Lessons of Strategy from the Battle of Mactan

By | 2018-05-08T00:30:00+00:00 October 17th, 2009|FMA Corner|

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The Battle of Mactan on April 27, 1521, when Lapu-Lapu and his men killed Ferdinand Magellan was looked upon by many enthusiasts of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) as a landmark where native fighting skills triumphed over Occidental method of warfare.

The most credible account of what transpired during the Battle of Mactan was the chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian knight and diarist who traveled with Magellan and recorded the history of his voyage.

In that encounter, it is evident that the Spaniards possessed the advantage of superior military technology over the natives. But the over confidence they put on the formidability of their armament cost them a victory.

It is good to examine the weapons of both sides as per the records of Pigafetta. The quotes in this article were taken from the English translation of Pigafetta’s chronicles titled, “Pigafetta’s Account (1521) Part II, published in “1898: The Shaping of Philippine History (Vol. II No. 17)”

Lapu-Lapu and his men were armed with the following weapons: cutlasses (kampilan), wooden shield, stones as projectiles, bow and arrow, spears with metal points and bamboo lances. On the nature of the latter, Pigafetta wrote, “They replied that if we had lances they had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire.”

Clad in armor, Magellan and his men were armed with muskets, crossbows, lances, swords and mortars.

Another important facet of this battle is the size of contingents from both sides. On the number of the Spanish soldiers, Pigafetta wrote, “At midnight, sixty men of ours set out armed with sorselets and helmets, together with the Christian king, the prince, some of the chief men, and twenty or thirty balanguias.”

It is good to note that while the sixty Spanish soldiers were accompanied by an army of native warriors friendly to them, this contingent did not participated in the fight as Pigafetta commented after the battle, “The Christian king would have aided us, but the captain charged him before we landed not to leave his balanghai [boat], but to stay to see how we fought.”

Battle of Mactan Lapu Lapu Magellan
A colonial map of the Philippines (Source: Photographic History of the Spanish-American War, Map IV).

On the size of Lapu-Lapu’s native army, Pigafetta wrote, “When we reached land, those men had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons.”

Besides superiority in number, Lapu-Lapu’s army won the Battle of Mactan by making the terrain work against their enemies’ more powerful weaponry. He and his army managed to goad the Spaniards to wade into the waters where their heavy armor would compromise their mobility.

This is manifested in the following lines that Pigafetta wrote, “So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again.”

The natives know where to hit focusing on the parts unprotected by armor, “The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance,” Pigafetta said.

The Spaniards with all their superior military technology were pinned to a location where their armaments could not inflict damage on the natives or could provide them protection, “The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers],” wrote Pigafetta, adding, “The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away.”

It was in this compromised position that the natives rain projectiles on them, “They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides painted stakes hardened with fire stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves.”

Pigafetta wrote that Magellan was shot with a poisoned arrow on the right leg before Lapu-Lapu and his men ganged up on him for the kill. Pigafetta’s description of Magellan’s death portrayed the man as a valiant warrior who stood his ground in battle to the very end, he wrote, “An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body.

Then trying to lay hand on his sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the native saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only larger.

That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.”

In honor of the valiant native chief, a number of FMA styles were named after Lapu-Lapu. The most prominent among these is the Lapulapu Arnis Afficionados founded by the late Jose Viñas.