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  • Writer's pictureArmored History


Conquistador with Luzon Warrior (Copyright disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing).

When Ferdinand Magellan stepped foot on Mactan island in 1521, he was surrounded by a diverse archipelago populated by peoples familiar with the foreign and long accustomed to sailing abroad to neighboring kingdoms and empires in Asia . Many of these diverse peoples whom the Spanish encountered in the 16th century settled in various princedoms, chiefdoms, and port cities in the archipelago, and were at the crossroads on the eastern edge of maritime Asian trade. This flourishing Indian Ocean trade network, which existed for several centuries before Magellan’s arrival, stretched from East Africa and Arabia, to India, China, most of Southeast Asia, and even to Japan. From the port city of Maynila down to the trade post in Butuan, Northern Mindanao poured in

goods from abroad such as Chinese ceramics and “porcelain, finished silk, musk, stoneware, incense, artillery, and tin. Brass, steel blades, and woven mats were brought in from Borneo, batik from Java, and precious stones from countries such as Burma.”[1] As export, foreign merchants headed to transshipping ports like Cebu at the heart of the archipelago to export pearls, beeswax, animal skins, and cotton among other goods. [2]           

In the fourteenth century, Philippine islands receive as many as five hundred merchant ships from Cambodia, Champa (in what is now modern Vietnam), and Ming China every single year.[3] The amount of trade received from foreign merchants was more than enough to stimulate interisland trade among the pre-Hispanic Filipinos where coastal settlers could exchange goods with tribes and other ethnic groups in the inland mountains and highlands. It was not only foreign merchants who visited the archipelago.

         Filipinos themselves were adept sailors across the islands and to neighboring nations. Those from Butuan in particular had made it to the very courts of China in the beginning of the 11th century to pay homage to the Son of Heaven and petition for trade rights. Over a century later between 1174 and 1190 AD, shirtless and heavily-tattooed raiders plundered the towns along the coast of China. In what is today modern Fujian province, these "Viking" style raiders came to shore on simple bamboo rafts while their longboats waited in the distance. Scholars of that time in the Song Dynasty assumed these raiders were tribesmen who came from Formosa (modern Taiwan). However, recent Filipino scholarship assembled the pieces to confirm these pirates/ raiders were, in fact, Visayans from central Philippines.[4]

Art by Raph Herrera Lomotan (Copyright disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing).


These medieval Visayan raiders plundered, killed, and pillaged their way through towns and

villages along the coast much like their counterparts the Scandinavian Vikings in England and parts of northern Europe some two hundred years earlier. According to the Chinese records, these "Filipino" raiders heavily sought metal objects, like iron door knockers and tools. They wielded javelins with long ropes so that they could retrieve them after they were thrown. The longboat/ raider ship, called a Balanghai, was used extensively for travel and trade throughout Southeast Asian waters in a manner not unlike the Viking longboats.[5]

Scene of Paduka Pahala with Ming Emperor Yongle in 1417. Screen cap from film "Hari Sa Hari, Lahi Sa Lahi"

            In the early 15th century, Paduka Pahala, the Sultan of Sulu, located southwest of the island of Mindanao near Indonesia and Borneo, sailed to Beijing with an entourage of escorts including his own family and personal attendants to pay tribute to the Ming Emperor Yongle, Zhu Yuanzhang. It was in China where the Sultan passed away during his return trip home. To this day, his tomb rests in the town of Dezhou, Shandong province making him the only foreign sovereign in history to be buried in China.[6]

            Pre-Hispanic Tagalog Filipinos from the northern island of Luzon were also present figures in the early 16th century port city of Malacca in present-day Malaysia. Luis H. Francia writes that a community of five hundred Tagalogs were active in the coastal area west of Malacca, and that the Tagalogs themselves were not only merchants and traders, but were known to be “fierce mercenaries active in various military campaigns in the region, employed, for instance, by the Achanese and the Burmese kings, or crewing in pirate ships.”[7]

            Putting aside the tradition of raiding and pillaging among certain pre-Hispanic Filipino groups, this general state of affairs of commercial and cultural exchange with the rest of Asia had lasted for over five hundred years prior to European contact. To the pre-Hispanic Filipinos, the arrival of Magellan and his crew seemed to be no more than another encounter with foreigners seeking trade relations and cultural exchange. Unbeknownst to the people of the islands, Magellan’s desire to have access to the Spice Islands would later result in Spain’s imperial expansion and the eventual Iberian domination of the Indian Ocean trade network, along with their conquest of most of the archipelago. A power vacuum had been left behind by the Ming Chinese Treasure fleet in the early 1400’s was gladly filled by the Iberians less than a century later.


