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‘Our Mirror…Our True Guide’
The Heroic Death of Ferdinand Magellan, April 27, 1521

As a stick-fighter I was, for two decades showered with the heroic story of a Cebu warrior with a stick, killing armored juggernaut Ferdinand Magellan when he attempted to take part in a tribal war. Of course, it was all a myth for marketing stick-fighting courses, proving that the Filipino stick-fighting was superior to Spanish sword fighting. They will try and sell this load of crap in the same session during which they tell you the truth: that Filipinos are renowned stick-fighters for the reason that the Spanish took their swords away, at sword point.

Now that I have read the definitive eye-witness account of Magellan’s death, it is clear to see that the Spanish had good reason for prohibiting the Filipinos to remain armed with their nasty scimitars, heavier than those used by Turks or Moors, according to the chronicler.

A Desperate Man

Magellan had put down a mutiny at the tip of South America, marooning a priest and captain. One ship had turned back, so, after circumnavigating the globe, he would return a hated—probably doomed man—for his remaining captains, all Spanish and he Portuguese, would surely denounce him.

He was driven to accomplish great things, to bring such nations under Spanish rule that the King might forgive him. He successfully converted the Cebu islanders, making of their king a proud, Spanish subject and baptized Christian. He had done this peacefully, as the King and Church willed it, not through violent conversion.

On April 27, 1521, two years after Cortez brought down the Aztecs and 10 years before Pizarro would take down the Incas, brilliant navigator and mediocre amateur soldier, “Hernando de Magallanes,’ [according to the Filipinos, Fernao de Magalhaes in Portuguese] picked a fight with the king of Mactan, across the channel from Cebu. The Cebuan king brought warriors and wished to help. Magellan, wanting to demonstrate Spanish superiority, declined aid. The majority of his captains declined to take part in the battle and he was left with only 60 loyalists, marching across shallows too broad for covering fire from the ships to aid. Also, his boatmen stood too far off to be of help—a choice, not a reflection of an impossibility navigation of the shallows.

The bulk of Magellan’s officers and men wished to see him perish.

An initial attack on some huts was met with a strong counterattack and Magellan’s son was slain, even as he took a poison arrow in the leg. At this point, his son dead and him facing a possibly humiliating and agonized death as his captains circled like jackals, it seems that the Captain General of the tiny fleet chose death.

He ordered his men back to the boats, fighting with a few companions for an hour in the shallows against the better armed champions of a force of 1500 Mactan tribesmen. The tribesmen were armored with light shields and wielded bamboo spears, bows and arrows, iron-tipped stakes and large scimitars.

Magellan and his men took about ten casualties.

Seeing that the boats were not coming to rescue his men, Magellan ordered his followers to make a break for it while he fought on his own against a gang of between 20 and 30 warriors.

The Cebuan warriors came to the aid of his men and took them on board or helped them board the reluctantly piloted Spanish boats. Meanwhile, the traitor captains directed their cannon fire at the Cebuan relief force!

Magellan’s helmet was knocked from his head twice by spears.

Each time he donned his helmet again and kept fighting.

The crucial weakness of the Spanish array was that their legs were unarmored.

Standing in the surf, alone, a poison arrow through his right leg, Magellan fought on with his lance.

A warrior threw a spear into Magellan’s face, who countered by running him through the body with his lance, where the weapon remained lodged.

Attempting to draw his sword, Magellan was unable to draw it more than half way due to a spear wound to his arm. When the Mactanese saw this, they swarmed in on him, his lance having kept them at bay. One slashed his left thigh open with a huge cutlass.

Magellan fought on, turning “back many times to see whether we were all in the boats…not a single one of us would have been saved in the boats, for while he was fighting the others retired to the boats.”

Magellan took numerous scimitar slashes and remained standing until his men were in the boats. Eventually his legs could not hold him up anymore and he fell face forward in the shallows and the mob of warriors rushed in like wolves.

When the warriors were done, all that was left of Magellan were pieces floating in the surf.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler and supernumerary of the expedition, a member of the sixty man invasion force and one of the less than twenty men who would eventually return to Spain in what appeared a death ship, the Captain General acquitted himself a hero:

“…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. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated as best we could to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

And so there was not a rattan training stick in the battle, but steel, and, as with the Mayans and Aztecs and Floridian tribes, light, piercing lances of splintering wood to thrust into the face, arm and armpit. Magellan and his men, an exploratory force without a seasoned cadre of Conquistadors with experience in New Spain, were unprepared for dealing with light weapons and inexperienced in soldiering at all.

Even so, Magellan, despairing of an heroic return, that he would be seized as a criminal like Columbus and thrown into a dungeon, having been betrayed again by his captains and having lost his loyal son before his eyes, died one of the better deaths of the age, going out like Roland or Leonidas.

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