While picking through the ruins of the burnt out house, a soldier found a small pine box,inside of it lay the Santo Nino, the child Jesus doll that had been given to Rajah Humabons wife as a present during her baptism.

The survival of this relic in near perfect condition was hailed as a divine miracle by the Spanish troops then and by Filipino catholics of today. 


The doll now occupies a permanent space in the Basilica del Santo Nino in the centre of Cebu.


Its said to have miraculous powers, and anytime throughout the day there is a queue to say a quick prayer to the doll that is now protected by thick bulletproof glass.

Flowers, money and trinkets are left as offerings to it.

I lined up for 30 minutes, to have quick look - you’re not allowed to take photos, but i’ve added one I found online to our website.


Without trying to be disrespectful I found it a little creepy, I got kinda Slappy from Goosebumps vibes from it - but still very interesting, worth a look!


Magellens cross still stands in central Cebu, but its legitimacy as the ‘original’ cross that the explorer personally planted is doubtful.


The official story is that the original cross is inside the new cross because the original cross was chipped away by worshippers who wanted a piece as a good luck amulet.


But others suspect that none of the original cross was left by the time the Spanish returned and that this is a modern reproduction.

As for the man of the show, Lapulapu - his legacy is immense within the philippines.


For someone we know so little definitive facts about - his symbolism as the original defender of Philipino liberty is a powerful one, which in the minds of the Filipino people 

- more than makes up for the lack of hard data.

And from my time in Cebu, I can concur - during my stay there I got errr


slightly addicted to the iphone app ‘Mobile Legends: Bang Bang’ - a kind of DoTA, League of Legends type of game


And there he was again, Lapulapu The Great Chief as a playable character!


And Every year on April 27 is Lapulapu day - where all around the philippines colourful and dramatic reenactments of the battle between the chieftain and Magellen are held - complete with costumes, music and dancing.


The president and many other state officials attend, its a big deal!


i’ll be uploading some footage from the ceremony on our instagram page


If you ever take a look at a policeman or fireman's badge, once again you’ll see the great chief’s outline displayed boldly in the centre.


I’ll take us out with a quote from Philiphino historian Jose Amiel Angeles:


 “Every Filipino schoolchild knows the local chieftain, Lapu-Lapu, who defeated a small force of Europeans under the command of the famous Portuguese explorer and conquistador.


This battle has entered into the canon of Philippine history and, indeed is etched in Philippine nationalist consciousness”

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