The Battle of Mactan 1521

            The first military encounter between the Europeans and the natives of central Philippines occurred on April of 1521. The highly detailed accounts of Venetian scholar-explorer Antonio Pigafetta describe the events and circumstances that led to the battle of Mactan.  In March of the aforementioned year, Magellan and his crew made their way into the center of the Philippine archipelago, specifically the Visayas region, from the east. He then christened the Visayan Islands “Islas de San Lazaro”. Magellan then promptly managed to secure the allegiances of the local Visayan chieftains, namely Rajah Humabon of Cebu and Rajah Zula of the nearby Mactan Island, who accepted the authority of the Spanish crown and who had converted to Roman Catholicism.

            Another chieftain, however, also from Mactan Island refused to submit and pay tribute to Magellan and the Spaniards. The defiant chief, Lapu Lapu, was a known rival to Humabon and Zula, and his settlement (barangay) was right across the water from Cebu’s port. [8] Claiming to have been unable to send his tribute because of Lapu Lapu, Rajah Zula requested a “boatload of Europeans to help fight Lapu Lapu”.[9] 

Art by Clay Vagrant

            Based on Pigafetta’s accounts, Magellan refused the offer and decided instead to lead sixty of his own volunteering men to face Lapu Lapu himself. Additionally, Magellan asked Rajah Humabon to accompany them, but to stay on the boat a safe distance so that he could bear witness to European fighting method.[10] Magellan himself gave Lapu Lapu and his warriors an ultimatum, telling them to submit to the authority of the Spanish crown, pay tribute, and become friends, or wait to see the kind of wounds which their lances were capable of inflicting. Lapu Lapu’s warriors responded saying if they (the Spaniards) had lances, they too had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire.[11] Lapu Lapu’s men attempted to lure Magellan to attack prematurely and go in search of them in their home turf, asking the Iberians to wait until the morning to attack for they were not ready. Magellan did not take the bait, however, knowing they had dug pit traps between their houses.

            Out of the crew of sixty, forty-nine waded through the water to reach the shore while the remaining eleven stayed to guard the boats. Pigafetta, who went along with Magellan to the shore, claimed they had faced a force numbering one thousand five hundred. Such a number is probably exaggerated since Barangay settlements typically numbered from one to five hundred persons with rare exceptions where busier ports like Maynila numbered up to two thousand.

            The ships themselves with their cannons and mortars could not provide support for the battle itself since rocks along the shore (probably exposed by the low tide) kept ships out of effective range.  The native fighters under Lapu Lapu formed three different divisions while Magellan’s formed two. Musketeers and arbalists fired from a distance, but according to Pigafetta, those weapons were of little to no effect. “The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, ‘Cease firing! Cease firing!’ but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields.”[12]

            Ultimately, the natives pursued the retreating Iberians, using their momentum and superior numbers to their advantage. They hurled iron-tipped bamboo spears repeatedly and aimed their weapons at the Spaniards’ exposed legs since they wore steel corselets and helmets. After Magellan suffered a leg injury from a poisoned arrow, he ordered his men to fall into a gradual retreat. The fighting intensified, nevertheless, while the natives targeted Magellan for another hour, according to Pigafetta, so vigorously that his helmet was knocked from his head twice during the fighting. The captain was also only able to draw his sword halfway because his arm had been injured by a spear. Finally, Magellan succumbed to the steel weapons of the natives, specifically a Kampilan sword to his left leg, which Pigafetta described as a cutlass larger than a scimitar which it resembled[13]. Bamboo and iron spears and more swords followed up until Magellan succumbed to his wounds, fending off his enemies while the rest of his surviving men retreated back to the boats.

Battle of Mactan art by Teody Boylie R. Perez (Copyright disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing).

            Pigaffeta’s tally of losses numbered eight of Magellan’s men plus four allied converted Christian natives who tried to come to their aid and died due to enemy cannon fire. Only fifteen of Lapu Lapu’s men were killed while many of the Spaniards, according to Pigafetta, had been wounded. Additionally, a Malay slave Enrique whom Magellan bought from Malacca had been promised his freedom upon the captain’s death. However, the new leadership ignored Magellan’s will. Later on, Enrique shared this story to their ally Rajah Humabon and convinced him to invite the Europeans to a dinner banquet where later the chief’s men executed twenty six of them. “Just eighteen of the original complement of 260 men survived.”[14] It may have been the case that Rajah Humabon merely used Magellan to help deal with his rival Chief Lapu Lapu.

