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1521: Rediscovering the History of the Philippines
1521: Rediscovering the History of the Philippines
1521: Rediscovering the History of the Philippines
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1521: Rediscovering the History of the Philippines

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



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In rediscovering these stories about our shared history, we learn who we were, who we are, and who we can be.

Adventure can be uncovered in the most unexpected of places. In 1521: Rediscovering the Hist

Release dateFeb 16, 2022
1521: Rediscovering the History of the Philippines
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Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    A very refreshing account of Magellan's historic circumnavigation around the world leading to the Colonization and Hispanization of the Philippines.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Refreshing narrative of Philippine history. Really like the details and commentaries on events in pre-colonial Philippine history. Appreciate the new sources provided by the author.

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1521 - Judy Robinson



Rediscovering The History of the Philippines

Judy Robinson

New Degree Press

Copyright © 2021 Judy Robinson

All rights reserved.


Rediscovering the History of the Philippines

ISBN 978-1-63730-701-4 Paperback

978-1-63730-792-2 Kindle Ebook

979-8-88504-014-3 Ebook

To my parents for being my North Star

To my siblings—Effie, Alvin, Pawee, Dino for keeping me grounded

To Dave for being my wayfinder



Hindsight Is 2020

Land of Smiles

Writers of History

Boats and Languages

Trading Partners

The Arrival

The Friendship

The Conversion

The Battle

The Big Fish

The Betrayal

Gold, God, and Glory



Trouble in Paradise

We the People


Bad Saint

Holy Water





Con el recuerdo del pasado entro en el porvenir. With the memory of the past, I enter the future.

from El Consejo de los Dioses, a play written in 1880 by Jose Rizal, Philippine National Hero

The spring of 2020 became a time of nostalgia for me. I took comfort in traveling back in time since the future seemed uncertain. The world was locked down, with thousands dying from this unknown and unseen killer called COVID-19. Social distancing became the norm. Despite being cooped up at home, technology allowed me to reconnect with my high school barkada, whom I had not seen in years. Meanwhile, the regular Zoom meetings with my family to check in on our parents turned into a time to reminisce and joke around with my siblings about shared memories from our childhood. These memories helped keep me sane and grounded during the lockdown.

After one of our family Zoom calls, my brother shared a video posted by Tourism Philippines. The video started with scenes of empty streets followed by mask-covered Filipino faces with anxious eyes. A motorcycle driver carrying a box labeled LIFE SAVING MEDICINE, DO NOT DELAY brought the gravity of the situation into sharp focus. Behind the closed doors on the empty streets, many lives were precariously hanging in the balance.

Though the video had a sobering start, it quickly pivoted to show the resilience of the nation amid this crisis. It showed health care workers posing like action figures, armed soldiers at a checkpoint dancing in unison, nurses dancing choreographed steps, then close-ups of Filipinos with smiles on their faces, some drawn on the outside of their masks. The video ended with the words Nothing can take away our smile written on the screen, then #WeSmileasOne and #WeHealasOne, a touching tribute to the people of the Philippines.

A slow song, With a Smile, softly played in the background of the video. It was a cover of the hit from The Eraserheads; homegrown talent considered the Beatles of the Philippines. Hearing the song took me back to my college days at the University of the Philippines when I saw them perform live. I remembered the carefree feeling of gathering with friends, sitting outside on the Arts and Sciences building steps while breathing in the fresh air and promise of youth.

Using my brother as a field reporter, I asked, What else is going on in the Philippines? at the next family Zoom.

Well, he said, there have been discussions on what to do about the 1521 anniversary.

I was caught off guard and paused with a confused look. Everyone who grew up in the Philippines knew 1521 meant Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in the islands. But with the passing of time and COVID, it didn’t occur to me we were approaching the 500-year anniversary of our country’s discovery.

So, what’s everyone saying? I deflected, planning to blame my awkward pause on Zoom issues in case someone noticed.

My brother laughed, seemingly unfazed by my awkwardness. Nobody knows whether to celebrate or not since Magellan’s arrival led to colonization. Maybe celebrate the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines? So many things to consider.

Well, one thing for sure, he concluded. The Philippines needs to come to terms with its complicated history.

During the summer of 2020, when everyone was baking and taking up new hobbies while on lockdown, I decided to revisit Magellan’s story. I did a little digging on Amazon for books that might help. The first book that popped up was a bestseller titled Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen, an award-winning historian and biographer. Seemed like a winner.

