One Man’s Interpretation Only, Your Mileage May Vary.
Cebu was inhabited centuries before the Portuguese explorer (in the service of the King of Spain), Ferdinand Magellan, ever set fatefull foot upon Mactan’s shore. Malay immigrants colonized the islands in the Visayas centuries before, driving the aboriginal inhabitants, the Aetaks into the mountains on some islands and wiping them out completely on others. The later Spanish colonization was merely history repeating itself here as it has everywhere else on this planet.
When Magellan and his fleet of five ships anchored off Mactan island, Cebu, or Zeebu as it was also known, was already a thriving trading center. Arab dhows, Chinese junks, sailing vessels from Siam and Malacca, all of these were there long before Europeans ever knew the islands existed. Trade between the islands and other countries had been carried on for hundreds of years. Cebu was repleat with pottery, textiles, implements and artefacts of other civilizations. Few remember today how the people of that time had their own alphabet, knew mathematics and navigation and many other skills that were stamped out by the Spanish Friars as they converted them to Christianity. The people kept their fighting arts alive by including them in religious plays called “Moro Moro” and the alphabet was used as a decorating pattern along the hems of the women’s skirts.
Magellan was defeated by Lapu Lapu, a local chieftain who, with the help of about a thousand warriors, slew Magellan and his less than one hundred men in the shallow tidal waters claimed to be on the east side of Mactan island. There has never been any archaeological evidence of this battle found there and some argue the low lying coral island of Mactan could never have supported a thousand warriors and their families back in 1521. They claim the battle actually took place elsewhere, perhaps on the Camotes Islands nearby. If this were the case, then more than just the re-writing of the history books will need to done as much of the tourist infrastructure of Cebu relies on Magellan and Lapu Lapu having fought it out at the monument site just past the airport!
Life returned pretty much to normal after Magellan was killed. His body was never recovered, even though the other ship’s captains offered to pay for it. Most of them had been against Magellan’s inclination to show off to the chieftains and take sides in the local squabbles. They had refused to send troops from their ships or fire their cannon to aid Magellan. While the Filipino’s boast of how they defeated the invaders armed only with swords and wooden sticks and spears, the fact is the modern weaponry of the Spanish consisted of a half a dozen single shot muskets. They were able to fire each perhaps once in the battle and then were unable to be reloaded again before the fight became a hand to hand slog with swords and spears. The Spaniards had removed their lower leg armour, or greaves, to prevent them rusting in the shallow salt water they would have to wade through to get to land. The Cebuanos realised this and naturally hacked away at the unprotected calves of the otherwise well protected invaders. When your enemy outnumbers you ten to one, even if every man had been armed with a musket the end result was a foregone conclusion. Of course the Filipino penchant for grandstanding and never letting the truth get in the way of either a good story or a run for political office was alive and well, even back then. I can well imagine Lapu Lapu standing over the fallen Magellan and calling for a microphone so he could sing the crowd a song.
In 1565, the Spanish colonizers Legazpi and Urdaneta arrived in Cebu and set about building a fort to protect them from the natives. Fort San Pedro still stands to this day, although the original fort built by Legazpi was made from logs, the stone fort that replaced it has impressive walls twenty feet high and eight feet thick. You can visit the fort today, stroll the gardens and visit the museum. After the Spanish were ousted in the revolution of 1896-98 the fort was taken over first by the Revolutionaries, then the invading Americans and last saw military service in World War 2 when the Japanese holed up there during the liberation of Cebu by US forces in 1945. Perhaps the best use of the fort was by the Cebu Garden Society as a botanical garden in the 1950’s!
In the nearly four hundred years between Legaspi and the Japanese, Cebu saw much oppression from the Spanish who seized large tracts of land for sugar cane plantations, their Friars who were often less than gentle in persuading the locals to convert to Catholicism, the Americans who assumed the role of the Spanish in 1899 and finally the brutal reign of the Japanese in WW2. The jagged moutainous spine of the islands still offers succour and concealment to those fighting authority to this day with small, relatively ineffectual bands of NPA guerillas hiding in their remote valleys.
After Independence in 1946, Cebu enjoyed a period of economic growth as did other parts of the country, even surviving the downturn brought on by the implementing of Martial Law by Ferdinand Marcos in the seventies. The Cebuano have always seen themselves as being different to the Tagalog and other clans and this is clearly evident by their continued use of their own language, Visayan and dialect, Cebuano. The Spanish influence is naturally very strong in the region, both in the language and architecture. After all, the Spanish were here the longest and set up the first western style school in the country in Cebu which is still operating today as the University of San Carlos. Cebu existed seven years before Manila, being officially recognised as the settlement Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jesus in 1575. The oldest street in the islands can still be walked along, Colon Street, not far from the Fort San Pedro and the San Agustin Church, now known as the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño.
Cebu became a municipality in 1901 and a City in 1937. Since the end of the American Occupation, Cebu has grown into a small but vital city of around three quarters of a million people. Many people prefer Cebu to Manila because it is smaller, easier to get around, has most of what Manila has to offer in material terms and yet is close to the beautiful beaches and natural wonders that make tropical living so special