The Motives of Maga'låhi Kepuha
Since Maga'låhi Kepuha from Hagåtña is the most famous of all Chamorus from ancient times, I get asked about him more than any other figure from that time.
Here are the questions and some answers I gave to a Guam History student recently, who wanted to know more about his legacy as a leader.
What made Chief Kepuha a great leader?
Given the time that he lived, you could argue that Kepuha was a great leader because he could better see into the future in terms of how the Spanish would become the new dominant power on Guam, and so being as close and as helpful to them as possible would ensure that his family would benefit the most despite some massive changes. Nearly all Chamorus wanted to trade with the Spanish, but this did not mean that they wanted them to stay in their houses. Or that they wanted them to stay on the island permanently. Kepuha’s claim to fame was that he, was more open to letting them stay personally, even taking responsibility for them. It is noted that the first night in June 1668 when Europeans stayed on Guam, they dined with Kepuha’s family and stayed in his house. This was a firm commitment from him, and very different than others who were excited about the new arrivals in some ways, but cautious and apprehensive in others. There is a boldness to him in this regard.
What flaws did Chief Kepuha have?
It is hard to tell what flaws Kepuha might have had because we only know his story from the priests and other members of the Spanish presence and what they wrote about him. If we use this as a basis however, we could argue that he was too trusting of the foreigners. Or that he was blinded by greed, seeing the potential if his family was the closest to the Spanish, then they would have more access to the goods the Spanish brought in. You could argue then that he was naïve. He perhaps thought that the arrival of the Spanish wouldn’t change things too much, keep the current order of power and he and his family would just gain more. So he could have been naïve to believe them and also to believe that they weren’t coming to take over the island and the way of life for the Chamoru people. All of these points are speculation however.
Was it a good decision to willingly accept the Spanish?
It is easy to affirm or second guess Kepuha’s choice from today’s perspective. Former Governor Ricky Bordallo chose Kepuha as the icon for the statue that is in Hagåtña, because he saw him as someone who blended together the ancient past with the Western and modern as well through Catholicism. To him, he was a visionary, who rather than those who fought against Catholicism and the Spanish, saw ways to benefit and work together with them. So in that way, we can see his choice as for the most part positive. It cemented his name in history. He is the Chamoru who is most famous from that part of history. He has a statue, he is mentioned in all our history books.
But he is also someone who helped usher in the demise of Chamorus as being a sovereign people. He furthered the decline of their ability to live in their islands on their own terms. If Kepuha hadn’t helped, others would have taken his slot for sure. But nonetheless if we are thinking in those types of nationalist terms, we can see his choice as one of selling out his people. Chamorus were not all united, not governed under one Maga’låhi or Maga’håga, and so he had no political obligation to others, except those he was related to and those in his village. But nonetheless all Chamorus shared a similar way of life, culture and language. All of those thing were potentially under threat because of the Spanish arrival. Some might wish that he had used his influence to unite the people to fight the Spanish or to mitigate the damage that would take place. But there’s are discussions we can have only after the fact. In the moment, he was making a choice in the what he likely felt was best for himself and his family. I wish he had chosen differently, like I wish that many things in history had turned out differently, but that sadly isn’t the case.