Bergreen was fascinated by sea voyages because he felt there was something compelling about the misery that sailors endured and the bizarre places they visited. Of Magellan’s journey, Bergreen said, These days, Magellan’s circumnavigation is often considered the greatest single sea voyage ever to be undertaken. And as NASA missions demonstrate, it still inspires today’s explorers.

As I read Bergreen’s book, I was fascinated by mentions of Enrique de Malacca, Magellan’s slave who served as interpreter for the journey. Born in Sumatra, Enrique was likely captured at a slave raid and sold to Magellan in Malacca. He traveled with Magellan to Africa and Europe, making his way back to Asia on this voyage. Though Magellan is known for the circumnavigation of the globe, it turns out Enrique was probably the first person to accomplish this. Enrique seemed to be Magellan’s most valuable crew member. But why didn’t I remember reading about him in our history textbooks?

I decided to keep on digging. The more I researched, the more surprises I found.

What I remember about how Philippine history was taught, it usually began with the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal that became the impetus for discovering new lands to claim as their territories, followed by Magellan’s arrival. A friend said this sounded like Filipinos were sitting around in caves waiting to be found.

However, trade and commerce had already flourished in the Philippine archipelago for several centuries prior, which spread Asian cultural influences, including writing. These encounters brought islanders out of their isolation. Bergreen said precolonial Filipinos who lived near coasts were literate long before Magellan arrived.

These stories of our ancestors captivated me. Could it really be that we were never taught these growing up? It felt like their achievements were erased from our history, making precolonial Filipinos appear significantly inferior.

I asked friends who also grew up in the Philippines but now live in the US, Have you heard of Enrique de Malacca, Magellan’s slave? Did you know precolonial Filipinos were literate? Did you know trade and commerce were thriving in the Philippines before the Spaniards arrived? Their answers were like mine. We were unaware of these stories from our history.

I began to wonder what other stories in Philippine history have been missed. I also thought about my nephews and nieces, the next generation of the Filipino diaspora. How much do they really know about their rich and colorful heritage?

There were also these interconnected histories from different perspectives. If history is written by the victors, what would happen if we meshed these different histories together so instead of victors and villains, we get stories of a nation’s evolution?

As I dug deeper into this topic, I found a podcast that described the Spaniards who came to the Philippines as rejects from Spain and Mexico. I felt an internal conflict when I heard this. Given the history of colonization, I empathize with these feelings of animosity. There is cognitive ease with painting history in broad brush strokes.

But these were real living people during those historical times. In 300 years of Spaniards arriving on the islands, they couldn’t have all been rejects. After all, some of them were our ancestors. I am told my paternal grandmother’s father was a civil guard from Seville. I don’t know what motivated my Spanish great-grandfather to cross the ocean to land in the Philippines—I wish I did. What I do know is that I am an amalgamation of these two worlds.

When we look at only one side of history, we fail to appreciate its complexity and understand it fully.

Perhaps instead of broad strokes, we should look at our ancestors’ histories through the lens of pointillism, a technique of painting in which small distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. Each dot is a story that altogether forms the history of our country. In this book, I hope to isolate some of these dots that may have been overlooked.

There are many stories from Philippine history waiting to be rediscovered. All of these come together to form the colorful and complicated history of our country.

In rediscovering these stories about our shared history, we learn who we were, who we are, and who we can be.

Chapter 0

Hindsight Is 2020

That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

—Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

How to read this book: This is not a history textbook. This is not an academic work. Rather, this book is a collection of forgotten stories related to the history of the Philippines and the advent of Spanish colonization.

Truth be told, I’m not a historian. But with the 500-year anniversary of Magellan’s arrival in 1521, it is time to share an updated perspective. While I tried to arrange the stories in chronological order, I have also tried to group stories by similar themes—and anyway, spoiler alert: We already know the outcomes since we are rediscovering history.

The recurring themes discussed in this book include Filipino resilience and adaptability with the push and pull of a variety of influences—from geography, religion, and economics—to create the rich and colorful tapestry of Filipino culture.

In 2020, I read an article about resilience during the pandemic by Ellen O’ Donnell, a pediatric psychologist who works with families impacted by traumatic burn injuries and life-changing illnesses. She said, Resilience doesn’t mean bouncing back to normal. It means being transformed into a new normal.

Resilience, in turn, requires acceptance. O’Donnell wrote, Acceptance doesn’t mean being okay with what isn’t okay or acting as though things that are hard are easy. It means acknowledging things are not as we want them to be and then finding ways to live and even thrive in spite of that; changing what needs to be changed even when it’s really hard. Acceptance means forging a new path.

These definitions reminded me so much of the Filipino responses to the challenges of colonization. Precolonial Filipinos saw their world upended by new arrivals, and their ability to show resilience and acceptance created a unique new culture. In this way, they forged a new path of their own.

