Sunday, 17 June 2012

Pirates of the Pacific: colonial history in Cebu

A painting at the Basilica del Santo Nino, showing an idealised view of colonial history
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
From a European perspective, the history of the Philippines began abruptly in 1521 with the arrival of the Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. Like Christopher Columbus before him, Magellan was a mercenary on hire to the King of Spain. His mission was to find a new trade route to the Spice Islands by heading west from Europe via the Spanish colony of Mexico, handily avoiding the Portuguese navy, which controlled the Eastern route around Africa.

Magellan is widely credited as the first man to circumnavigate the globe, even though he was killed on Filipino soil just over half way through the voyage. He is various regarded as a brilliant explorer, ruthless coloniser and defender of the faith. Either way his arrival in the Philippines, after a gruelling 18-month voyage that killed half his crew, kick-started five centuries of Spanish rule and left a cultural, linguistic and religious stamp on the islands that can still be seen to this day.

I was in the Philippines in February, partly to do some work for UNICEF, partly to research a travel book I’m writing about the country. After a work trip to the troubled southern island of Mindanao, I took some time off to visit Cebu, where Magellan met his death at the hands of a rebellious tribe. I wanted to visit the site of the final battle and see the oldest relic of the Spanish era – the Santo Nino, a statue of Jesus as a child, which Magellan gave to the wife of a local chief.