For centuries, Cebuano hero Lapu-lapu, in the minds of artists and in the absence of a primary report that accurately describes him, has always been depicted as a hunk, a warrior that is more cinematic in physique than was observed by the Spanish invaders in 1521.
‘Legends of India’ (1858-66) author Gaspar Correa (1492-1563), an eminent Portuguese historian who interviewed survivors of the Magellan expedition, described Lapu-lapu in his tongue as ‘veljo,’ the equivalent of ‘viejo’ in the Spanish language, or ‘old’ in English.
As to how old, Filipino historian Danilo Madrid Gerona, in his ‘Ferdinand Magellan: The Armada de Maluco and the European Discovery of the Philippines,’ (2016) provided the hint: “In the eyes of the European, a person was officially or legally classified as viejo when one reached the age sixty. In fact, when the Spaniards introduced the system of encomienda, exemptions from certain colonial obligations were given to the reservados, people who were sixty years or above.”
In Gerona’s hunch, Lapu-lapu, brother-in-law of King Humabon whose principal wife was the hero’s sister, was “probably about seventy” when the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines. Lapu-lapu, also dubbed as the king of Mactan, was the brother-in-law of Sula, a rival chieftain who married the former’s sister.
At the time, the whole of Visayas, an enclave of many chieftaincies, was known in historical records as the island of tattooed people, Islas de los Pintados, with Lapu-lapu being no exception.
Tattooing, as a body modification, requires “inserting ink, dyes and pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the dermis layer of the skin” and loses its attraction as creases, due to old age, start to show in many parts of the body. The older the human canvass develops, the sagging of the skin becomes prominent, in a way providing clues to the wearer’s age.
Who is Lapu-lapu? Where does his name originate?
Gerona, drawing from folk tradition, identified Lapu-lapu as the son of Mangal and his wife Matang Mantaunas, also known as Bauga. He had a spouse named Bulakna, the daughter of the chieftain of Olango island, and a son, Sawili. Other oral accounts, though, claim the Visayan hero had, in fact, sired many children. Given his status as a ruler, it was not remotely possible that he slept with numerous women during his reign.
Contrary to popular belief that Lapu-lapu is a takeoff from the popular fish with the same name, the Mentrida’s Dictionary, a colonial-era lexicon, suggests that the appellation could have come from laposlapos, “to penetrate from one part to the other with sword, lance, etc.,” referentially in relation to the water channels he had to negotiate and cross in reaching his inner fiefdom, especially in relation to his conduct of piratical activities.
Intricately adorned with tattoos on his body, Lapu-lapu was an expert in martial arts. Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (August 1478–1557), getting his first-hand information from the survivors of the Magellan expedition, wrote that the Visayan chieftain, as “king or chieftain [was] so much esteemed for being an excellent man in the art of war, and very powerful than all the rest of the residents.”
Lapu-lapu’s current depiction as a macho man, a person with rippling muscles and prominent biceps, is an offshoot of the delusion that the leader of a fighting pack should display unusual body-built. But the most important influence that led to the creation of Lapu-lapu as a muscleman is the depiction the movies introduce in portraying Spartan-like warriors.
Gerona makes his own take on the modern depiction of Lapu-lapu:
“The chieftain’s fame as an agile warrior in his younger days could have earned for him this sobriquet, a physical quality attributed by the few surviving oral accounts and legends. If was probably because of this quality drawn from the meaning of his name that Lapu-lapu’s distinctive physical features as a young man, fierce and muscular warrior was immortalized in history, carved in monuments and depicted in numerous paintings. But in the absence of any known historical document from which this national imagination of Lapu-lapu was made, it is theoretically imperative to raise questions about this folk hero.”
While Lapu-lapu did not physically lead the contingent that met Ferdinand Magellan on the beach of Mactan, his men, known to be experts in arnis, the indigenous rattan-stick fighting, eventually subdued the foreigners using spears, poisoned arrows, and bamboo cannons. In the end, it was the Portuguese explorer’s arrogance that cost him his life after he set aside the rules of engagement of the expedition, i.e., to convert people and use diplomacy in dealing with them!
In the bloody conflict, Magellan’s young crew lost to the Lapu-lapu fighters. Gerona wrote that Magellan’s “foolhardiness and overconfidence in facing an overwhelmingly superior number of enemy (sic) with his small bank of young armed seafarers. But based on the inventory of armaments of the expedition, Magellan apparently envisioned to engage his enemy in a battle where, despite the Mactan warriors’ numerical superiority, the Spaniards had still overwhelming tactical advantage, a long-range positional advantage.”
With Magellan’s group feeling weary and tired from a long journey, the odds were not to their benefit. The outcome of the battle would validate this disparity.