The hero of Mactan
At midnight, sixty armoured men in three boats cast off and proceeded down the channel between Cebu and Mactan. The breeze was too light to drive the longboats and men laboured at the oars with a rhythmic thumping and the squeak of rowlocks in a space crammed by crossbows and muskets. In the near-full Moon the shore on either side was visible in silhouette. Trinidad, Victoria and Concepción, with only skeleton crews aboard, heaved up their anchors and set sails that barely filled in the light airs. Three native boats commanded by Rajah Humabon paddled along nearby.
About three hours later the little armada arrived off that part of Mactan regarded as Lapu-Lapu’s territory. The captain general, on the steering oar, signalled across to Humabon, who spoke a smattering of Spanish, and called on him to deliver a message.
“Tell the renegade he can avoid war if he swears allegiance to Don Carlos and is baptised into the Christian faith. In that case, we shall be friends but if not, he will learn the sharpness of Christian swords by painful experience.”
While they waited for an answer, the captain general repeated his earlier instructions. Raw recruits were given final lessons on how to cock their crossbows or load their muskets. Musketeers were warned to keep their powder dry. Magellan made the sign of the cross over them and said “May God go with you,” which only made them more nervous.
Lapu-Lapu’s reply was defiant. His lances were made of stout bamboo and he had stakes hardened in fire. He was ready for battle. The falling tide uncovered coral heads revealed in the early light of dawn, which also revealed the three ships, that were meant to provide artillery support, were out of range. Pigafetta tried again to talk sense to his captain general, his hero.
“Captain General, please, please. Without the cannons we have no advantage. Your own plan is now wrecked.”
“We have stout-hearted men with the Lord God Almighty as their shield. God’s will be done.”
He climbed over the side into thigh-deep water and drew his sword. “Follow me in the name of the Lord.”
Eleven men were left to guard the boats and 49 staggered, stumbled, slipped and slid across the coral. As they reached ankle deep water the sky lightened to reveal a village among the trees. A horde of Lapu Lapu’s men further along the shore shouted defiance and brandished spears and swords. Pigafetta was astounded at their numbers. Well over a thousand, he estimated, when Magellan had expected a few dozen at most. Surely now the captain general would see reason.
Instead, he extracted a tinder box from somewhere under his armour. “We shall have that village for a distraction” he said and detailed off four of his men. “Take this tinder box. I want you to set fire to that village. When the village is well alight, come back here.”
Whatever result Magellan may have expected, the outcome was a roar of outrage from the warriors, many of whom no doubt had wives and children in the village. They surged forward in overwhelming numbers on three sides not only with swords and spears but also blowpipes firing poison darts.
Magellan’s motley crew broke and ran, floundering back towards the boats. Magellan’s force was disintegrating and the enemy tasted victory.
“Retreat” was a word Pigafetta never thought he would hear from the captain general’s mouth but he had taken a spear in the leg, wrenched it out and tried to staunch the blood with one hand while wielding his sword in the other.
“Retreat! Retreat! Pigafetta, go for the boats!”
“Come, Captain General. Come. I shall help you.”
“Go for the boats, Pigafetta. Do what you’re told.”
“Come, Captain General. Come.”
“Go. Go. Go.”
Finally the captain general stood alone to face an army. With whoops and yells they stabbed and hacked, the water turned red with his blood and his body was lost to the sea.