With a title like Elcano and Magellan: The First Voyage Around the World, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that the movie is just a fun adventure about how two enterprising men brave the open seas in search of experiences and treasure. That said, it’s easy to imagine why making a cheery film about how a duo of white men taking a voyage to distant lands and battling natives isn’t the most historically accurate way to portray the events that kickstart the 300 year long Spanish occupation of the Philippines.
There’s a lot to unpack in Elcano and Magellan, but let’s start with the biggest and most obvious source of controversy: the movie portrayed Lapu-Lapu, a Philippine tribal chieftain who is regarded as the country’s first national hero, as the main antagonist of the movie.
To fully understand why there’s been so much outrage among Filipinos about the portrayal of Lapu-Lapu, you need to understand who he was and how he fits in the historical and cultural fabric of the Philippines.
Lapu-Lapu was a datu who ruled over what is now Mactan, Cebu. Before the Philippines’ different tribes, each with their own language, cultures, and beliefs, were forced under a centralized government by Spanish colonizers, being a datu was the highest position one could hold. Datus were involved in all aspects of governance, from law-making to warfare.
Due to his role, Lapu-Lapu represents not just heroism, but proof of a thriving civilization that had its own government and sociocultural structure even before the arrival of white colonizers. It may be common sense now to think that other cultures simply have their own way of doing things, but this wasn’t always the case. More often than not, colonizers sailing out of European countries like Spain, Portugal, France, and England would create a narrative that depicted natives of the lands they sailed to as wild savages that needed Europe’s help to become civilized, God-fearing Christians.
When Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan arrived on the shores of Mactan on April 27, 1521, he and his men came face to face with the forces of Datu Lapu-Lapu and his Cebuano warriors. The brief skirmish between native and colonial forces would mark the beginning of a 300 year long occupation. What little we know of the actual events of the Battle of Mactan come from the account told by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar who joined the expedition as a chronicler.
Antonio Pigafetta gives us an insight into the political climate of Mactan at the time. Despite Datu Lapu-Lapu’s influence and power, he was not a man without rivals. The Philippines was, and still is, a complicated patchwork of different cultures and societies. Because of this, Datu Lapu-Lapu had two other chieftain-kings to contend with for supremacy over Mactan, Datu Zula and Rajah Humabon.
Seeing opportunity, Rajah Humabon and Datu Zula sought out the strange travelers and offered an alliance. The goal? Bring Datu Lapu-Lapu down. But to the surprise of both Rajah Humabon and Datu Zula, Ferdinand Magellan turned down their offers to join him in the battle against Datu Lapu-Lapu and brought his 49 men with him on a battle against 1,500 native warriors.
You can imagine how this ended.
Ferdinand Magellan’s faith in medieval armor and weaponry was so great that he claimed that one of his men could face off against three unarmored natives. Magellan’s overestimated beliefs in his military might were shattered when all 1,500 of Datu Lapu-Lapu’s men flanked his measly 49 soldiers. Though Datu Lapu-Lapu’s men were mostly armed with little more than bamboo sticks sharpened into spears and bamboo bows and arrows, the practicality of their weapons, in addition to sheer numbers, proved impossible to match. The Battle of Mactan had occurred way before the perfection of the gun and, at this time, muskets took ages to reload compared to the deft brown fingers shooting arrow after arrow at the 49 men who fumbled with their weapons.
Obviously, Datu Lapu-Lapu won the battle but not the war. Though the datu had managed to delay the forceful takeover of his island, the damage had already been done. Antonio Pigafetta and other survivors would return to Spain with tales about islands abundant in valuable resources like spices and gold. It wasn’t long before Juan Sebastian del Cano a.k.a Elcano was sent out to retrace the route taken by the Portuguese sailor, a route that led to 300 years of bloodshed.
Elcano and Magellan takes this bittersweet moment of history and turns it into a story of how white colonizers were just making friends with Filipino natives when Datu Lapu-Lapu came and ruined the fun. The film shows them getting chummy with natives in generic loincloths and flower wreaths that, though they were used in pre-historic Filipino attire, were not specific to the culture or even the region. It just was conveniently exotic attire that matched what you might think of when you imagine pre-historic islanders.
Of course, Elcano and Magellan wouldn’t be a good film about historical revisionism if it didn’t go all out. Aside from the portrayal of Datu Lapu-Lapu as the film’s antagonist, the film also included female character Samar, named after one of the islands of the Philippines’ Visayas region, as Elcano’s love interest. The poster for the movie depicts her gazing lovingly at Elcano, as if his involvement in the subjugation of her people kindled romantic feelings for him. It’s a move straight out of Disney’s own revisionist portrayal of the real-life Pocahontas, a Native American woman who was forced to marry one of her captors but was shown in a consensual romantic relationship in Disney’s Pocahontas movie.
On March 16, 2021, Jorge Moragas Sanchez, Spanish ambassador to the Philippines, spoke of how Spain ‘looks forward to another 500 years of inspiration‘ from the Filipino people who “welcomed the early Spanish missionaries and explorers”. The celebration of the anniversary of Elcano’s voyage spoke only of friendship between the Filipino natives and Spanish ‘explorers’ and how the first circumnavigation of the globe was a historic moment of scientific advancement.
Unfortunately, Elcano and Magellan received a nomination but did not win the 34th Goya Awards for Best Animated Film.