January 21, 2021

Screenplay: Battle of Mactan

Battle of Mactan

Battle of Mactan
Battle of Mactan

Battle of Mactan

Date: 27 April 1521
Location: Mactan, Cebu, Philippines

Result: Decisive Mactan victory

Belligerents: Mactan tribal warriors (1,500 men) vs Rajahnate of Cebu and the Spanish Empire (249–349 men)

Commanders and leaders

  • Lapu-Lapu
  • Rajah Humabon
  • Datu Zula
  • Ferdinand Magellan

The Battle of Mactan (Cebuano: Gubat sa Mactan; Filipino: Labanan sa Mactan) was fought in the Philippines on 27 April 1521. Warriors of Lapulapu, a native chieftain of Mactan, overpowered and defeated a Spanish force fighting for Rajah Humabon of Cebu under the command of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was killed in the battle. The outcome of the battle resulted in the departure of the Spanish crew from the archipelago, and delayed the Spanish colonization of the Philippines by 44 years until the conquest by Miguel López de Legazpi in 1564–1565.

On 16 March 1521 (Julian calendar), Magellan sighted the mountains of what is now Samar while on a mission to find a westward route to the Moluccas Islands for Spain. This event marked the arrival of the first documented Europeans in the archipelago. The following day, Magellan ordered his men to anchor their ships on the shores of Homonhon Island.

There, Magellan befriended Rajah Kolambu and Rajah Siagu, king of Limasawa, who guided him to Cebu.[1] There he met Rajah Humabon, the Rajah of Cebu. Then, Rajah Humabon and his queen were baptized into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos, in honor of King Charles of Spain, and Juana, in honor of King Charles’ mother. To commemorate this event, Magellan gave Juana the Santo Niño, an image of the infant Jesus, as a symbol of their new alliance and held their first Mass on the coast.

As a result of Magellan’s influence with Rajah Humabon, an order was issued to the nearby chiefs that each of them were to provide food supplies for the ships, and convert to Christianity. Most chiefs obeyed the order; however, Datu Lapulapu, one of the two chiefs within the island of Mactan, was the only chieftain to show his opposition. Lapulapu refused to accept the authority of Rajah Humabon in these matters. This opposition proved to be influential when Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s voyage chronicler, writes,

On Friday, April twenty-six, Zula, the second chief of the island of Mactan, sent one of his sons to present two goats to the captain-general, and to say that he would send him all that he had promised, but that he had not been able to send it to him because of the other chief Lapulapu, who refused to obey the king of Spain.

Rajah Humabon and Datu Zula suggested to Magellan to go to the island of Mactan and force his subject chieftain Datu Lapulapu to comply with his orders.[1] Magellan saw an opportunity to strengthen the existing friendship ties with the ruler of the Visayan region and agreed to help him subdue the resistant Lapulapu.

Mactan Battle

According to the documents of Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan tried to convince Lapulapu to comply with Rajah Humabon’s orders the night before the battle,

Battle of Mactan
Battle of Mactan

At midnight, sixty of us set out armed with corselets and helmets, together with the Christian king, the prince, some of the chief men, and twenty or thirty balanguais. We reached Mactan three hours before dawn. The captain did not wish to fight then, but sent a message to the natives to the effect that if they would obey the king of Spain, recognize the Christian king as their sovereign, and pay us our tribute, he would be their friend; but that if they wished otherwise, they should wait to see how our lances wounded. They replied that if we had lances they had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire. They said that in order to induce us to go in search of them; for they had dug certain pit holes filled with spikes between the houses in order that we might fall into them.[4]

Pigafetta writes how Magellan deployed forty-nine armored men with swords, axes, shields, crossbows, and guns, and sailed for Mactan in the morning of 28 April. A number of native warriors who had converted to Christianity also came to their aid. According to Pigafetta, because of the rocky outcroppings, and coral near the beach, the Spanish soldiers could not land on Mactan. Forced to anchor their ships far from shore due to the shallow water filled with rocks and coral reefs, Magellan could not bring his ships’ cannons to bear on Lapulapu’s warriors, whom Pigafetta claims numbered more than 1,500.

When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, [the natives] had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with ear-shattering loud cries… The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly…

Upon landing, Magellan’s small force was immediately attacked by the natives with a heavy barrage of ranged weapons, consisting of arrows, iron-tipped “bamboo” throwing spears (probably rattan bangkaw), fire-hardened sticks, and even stones. They surrounded Magellan’s landing party, attacking from the front and both flanks. The heavy armor of the Spaniards largely protected them from this barrage, inflicting only a handful of fatalities on the Europeans, but it was heavily demoralizing on the troops.