            This particular altercation in the battle of Mactan presents a comparative case to near-concurrent Spanish campaigns in the Americas, particularly the conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires. However, while the pre-Philippine chiefdoms and princedoms did not build centralized empire-level civilizations like their counterparts in the New World, they did possess, however, distinct “advantages” gained from previous exposure to mainland Asian peoples, rendering them less susceptible to Eurasian diseases, for example, and perhaps even more prepared to treat with the foreigners regardless of how “alien” they appeared. Additionally, along with those long-established contacts came knowledge of iron and steel weaponry and the use of gunpowder in warfare by the natives of coastal settlements. This state of affairs allowed them to not become entirely helpless or left in “shock-and-awe” of Spanish use of muskets and steel swords, contrary to certain depictions in entertainment media.

            It is important to consider Magellan’s immediate establishment of native alliances, particularly with Humabon and Zula. The forging of such alliances and the exploitation of pre-existing feuds or rivalries is a common strategy for conquistadors during the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan campaigns—a strategy that demands further consideration. Nevertheless, superior native numbers and Magellan’s hubris ultimately caused his defeat, his death, and the deaths of most of his men and crew. Had Humabon been allowed to come to shore with his warriors and fight alongside the Europeans, the outcome may have been very different. Such was the case in the New World where native fighters conducted most of the Spaniards’ warfare as will be discussed later.


1565 and the Start of the Colonial Era

Further Spanish attempts to colonize and enforce their claims on the archipelago in the following decades ended in general misfortune or downright disaster. From shipwrecks to harassment and captivity under the Portuguese, the Spaniards attempted their voyages rather unsuccessfully until the expedition led by Miguel Lopez Legazpi in 1565. “Legazpi’s mission, as all the previous ones, was to secure a base in Southeast Asia and thence establish a route back to Mexico, so that the precious cargo could be transported sans interference from the Portuguese.”[15]

            However, the archipelago itself was christened “Filipinas”, named after the son of King Charles I, Felipe, during the third expedition to the islands led by Ruy Lopez Villalobos in 1543, the same year the Portuguese first landed in Japan at Tanegashima. That expedition, however, did not succeed as the lack of food and resources forced the Spaniards to sail to Tidore in modern eastern Indonesia where they suffered capture under the Portuguese.

            When Legazpi landed in Cebu in 1565, he did so with three warships after which “an envoy went ashore with a Sumatran interpreter and told the Cebuano chiefs gathered in a central plaza that the Spanish had come to open peaceful commercial relations and were inviting their king to the flagship to receive a gift and letter from the king of Spain, and make a peace pact so that trade could begin.”[16] Legazpi and his men were essentially on the task of picking up where Magellan had left off, to enforce their sovereignty and hegemony over the islands, and to coerce the native population of Cebu to honor their commitment and pledge of allegiance to the Spanish crown when Magellan first arrived some forty years earlier.

            The first permanent Spanish settlement and original colonial capital was in Cebu, but it was not taken without some defiance from the native Cebuanos. After Legazpi’s landing, the people of Cebu cleared out their dwellings and their animals/ livestock after the latter had already received word of their arrival and the spreading news of the Spaniards’ aggression in other nearby settlements. Other chiefs from neighboring islands were left with no choice but to settle and ally with the Spaniards under threat, but in exchange for trade with luxury goods.[17] In Cebu the Spaniards sought to form a pact with the Rajah Tupas, nephew of Rajah Humabon, in order to have him honor his people’s allegiance to the Spanish made during Magellan’s day, but the Rajah refused to show himself. Trying several times to find and meet with the Tupas with no success, the Spanish threated violent and aggressive action against the Cebu settlement, claiming that any loss of property would be the fault of the Cebuanos for being uncooperative.

            Instead, the Spaniards were met with a force of approximately 1,500 to 2,000 warriors from the nearby suburbs. They lined up in wooden mail or padded armor while wielding all manner of weapons such as spears, javelins, Kampilan “cutlasses”, shields, and blowguns, and they shouted and taunted the Spaniards to taunt them to fight. The Spanish responded by firing their flagship’s cannons into the settlement and caused four hundred houses to be burned down along with their granary. The native fighters were forced to retreat from the bombardment, abandon their boats, and flee their positions. The two hundred Spanish foot soldiers that landed, however, were not able to take any prisoners, nor were they able to find any remaining food in the abandoned settlement. The Cebuanos attempted sneak attacks in the night and therefore prompted the Spaniards to destroy more homes to create open space in their occupation.[18] Ultimately, the Spanish were able to take complete possession of Cebu, marking their claim with the construction of a fort. In the end, Rajah Tupas was forced to sign a treaty and form a blood compact with the Spanish which, in truth, was nothing more than a “kind of prototype of the unequal treaties which Western nations were to fasten on Oriental peoples for the next three centuries.”[19] 