The word Filipino itself is an example of this. During Spanish colonial times, Filipino meant a Spaniard born in the Philippines while those born in Spain were called Peninsular, and those born in the Americas were Criollo. The Spaniards, in turn, called the island residents Indios, which meant Indian in Spanish. But today, Filipino, Filipina, Filipinx refers to someone who is from the Philippines. In this book, I use the term Filipino to refer to this modern definition.

O’Donnell said people mistake resilience for bouncing back from adversity when that is not the case. Resilience is not a state of being, but a set of skills honed through adversity. To be resilient isn’t to go back to being the way one was before. It is instead to allow oneself to become changed and, in doing so, to become stronger.

The other major theme that I focus on is that it is important to learn different perspectives of history. Where possible, I have juxtaposed parallel points of view to illustrate the ways the stories themselves have been shaped by the lens of the storytellers. Philippine historian Ambeth Ocampo said, History is not as simple as it looks…. It is never innocent, never objective, because it always carries a point of view. He has seen how history can be weaponized to marginalize certain people or sectors of society. How it can imprison people in views, not of their own making. That’s why I thought it was important to view history as many stories and not a single story.

Chimananda Ngozi Adichie talked about the dangers of the single story at TED Global 2009. Her message was that when we show a people as only one thing over and over again, then that is what they become. She said, The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

What stayed with me from Adichie’s talk was, The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

If there was anything good that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it gave me time to pause and reflect. Here was a phenomenon that had a global impact. It made me realize we are more similar than we are different.

Historian Laurence Bergreen said the same thing about Magellan’s journey, By showing that anywhere in the world was reachable over water, Magellan and his crew inadvertently demonstrated the connections shaping humanity today.

In this age of polarization, my hope is that we, too, can see the different sides of history as a way to find what connects us instead of what divides us.

Map of the Philippines.

The World Factbook 2021. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2021.

Chapter 1

Land of Smiles

Much of a people’s resilience to withstand hazard lies in the intangible qualities generated by shared cultural attitudes and community spirit.

—Greg Bankoff

The video shows a young couple, dressed in swimwear, who crowd close for a selfie on the beach. That is until a lifeguard blows his whistle. Ma’am, Sir, he admonishes, as the words PDA—Physical Distance Always appear on the screen. He holds up a life-size cardboard cutout of an NBA player and tells them to keep one basketball player apart.

Posted during the pandemic by Tourism Philippines, the video then lists the many activities that Filipinos can still enjoy while maintaining PDA, such as kayaking, sand castling, jet-packing, and—for the less adventurous—coconut-watching. Leave it to the Philippines to create a funny COVID-19 video. It manages to spread the message that even in this dire time, we should still have fun—just do it responsibly.

As coronavirus cases were rising, funny pandemic memes, GIFs, and videos were also going viral in the Philippines. You are probably wondering how Filipinos can manage to smile or even laugh at these difficult situations. It turns out that it is a coping mechanism that Filipinos have developed over thousands of years to come to terms with living under constant threat.

The Philippines is an archipelago located in Southeast Asia that covers an area of 300,000 square kilometers, or 120,000 square miles. In 1900, Ferdinand Blumentritt described the Philippines as somewhat larger than Italy. Blumentritt was an Austrian ethnographer, historian, and friend of Philippine National Hero Jose Rizal. At the time of his writing this description, the Philippines had become a US territory after being a Spanish colony for over three hundred years. The islands were spoils of the Spanish-American war.

The islands are bounded in the west and north by the South China Sea, in the east by the Pacific Ocean, in the south by the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south are the largest islands of the archipelago, with a group of islands called the Visayas in the middle.

There is an inside joke among Filipinos about the official island count. When asked, How many islands make up the Philippines? The answer and punchline is, High tide or low tide?

But there is some truth in the old joke. Since the 1940s, the official island count was 7,107. But in 2016, the National Mapping Authority reported that hundreds of islands had been discovered, bringing the new count to 7,641 islands. These additional islands were discovered using new technology that could count hundreds of small islands previously thought to be part of larger islands.

Philippine social media was abuzz with the news. As Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist, Gideon Lasco said, Our country’s archipelagic nature has always been part of our national self-image and repute: We were ‘Las Islas Filipinas’ then ‘PI’ (for Philippine Islands) before we became ‘RP’ (for Republic of the Philippines) and ‘PH’ (from the first two letters of Philippines).

The islands are in the Rim of Fire, the string of volcanoes extending along a tectonic fault line that

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