Correct Story, Wrong Interpretation: Applying ‘Orientalism’ in the Ballad of Magellan

Wonder if they really learn that pre-Hispanic Filipinos don’t look like cavemen & only wore vests or sleeveless jackets & g-strings (men), and baros and sayas (Filipinas) back then…

Animaniacs featured the story of the first circumnavigation of the world, through the eyes of Ferdinand Magellan, in a form of a ballad. However, near the end of the song, the last segment depicted a bad image of pre-Hispanic Filipinos as stereotypical savages. For this application, the author will use some aspects of Edward Said‘s ‘Orientalism‘. While Said uses his personal life as the main basis for the essay, it is safe to say that it can be also applied to any country (even Asian nations).

As all is concerned, Spain used to rule over the Philippines for 333 years, ending with the Philippine Revolution, Philippine Independence, & the coming of the new enemy: The United States of America. Now prior to the formal colonization of the country in 1565, the Spanish have went through at least 4 to 5 explorations. Magellan started his voyage on August 10, 1519 in Spain. With him are five ships, only one returned after almost 3 years of sailing.

While it is unknown if the animators and writers of the Steven Spielberg-sponsored animated cartoon show had done their research, it’s undeniable that they unintentionally exoticied the Philippines’ pre-Hispanic times very horribly. Tragic, isn’t it? They looked like cavemen in cartoons these days (not counting the Flintstones and their spin-offs). Back then, Filipinos weren’t like this. Men then wore a collarless, sleeveless vest or jacket that reach down to the waist and a cloth-like g-string called the bahag. Women, on other hand, had sleeved jackets called baros and long skirts sayas, accompanied by a waist cloth called a tapis. The color and/ or pattern of the cloth around a man’s forehead (putong) and jacket indicate their status and/ or deed(s), e.g. a red putong states that this man killed someone in war. Also noteworthy is their penchant for accessories and jewelry. They were adorned with necklaces, bracelets, etc. Even the men wore these during the pre-colonial times in the Philippines.

Said mentions about the concept of the Other. East and West are made by the latter to separate one from other, like labels in a can. In this case, the people behind this segment has just done that, despite the fact the Filipinos back then are not savages: they were as highly-civilized, though not as prominent as China, India, Egypt, Greece or Rome in those days. And also very ironic due to the fact that the Philippines had been free from Spain after more than a century, with sudden interruptions from the US and Japan respectively. That could have tarnished the Philippines’ image as a country, and its history in jeopardy.

Now if only they had hired a historian specialized in Philippine History in the first place of how the pre-colonial Filipinos were like or how they look like, it didn’t have so horrible. Worse, however, is how Magellan died. The cartoon claimed he was speared to death; but according to one of the men who participated the Battle of Mactan, Antonio Pigafetta, it is more unfamily friendly than what the Warners have observed: He died in the hands of the country’s first hero against foreign intruders: Datu Lapu-Lapu of Mactan, though it was shown as a bothersome for him since he had a feud with another Chieftain at the time. This is from the excerpt of his account of the circumnavigation of the world on the Battle of Mactan:

“When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, those men had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries, two divisions on our flanks and the other on our front.

When the captain saw that, he formed us into two divisions, and thus did we begin to fight. The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, “Cease firing cease firing!” but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides pointed stakes hardened with fire, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves.

Seeing that, the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to fight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain.

The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away.

So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

Too bad, for the lack of full research that was done. If only they knew better then…

Here is the cartoon of mention: Animaniacs – The Ballad of Magellan


Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York City, New York, United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.