Thursday, December 26, 2013

Magellan's Entrails

Senator Tommy Morrison recently introduced Bill 238, which would reinstate Discovery Day as a local Government of Guam holiday. For those who aren’t familiar with the Discovery Day festivities, its highlight is a reenactment of the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in order to commemorate the “discovery” of Guam in 1521. If you have not been to a Discovery Day before I suggest you go just to witness the surreal nature of this reenactment where Chamorro huts are burnt and Chamorros are killed by a guy in Spanish armor who usually arrives in Umatac Bay via a motorboat.

Morison’s bill does not state that we should reinstate the holiday as a celebration of Magellan, but more so as a venue for the celebration of Chamorro culture, heritage and history. As the community discusses this possibility and await a public hearing on the bill, I thought it might be good to recall the history of Magellan’s short, but memorable visit to Guam.

Magellan’s mission was to circumnavigate the globe, to take the pieces that Europeans knew from Asia and the Americas and try to connect the dots, to determine how much ocean or land lay between them. 

When he arrives in the waters of the Marianas in March 1521 his men are starving and some a very ill. They have been sailing into unknown waters across the Pacific. Guam wasn’t the first land they had spotted on their journey, they had seen other small atolls, which they named the “Unfortunate Islands” because there wasn’t much too them. When they reached Guam however, they were greeted by a lush green island, and a fleet of canoes.

Although “Island of Thieves” is the name that Magellan notoriously gave Guam, and which stuck for centuries, this was not the first name the Europeans invoked. Seeing the canoes and how swiftly they moved in the water they gave Guam a poetic name, the Island of Lateen Sails, based on the design of sail the canoes used. A later European would note that the canoes moved like dolphins jumping from wave to wave.

Chamorros came aboard the ships and things seemed fine at first. Although the usual way the tale is told, Chamorros are amazed and awed by the Europeans. Some accounts of the visit however reveal that Chamorros were not awestruck by the Europeans and seemed to be intrigued but not impressed by their appearance or presence.

Trouble started however when one of the crew slapped one of the Chamorro men. The Chamorro man slapped the sailor back. The sailor promptly drew a machete and tried to strike him down. Chamorros jumped back to their boats and began to throw spears and slingstones. Several groups of Chamorros showed up that day to trade with Europeans. One of them surprised the Europeans by immediately starting to hurl weapons at them once their trade of supplies for metal and glass beads had finished.

Although many European accounts attest to Chamorros having no knowledge of metal and that they were amazed to see it and touch it for the first time, this could be false. Chamorros at that time may have had infrequent contact with peoples of Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Through this trade they would have learned about the value of metal. When Magellan appears it is possible that they were not amazed by something they had never imagined before. Instead they were excited to see something they already knew about and that the arrival of Europeans represented hopefully a new opportunity to obtain more of the rare material. 

At some point the rope for a skiff was cut and Magellan immediately assumed the Chamorros had done it. His men went ashore and burned down several houses and killed seven Chamorros. One part of this story that is not as frequently mentioned and not usually part of the re-enactment that takes place in Umatac each year, is the request by some of Magellan’s crew that they kill some Chamorros and then take out their intestines and bring them aboard so that those who are sick may eat them.

Part of the reason this tidbit is left out is because it calls into question the usual way we understand these stories, namely that one side is civilized the other side is savage.

Magellan left after less than three days in Guam, and sailed on to the Philippines where he was killed in a dispute between chiefs in Cebu. As I’ve heard more than one Filipino say, “Chamorros kept Magellan alive long enough so that Filipinos could kill him.”

The telling of this story in the context of “Discovery Day” obscures one very simple and very obvious truth. Magellan did not discover anything. The Discovery Days of the past are trouble dealing with this simple fact. Magellan may have put Guam on the map of Europeans, but it was on the maps of Chamorros and other peoples in Micronesia for long before that.

Next week I plan to write more about this issue and the possibility of “rediscovering” Discovery Day.

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