Was Lapu-Lapu Really That Heroic?


It sounds like a question you’d get asked if you were in elementary school, but it pays to re-think it every now and then. The last time we, as a nation, asked ourselves what makes a hero was during the Marcos burial controversy.

Today, another controversy is brewing, but this time it’s a little bit different: Some people are pushing to change the name of the fish lapu-lapu because it disrespects the hero.

But the question is, was Lapu-Lapu really all that heroic?

Was Lapu-Lapu Anti-Colonial Defender?

There is probably no doubt as to who Lapu-Lapu is. He was the man who fought off and killed Magellan, a foreign invader trying to conquer the Philippines. Everybody knows this. We’ve all watched the 100-percent "accurate" and obviously "historical" documentary starring Lito Lapid when we were in high school.

Except, maybe not?

Here’s the real score about the Battle of Mactan: Lapu-Lapu was said to be around 70 years old at the time, hardly the dashing warrior depicted in popular culture. Magellan went to Mactan on the insistence of Rajah Humabon, who wanted to usurp Lapu-Lapu’s power. The truth of the matter was that the Battle of Mactan was an altercation between two rival powers: Humabon in Cebu and Lapu-Lapu in Mactan Island. Cebu, at the time, was a bustling trade port, which served as an important link between the Chinese goods in Tondo and the Muslim wares of Butuan. Cebu essentially tied trade around the archipelago together, and Humabon grew rich off the influx of money and merchants.


Lapu-Lapu was even more powerful. Mactan was situated at a strategic place, which allowed its ruler to control the surrounding waters. Lapu-Lapu, thus, essentially controlled the actual trade in and out of Cebu. This, along with Lapu-Lapu’s fearsome reputation as a pirate, effectively allowed him to assert dominance over Humabon as a superior.

This was the situation Magellan found himself in when he arrived in 1521. Humabon was looking for a way to cut his rival’s power and saw the Spaniards as his ticket. He goaded the Spaniards into attacking Lapu-Lapu, misleading them into thinking that Lapu-Lapu was his vassal and enticing them by converting to Christianity.

The aftermath of the battle also makes it clear who truly was in control. After the Spanish retreat, Humabon offered the survivors a feast—and poisoned them. The Spanish were forced to flee, and only barely made it back to Spain.

In this light, it becomes clear that the Battle of Mactan was less a heroic defense of the “indio bravo” against the conquistador, but rather an episode between two warring rivals. That it took on an anti-colonial character was only tangential at best.

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Was Lapu-Lapu the First Filipino?

It’s easy to think that Lapu-Lapu, as the paramount ruler of Mactan, was “Filipino,” or the very least, a native of the island. After all, did he not defend his land against foreign invasion? Sure, we can concede that the “Philippines” as we know it didn’t exist back then, but surely Lapu-Lapu was a Cebuano son of salt and sweat, right?


Turns out, not really, either. A folk epic taken from the oral histories of the region called the Aginid, Bayok sa atong Tawarik sheds light on Lapu-Lapu’s origins. Lapu-Lapu and his followers came from Borneo (Sabah) and asked Humabon for a place to settle. Humabon decided to bequeath modern-day Mandaue and Mactan, hoping that they would cultivate the land.

Lapu-Lapu was successful in this endeavor, and the influx of farm produce helped Humabon flourish. However, their relationship would turn sour when Lapu-Lapu decided to turn to piracy and raiding, attacking trade ships that entered Cebu through Mactan.

After the Battle of Mactan, not much else is known about the man. The Aginid says that Lapu-Lapu and Humabon would restore friendly relations, before deciding to return to Borneo with 11 of his children, three of his wives, and 17 of his men.


Who is Lapu-Lapu?

Which brings us back to our first question: What is a hero?

Compare Lapu-Lapu with other heroes like Andres Bonifacio and Sultan Kudarat. What separates Lapu-Lapu from the latter two is that his motivations weren’t as nationalist. As far as he was concerned, Mactan was another attempt by Humabon to displace him. He didn’t defend Mactan against a foreign aggressor; he simply drove away an enemy combatant.

But what Lapu-Lapu is, is a symbol. Lapu-Lapu first became a face on the one centavo coin in 1967, at a time when nationalist fervor was at an all-time high. This was a time when Filipinos were trying to figure out what it meant to be “Filipino.” This was the time of the Nayong Pilipino, Filipino as the medium of instruction, Baybayin on every street corner, and the search for “Filipino” culture in a post-colonial society.

Lapu-Lapu, beyond any question of history and politics, was a symbol of a “native Filipino” successfully fighting off the colonial aggressor. In their search for identity, Filipinos clung onto whatever image they could find of a Philippines untainted by “foreign influence.” The result was Lapu-Lapu.


Is Lapu-Lapu a hero? Maybe not in the sense we usually revere heroes. But as a symbol, Lapu-Lapu was, and still is, important in helping Filipinos shape their identity. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what heroes are?

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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