The Battle for Manila

Miguel Lopez de Legazpi had initially set Spain’s seat of power in Cebu but eventually found the location to be logistically impractical. Additionally harassed by the Portuguese who believed the Spaniards were on their side of the demarcation territory provided by the Treaty of Tordesillas, Legazpi was compelled to find a new base of operations in Panay Island. There, he again had formed alliances with the local Datus Sikatuna and Sigala who agreed to ally with him on account of the fact that Portuguese had plundered Bohol.[20]

            It was not long until Legazpi had heard of a prosperous and fortified trading city in the north that had a deep water bay on the island of Luzon. The city of Maynila sat at the mouth of the Pasig River and was the gateway to the rich land beyond. It was defended with its own native-manufactured cannons and stone walls and was ruled by the great Rajah Suleiman.  Like the kingdom across the river, Tondo, Maynila was ruled by Muslims who were referred to by the Spanish as “Moros” meaning “Moors”. Legazpi sent Martin de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo to discover the rich trading port that was Maynila in 1570.

Art by Clay Vagrant

 The people of Luzon, called “Luções” by the Portuguese, were experienced sailors and merchants, conducting trade from Luzon down to present-day Malaysia, Borneo, and Brunei. Such trade enterprises produced legitimate tycoons such as Regimo Diraja and Surya Diraja, the latter of which “paid the Portuguese 9,000 cruzados worth of gold to retain his plantation and country estate, and annually sent 175 tons of pepper annually to China.”[21] The former, Regimo Diraja, who sent trade ships to China, Siam, Brunei, Pasai, and Sunda and had therefore, attracted fellow Luzones to participate in the business ventures.[22] As previously mentioned, the Luzones were adventurous merchants and a warlike people often employed as mercenaries for foreign kings and even participated in the unsuccessful attempt to retake Malacca in 1525.

The city of Maynila was the gateway to the rich land of Luzon. It was defended with its own cannons and stone walls and was ruled by the great Rajah Suleiman.  Like the kingdom across the river, Tondo, Maynila was ruled by Muslims who were referred to by the Spanish as “Moros” meaning “Moors”. Legazpi sent Martin de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo to investigate the rich trading port that was Maynila in 1570. Martin de Goiti attempted to make propositions to Rajah Suleiman, who rejected the Spanish altogether.

Negotiations quickly deteriorated, leading to conflict. Cannon fire was exchanged, and de Goiti was forced to attack the Manila fort head-on. The battle was very brief. Through force of arms, de Goiti seized control of the fort and of Manila as a whole. Because the port city was already the capital of the other towns and settlements of Luzon, the “Act of Taking Possession of Manila” was the act of taking Luzon Island itself. Scholars believe that the defeated forces of Manila resorted to a scorched-earth policy, setting fire to the city by the time the Spaniards returned. Martin De Goiti then returned to Legazpi in Cebu where larger fighting forces were available.

Battle of Bangkusay

(Copyright disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing).

Legazpi went to Manila himself with a force of 280 Spaniards and over 600 Visayan warriors to settle over the ruins of the city. Another warrior chieftain vaguely named "Tarik Suleiman" (aka Bankau) refused friendship with the Spaniards after realizing that the relationship meant servitude to them. After rejecting the Spaniards’ overtures for peace, the young warrior challenged the Spanish to battle at Bangkusay Bay near Manila with a fleet of 20 to 30 gunboats and warships against the Spanish fleet led by Martin De Goiti. Tarik did not receive support from the other local chiefs, but nevertheless mustered a force of Kapampangan warriors with support from Rajah Suleiman. According to an unknown chronicler, De Goiti sailed to the Tagalog fleet at noon. The Filipino ships opened fire with their culverins and arrows to little effect. The Spanish ships were then tied together two by two and closed the distance and opened fire with arquebuses and muskets. The effect was so devastating that the Tagalog warriors were forced to retreat back to land. This is where the Visayans jumped out of the boats and pursued and cut down their Tagalog rivals. Their boats were siezed, and purportedly 200 Tagalogs were captured and taken prisoner. Ultimately this battle caused the death of Tarik Suleiman, who was regarded as one of the first heroes who died fighting for Filipino freedom.

