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The Story of Lapu-Lapu: The Legendary Filipino Hero

Statue of Datu Lapu Lapu, defender of the Philippines, in Cebu
Statue of Datu Lapu Lapu, defender of the Philippines, in Cebu | © shankar s. / Flickr
Lapu-Lapu is widely celebrated as the first Filipino hero, famously vanquishing Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan and his army in their attempt to colonise Mactan Island. In honor of his triumph, Lapu-Lapu’s monument stands tall in the island of Mactan today, symbolising the country’s first successful resistance to Spanish colonisation.

Apart from successfully defying foreign invaders, little is known about the man and legend that is Lapu-Lapu. Citing scholarly research and historical accounts, Culture Trip aims to paint a picture of this Philippine hero and the events that shaped the future of the nation.

Lapu-Lapu: Chief and warrior of Mactan

Statue of Datu Lapu Lapu, defender of the Philippines, in Cebu © shankar s. / Flickr

Culture Trip asked locals in the Philippines what they thought about Lapu-Lapu, and they responded with terms like: “Brave Mactan Leader,” “Pinuno na may paninindigan” (leader who stood for his people) and “Leader who fought for his people.” His reputation precedes him, weaving history and myth into the fabric of modern Filipino culture.

Although the exact date of his arrival is unknown, most historical accounts state Lapu-Lapu reached the shores of Sugbo (now referred to as Cebu) from the neighboring island of Borneo. At this time, Rajah Humabon ruled over Sugbo and was recognized by natives as the island’s king. Lapu-Lapu asked Humabon for a place to settle in the archipelago; in response, the king offered him the region of Mandawili (known today as Mandaue), including the Opong area. He soon after became the chief of the region’s people — referred to as Datu Lapu-Lapu of Mactan island.

Locals held the Bornean native in high regard as one of their own. He defeated invading Bornean soldiers and pirates, helped enrich Sugbo’s trade port and stood up for his people. Things seemed to be going well. However, Lapu-Lapu’s good relationship with Rajah Humabon ‘deteriorated’ when he raided merchant ships in Opong area, changing the course of events to come.

Lapu-Lapu vs Ferdinand Magellan at The Battle of Mactan

Magellan's Cross © walterericsy / Shutterstock

Lapu-Lapu is also known under the names of Cilapulapu, Si Lapulapu, Salip Pulaka, Cali Pulaco, and LapuLapu Dimantag. And while historians can’t unanimously agree on his real name, the man has always been etched in history for his battle against Portuguese explorer and conquistador Ferdinand Magellan.

In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan unintentionally stumbled upon Homonhon Island (known today as Samar) while he was en route to Indonesia’s Spice Islands. There, he was able to establish an allegiance with the local rulers, particularly Rajah Humabon of Cebu. It was Magellan who convinced Rajah Humabon and his wife to be baptized into Catholicism and later offered them the Santo Nino. This is said to be the very moment in history when the Christian religion was introduced to the Philippines.

Recognizing the warm hospitality of Humabon towards them, Magellan then sought to introduce Catholicism to nearby islands like Mactan. There lived two rival chiefs — Zula and Lapu-Lapu. While the former welcomed the Spanish conquistador and submitted to Spain, Lapu-Lapu strongly opposed Magellan’s proposal and Humabon’s orders. Thus, sparking the Battle of Mactan. According to the Aginid Chronicles (oral chronicles from Rajah Tupas of Cebu), it was Humabon himself who provoked the Spaniards into fighting against Lapu-Lapu and his army.

Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta traveled with Magellan during his voyage, keeping a journal to record events and collect data on local inhabitants. According to his accounts, during the Battle of Mactan Magellan and 50 of his troop members were up against Lapu-Lapu and his 1,500 warriors. Because Magellan wanted to show off his army’s European armour, he asked Humabon’s warriors (a gift to the explorer) to stay on the ship. Pigafetta writes that Lapu-Lapu and his army aimed their fire-hardened bamboo spears and poisoned arrows at the legs of their enemies – killing Magellan. The survivors came rushing back onto the ship and fled.

Philippine history professor Xiao Chua told ABS-CBN in an interview that Lapu-Lapu served only as the troop’s leader. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no evidence to support that Lapu-Lapu killed Magellan at his own hands. After the Battle of Mactan, several accounts revealed that Lapu-Lapu and Humabon were able to restore their friendly relations. Oral history states that Datu of Mactan decided to return to Borneo where he lived out the rest of his days with his children and wives.

Lapu-Lapu: Legacy and untold stories

In honor of Lapu-Lapu’s victory, a 20-meter brass statue was erected on Mactan island, and the town of Opon in Cebu was renamed Lapu-Lapu City. The City Government of Cebu annually holds an event on April 27 called Kadaugan sa Mactan (kadaugan means free-for-all) to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Mactan – reenacting the battle between Magellan’s army and Lapu-Lapu’s tribe.

While Lapu-Lapu’s story is widely-known among Filipinos, there still lies uncertainties about his identity and what really transpired during the Battle of Mactan. For instance, no one really knows what he looks like. As for Pigafetta, Cebuano historian Emelio Pascual revealed in a documentary that it’s likely the Italian scholar never really left the ship to witness the famous battle and recall the exact events that happened.

Though the precise details of history are muddled, Lapu-Lapu stands to this day as a symbol for independence in the Philippines. Even after the centuries of violence and colonization that followed, locals proudly honor the man who rallied them in a fight for control of their own destiny.