The musketeers and crossbowmen on the boat tried to provide support by firing from the boats. Though the light armor and the shields of the natives were vulnerable to European projectile weapons, the barrage had little effect, as they were firing from an extreme distance and the natives easily avoided them. Due to the same distance, Magellan could not command them to stop and save their ammunition, and the musketeers and crossbowmen continued firing for half an hour until their ammunition were exhausted.

The memorial to Magellan built by the Spanish.
The memorial to Magellan built by the Spanish.

Magellan, hoping to ease the attack set fire to some of the houses, but this only enraged the natives even more. Magellan was finally hit with a poisoned arrow through his unarmored legs, at which time the natives charged the Europeans for close-quarters combat.

Seeing that, Magellan sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Some of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them rained down upon us that the captain was shot through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to a frontal assault. But the men took to flight, except ten to fifteen of us who remained with the captain. The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away.

Many of the warriors specifically attacked Magellan. In the struggle, he was wounded in the arm with a spear and in the leg by a large native sword (likely a kampilan). Those who stood beside him were easily overpowered and killed, while the others who tried to help him were hacked by spears and swords. With this advantage, Lapulapu’s troops finally overwhelmed and killed Magellan. Pigafetta and a few others managed to escape.

Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice… an Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all rushed themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off…

According to Pigafetta, several of Magellan’s men were killed in battle, and a number of natives converted to Catholicism who had come to their aid were immediately killed by the warriors.

Magellan’s allies, Humabon and Zula, were said not to have taken part in the battle due to Magellan’s bidding, and they watched from a distance.

Aftermath of the Battle

When the body of Magellan was recovered by the warriors, Humabon ordered him to return the bodies of Magellan and some of his crew who were killed, and they would be given as much merchandise as they wished. Lapulapu refused.[citation needed]

Some of the soldiers who survived the battle and returned to Cebu were poisoned while attending a feast given by Humabon. Magellan was succeeded by Juan Sebastián Elcano as commander of the expedition, who ordered the immediate departure after Humabon’s betrayal. Elcano and his fleet sailed west and returned to Spain in 1522, completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

Battle In Philippine culture

Lapulapu at Battle of Mactan
Lapulapu at the Battle of Mactan — Lapu-Lapu shrine.

Today, Lapulapu is retroactively honored as the first “Philippine national hero” to resist foreign rule, even though the territory of the “Philippine Islands” did not exist at the time, nor was it even named or imagined that way.

Lapulapu is remembered by a number of commemorations: statues on the island of Mactan and at the Cebu Provincial Capitol, a city bearing his name, and a local variety of Red Grouper fish. Kapampangan actor-turned-politician Lito Lapid starred in a film called Lapu-Lapu, and novelty singer Yoyoy Villame wrote a folk song entitled “Magellan” that tells a humorously distorted story of the Battle of Mactan.

There is a spot in Mactan Island called the “Mactan shrine” where the historic battle is reenacted along the mangrove shorelines of the shrine during its anniversary and culminated with the Rampada Festival, a festival reenacting the victory celebration of Mactan after the battle. Appropriately called the “Victory of Mactan” (Cebuano: Kadaugan sa Mactan), the reenactment is considered as a grand celebration for Cebuanos and one of Cebu’s prime festivals together with the Sinulog of Cebu. Usually, during the re-enactment, Filipino celebrities, especially of Cebuano origin, play Lapu-Lapu, his wife Reyna Bulakna, and Ferdinand Magellan. In the same shrine, next to the Lapulapu statue, there is an obelisk erected in Magellan’s honor by the Spanish colonial authorities and defaced shortly after the US military occupation of the Philippines.

Magellan is also honored for bringing Catholicism to the Philippines in general and the Santo Niño (Child Jesus) to Cebu in particular. The Magellan’s Cross and the aforementioned Magellan’s shrine were erected in Cebu City. Many landmarks and infrastructures all over the Philippines bear Magellan’s name, mostly using its Spanish spelling (Magallanes), which is also a widely used Filipino surname.

The inhabitants of the Sulu archipelago believe that Lapulapu was a Muslim (Lapu Lapu among Khidr Army.) of the Sama-Bajau.

On April 27, 2017, in honoring Lapulapu as the first hero who resisted foreign rule in the country, the date April 27 when the battle happened was declared by President Rodrigo Duterte as Lapu-Lapu Day.


According to native legend, Lapulapu never died but turned into stone, and has since then been guarding the seas of Mactan. Fishermen of the island would throw coins at a stone shaped like a man as a way of asking for permission to fish in the chieftain’s territory.

Another myth passed on by the natives concerns the statue of Lapulapu erected on a pedestal at the center of the town plaza in Lapu-Lapu City. The statue faced the old city hall building, where the mayors used to hold office; it held a crossbow in the stance of appearing to shoot an enemy. Some superstitious people of the city proposed to change this crossbow with a sword, after a succession of three mayors died due to a heart attack.

Another legend suggests that after the battle, Lapulapu left Mactan and lived on a mountain.

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