Magellan Introduced Christianity to the Philippines 500 years ago

Islam predated the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines by at least a century and a half. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, Muslim missionaries from Islamic countries of Malaysia and Indonesia brought Islam to the southern Philippines, even reaching Palawan, Mindoro, and Luzon’s east coast, notably Maynila (the present-day Manila). With Islamicized communities spread strategically through the archipelago from Luzon in the north, Sulu and Maguindanao in the south, and Palawan in the west, the archipelago would have evolved into an Islamic nation were it not for the Spaniards’ colonization.

In 1517, thirty-nine-year-old Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, out of favor with the Portuguese King Manuel, crossed the border into Spain and convinced its young, adventurous seventeen-year-old Hapsburg monarch, Charles, to finance an ambitious undertaking: Magellan would discover a new route to the fabled Spice Islands by sailing west across the Atlantic, to South America, from where he could then sail to the desired destination without running afoul of his countrymen, Spain’s fiercest rivals.

Magellan assured the Spanish court that his voyage would observe the line of demarcation Pope Alexander VI had drawn, essentially dividing the planet between Catholic Spain and Catholic Portugal. Established on Jun. 7, 1494, the demarcation was one hundred leagues west of Azores and Cape Verde: All lands west were marked for Spain: east, for Portugal. However, if a Christian sovereign already ruled the land in either half, it would be left alone. Everything else was up for grabs.

After an epic voyage filled with extraordinary adventures, hardships, maritime disasters, and a mutiny that nearly succeeded, the fleet, reduced to three, discovered the straits, now bearing Magellan’s name. It led to the Pacific Ocean, so christened by Magellan as his expedition happened upon that great body of water when the storm season hadn’t yet begun. While entering the vast and calm ocean, the ships tacked their way across for more than three months without reprovisioning, causing untold hardships and deaths. They sighted the Marianas (present-day Guam) on Mar. 6, 1621. They named it Isla de Ladrones (Isle of Thieves), even though the inhabitants, forebears of latter-day Chamorros, had been generous with their food.

Magellan and his men pushed on. On Mar. 16, 1521, they came across Homonhon, an isle off the Pacific-facing coast of Samar, a much larger island in the archipelago yet to be named the Philippines. That day being the feast day of a saint, Magellan christened the islands aptly enough the Archipelago of San Lazaro.

Rajah Humabon and Queen Juana, who converted to Christianity, welcomed Magellan’s expedition in Cebu in 1521. Magellan planted a cross to mark the spot where Rajah Humabon and his people were baptized in 1521, the first Filipinos to be baptized. Magellan’s Cross is Cebu’s most important historical landmark.

Over the centuries, devout Catholics took chips from the cross, believing it had miraculous powers. To avoid its destruction, an octagonal stone kiosk with a red-tiled roof was built in Plaza Santa Cruz in 1845 to house fragments of the wooden cross inside a hollow black tindalo wood cross. Ceiling paintings depict the first Catholic mass held in the Philippines.

Historical accounts contend that Chief Humabon and his men destroyed Magellan’s cross soon after Lapu-Lapu killed Magellan in Mactan. A monument on Mactan marks the spot where Magellan died as he made his ill-advised landing to confront Chief Lapu-Lapu, who is now a Filipino hero. Legaspi replaced that original cross of evangelization four decades later and called it “Legaspi’s cross”. Cebuanos believe in leaving things alone since the name “Magellan’s Cross” honors the fellow who first planted it even if the cross did not survive, at least the seeds of a new religion that thrives to this day.

When Legaspi reached Cebu in 1565, he was met with hostility, but the Spaniards prevailed. After sealing a blood compact with Rajah Tupas, Legaspi constructed a fortified settlement that would become Cebu City. Early on, it was called San Miguel, then Santissimo Nombre de Jesus. Cebu served as a base for the exploration and conquest of other islands.

The statue of Santo Niño was recovered unscathed from the charred ruins of the settlement by Legaspi’s party in 1565. The accompanying Augustinian priest, inspired by finding the Santo Niño left by Magellan, built the Philippines’ first church and began the task of conversion. A wooden church built near the discovery site was burned in 1568, as did its stone replacement in 1628. Santo Niño is said to be the oldest religious relic in the country. The former San Agustin Church, the country’s oldest, was designated Basilica, the only one in the Far East in 1965. The present structure was completed in 1740.

The Basilica Minore del Santo Niño now houses a gem-festooned miraculous 30-cm high Santo Niño de Cebu image, venerated as the patron saint of Cebuanos. It is enshrined in glass in a small chapel to the left of the altar. The stature has an extensive wardrobe of sumptuous robes, a golden crown, and a jewelry collection, which dates to the 16th century. The Basilica also houses a rich collection of religious art and artifacts, and the adjoining convento has important archives. A short block north is another old church, the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral.

Sinulog Festival is Cebu’s major fiesta and coincides with the feast of the Santo Niño de Cebu. This weeklong celebration features processions, Sinulog dancing, cultural presentations, fireworks, a carnival, cockfights, and much merrymaking. It reenacts the first conversion of the natives to Christianity. Costumed, soot-covered crowds dance with the dance rhythm derives from the sulog (river current) and march through town to drums’ beating. A massive religious procession takes place on Saturday featuring the bejeweled Santo Niño. The fiesta concludes on the third Sunday of January.

Christianity was instrumental in shaping the lives of the Filipinos. To Christianize Filipinos, Spanish missionaries formed a town center ‘under church bells’ (bajo las campanas), wherein the populace is within the hearing distance of the bells. The typical Philippine town has a central plaza, a church on one end, a municipio or government house at the other end, houses of leading citizens on both sides.

Christianization led to the building of churches. The heavy massive stone structure for churches and the priests’ quarters (convento) was grandiose, conceived for permanence on a huge scale. Christian rituals called for interior décor, statuary, paintings, and liturgical music. Out of the religious needs developed Philippine fine arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, a Western form of music, and theatre. Philippine literature, which in pre-hispanic times was oral, acquired the Latin alphabet. Growing from religious literature, it developed in the vernacular the Passion of Christ (pasyon), religious plays (sinakulo), and Christian-Moor dramas (moro-moro), and metrical romances (awit, corrido).

Marking the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, a similar voyage of Magellan is reenacted by the Spanish training ship, Juan Sebastian Elcano, carrying navy trainees and students in 2021. The Elcano arrived in Guiuan, Eastern Samar on Mar. 16 and anchored in Suluan and Homonhon islands until Mar. 18, then dock in Cebu from Mar. 20 to 22 in the exact spots where the expedition made the first visual contact in 1521.

For more information on the quincentennial commemorative activities, visit


A History of the Philippines – Luis H. Francia

Philippine Handbook – Carl Parkes

Insight Guide Philippines – Discovery Channel

Philippines – Traveler’s Companion – Kirsten Ellis

Culture Shock! – Alfredo and Grace Roces


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