A. Paulita Roa
LITTLE is known about the fact that Portugal came to Southeast Asia decades before the Spaniards landed in our shores in 1521. The Portuguese were able to establish a very profitable trade in Moluccas that was then known as the fabled Spice Islands. At that time in 15th century Europe, it is said that a man who has a chest full of cinnamon and other spices from the East could easily marry a princess.
Ferdinand Magellan was a navigator and an adventurer who was born to a noble family in Portugal. In his younger days, he went to India then to Moluccas and and to the spice marts of Ambon and Banda in western Indonesia. On his way back to his native Portugal, he observed the directions of the winds and ocean tides and was convinced that he found a quicker and easy route to the Spice Islands by following the western route that was set earlier by Christopher Columbus. However, King Manuel was never favorable to Magellan even when the latter joined a Portuguese military expedition to North Africa and fought gallantly against the Moors there. In 1517, Magellan crossed Portugal’s border to Spain and sought an audience with the new king, Carlos I, who was only 17 years and could not even speak Spanish. King Carlos who was born in Belguim inherited a multimillion dollar debt from his grandfather, Emperor Maximillian.
Magellan offered his services to the king and all that he knew about the secrets of the successful Portuguese spice trade in exchange for ships and men so he can make a voyage to the Spice Islands via the new route that he had earlier conceived. But King Carlos was then in a state of penury and it was not him who funded the expedition but a German banker named Jacob Fugger who lent the king’s grandfather nine million dollars. Apparently, he wanted to be able to get a hefty return for his money, so he funded this ambitious project. A contract was drawn and it was strictly a business agreement and very detailed. Like what each party was to contribute and to receive, the exact measurements of deck space and cabins and the percentage from the spoils of war that will be divided from the captain to the cabin boy.
As head of the expedition, Magellan was instructed that gifts were to be given to kings and chieftains but no weapons or iron tools. As much as possible, hostilities should be avoided for this can pose a great hindrance to future trade. The ship’s guns should not be discharged for it can bring great fear to the natives. And under no circumstances was Magellan to leave the flagship or set foot ashore. Should there be Moros in the land, he should appoint a man to go ashore, make a treaty of peace and trade merchandise with them (Scott 1982).
So what was the prime reason why Magellan violated the contract and lost his life? The answer is greed. Plain greed. When he saw that the islands had an abundance of gold. His voyage chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta described the Visayans as having so much gold – from earrings, armbands, weaponry and even in their teeth. It was part of the culture to have what is known as decorative dentistry as a sign of beauty. There were professional dental workers in those times known as a manunusad who made those impressive goldwork for the teeth. Pigafetta was impressed by the appearance of Si Awi , the young Butuan ruler, whom he wrote as having three gold dots in each tooth.
History tells us that Magellan went ashore several times. He was present when the mass was first said in Cebu that was attended by a big throng of Sugbuanons. He then presented the queen with a statue of the child Jesus which until now is a revered icon at the Basilica de Santo Nino in Cebu. However, seeing the wealth around him from gold, to Chinese porcelain, spices and silk, the business side of the contract and instructions that was drawn in Spain was forgotten. Magellan did not want to just do trading but he started to wield a powerful influence within the islands. All this came to a brief end when he was hit by a poisoned arrow near the shore of Mactan and was then cut in to pieces by Lapu-Lapu’s warriors.
When Magellan’s survivors returned to Spain, they brought with them half a million dollars worth of spices at the cost of 200 Spanish lives. King Carlos I borrowed another three million dollars from Fugger so he can buy the title of Holy Roman Emperor. By this time, the king boasted that he spoke Spanish to God, French to the women, Italian to the men and German to his horse. He mounted two more unsuccessful expeditions to the Spice Islands that brought him deeper in debt to Fugger. Years later, it was his son, Felipe II who sent Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to another expedition to the archipelago to fulfill the dream of his late father to occupy it and expand the Christian kingdom.