Battle for Manila part 2

The second battle for Manila occurred in 1574—a few years after their conquest of Manila. The next significant threat to Spanish power in the Philippines was not from a native warrior king, but from a Chinese pirate warlord named Lin Feng or Limahong. He commanded a fleet of 60-70 ships and a few thousand men including four hundred Japanese foot soldiers, possibly from the Ashigaru class. His notoriety was so high, he was on imperial China’s most wanted list. Therefore the imperial court sent a representative to Manila to cooperate with the Spanish to take him out. He attacked Manila with his large pirate fleet. Rajah Suleiman used the opportunity to ally with Limahong along with other chieftains to overthrow the Spanish and their native Visayan and Moro allies. Suleiman even purportedly requested support from the sultan of Brunei who was rumored to have mustered a force of 7000 warriors which never arrived. Ultimately, Limahong and his army were defeated by the Spanish and their coalition of Filipino warriors …and Suleiman was forced to resettle peace with the Spaniards.

Sultan Mohammed Dipatuan Kudarat

The last great fierce resistor of the Spanish was Sultan Mohammed Dipatuan Kudarat of the Maguindanao Sultanate. He ruled over much of Mindanao for 52 years throughout 17th century. A devout Muslim, he led a fierce rebellion and resistance against the Spanish that ultimately prevented the colonizers from being able to fully conquer the Philippines. Mindanao remained free from the Spanish during his reign, after successfully repulsing them multiple times and launching successful invasions against them. He rebuked the Muslim leaders of Luzon and Visayas for aiding the Spanish, and admonished them to redeem their dignity and honor by taking up arms against their colonizers. Many heeded his words and burned the Spanish forts they helped to build. The Spanish were unable to defeat Sultan Kudarat and had even grown fearful of his warriors, especially when they enter an entranced blood-lusted frenzy similar to that of the Viking berserker. It was called “juramentado”, and with it, the Moro warrior refused to die. Brought about by prayer and ritual, it reportedly allowed the warriors to keep fighting even after being shot. Ultimately, Spain was compelled to cease its efforts against Sultan Kudarat in 1665 when a Chinese military commander loyal to the fallen Ming Dynasty named Admiral Zheng Chenggong threatened to conquer the Philippines away from the Spanish. This compelled the Spanish to abandon their campaigns against Mindanao to secure the capital city and prepare for an impending Chinese invasion. As a result, peace settled over Mindanao until Kudarat’s death in 1671 at the age of 91.

Spain could not conquer his lands. He was too politically powerful. His warriors were too capable. And he had the military support of the Sultanates of Sulu, Brunei, Turnate, and Goa in Indonesia. Together they launched coordinated attacks against Spanish targets. Sultan Kudarat even managed to form a working relationship with the Dutch East India Company, and managed to do business with them selling rice and trading slaves captured from the Visayas. Taking a page out of the Spanish strategy, he played the Dutch against the Spanish by exploiting their rivalries to gain control of the Southeast Asian spice trade.

[1] 1. Luis H. Francia, A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (Abrams Press, 2021), 30.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid., 28

[4] Isorena, Efren B. “THE VISAYAN RAIDERS OF THE CHINA COAST, 1174-1190 AD.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 32, no. 2 (2004): 73–95.

[5] Ibid.,

[6] Scott, William Henry. “Filipinos in China before 1500 : William Henry Scott : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, December 31, 2017.

[7] Luis H. Francia, A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (Abrams Press, 2021), 29.

[8] Angeles, Jose Amiel. “The Battle of Mactan and the Indigenous Discourse on War.” Philippine Studies 55, no. 1 (2007): 4.

[9] Ibid.,

[10] Emma Helen Blair  and James  Alexander Robertson, eds., “The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898: Explorations by Early Navigators, Descriptions of the Islands and Their Peoples, Their History and Records of the Catholic Missions, as Related in Contemporaneous Books and Manuscripts, Showing the Political, Economic, Commercial and Religious Conditions of Those Islands from Their Earliest Relations with European Nations to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, Volume XXXIII, 1519–1522,” Free eBooks, June 5, 2013,, 176.

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Ibid.,

[13] Ibid.,

[14] Luis H. Francia, A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (Abrams Press, 2021), 55.

[15] Luis H. Francia, A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (Abrams Press, 2021), 57

[16] William Henry Scott, Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino (New Day Publishers, 1992), 48.

[17] Ibid.,

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 50.

[20] Luis H. Francia, A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (Abrams Press, 2021), 58

[21] William Henry Scott, Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino (New Day Publishers, 1992), 31.

[22] Ibid.,

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