Magellan’s cross

In April 1521, a Spanish armada led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan came to Cebu, which expedition chronicler Antonio Pigafetta recorded as Zzubu, while searching for the Spice Islands or Moluccas.

Cebu at that time was led by Rajah Humabon. Magellan was able to convert Humabon, his queen, children, and his subjects to Christianity. They were baptized by Fr. Pedro Valderama, a priest who accompanied the expedition. Humabon was given the Christian name Charles after the king of Spain.

Magellan’s cross in 1965.

Putting up of the cross

During the baptism, Magellan ordered that a great cross be put up in the town square.

“A large cross was set up in the middle of the square. The Captain General told them that if they wished to become Christians as they had declared on the previous days, they must burn all their idols and set up a cross in their place. They were to adore that cross daily with clasped hands, and every morning after their custom, they were to make the sign of the cross (which the Captain General showed them how to make); and they ought to come hourly, at least in the morning, to that cross, and adore it kneeling,” Pigafetta wrote.

National Artist and Cebuano historian Dr. Resil Mojares wrote in his book “The Feast of the Santo Niño: An Introduction to the History of a Cebuano Devotion” that it was the practice of Spaniards to plant crosses on land they “discover” to mark possession for the crown and signify divine presence.

What happened to the cross?

Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan on April 27, 1521. What remained of the fleet regrouped and chose new leaders to continue with the voyage. Magellan stipulated in his will that on his death, his Malay slave Enrique who served as translator of the fleet should be freed. The new leaders of the expedition, however, refused to set him free. A loud argument ensued after which Enrique was reported to have left the ship.

Pigafetta said that Enrique went to Humabon and plotted against the Spaniards. On May 1, Humabon invited the Spaniards to a feast, promising them gifts and jewels to bring to the king of Spain. A quarter of the crew went, including the new co-commanders Juan Serrano and Duarte Barbosa. Pigafetta was also invited but did not attend because he was still nursing injuries from the Mactan clash.

During the meal, the Spaniards were massacred. Those who remained in the ships quickly escaped.

“Simultaneously, before the ships had cleared the harbour, amid cries of jubilation from the indigenes, another party of them was tearing down the great Cross which Magellan had erected. What the leader had achieved during weeks of careful and patient work came to naught in an hour,” wrote Stefan Zweig in his seminal book Magellan.

“Magellan’s cross was torn down when the Cebuanos turned against the Spaniards three weeks later,” Mojares wrote in his book.

The cross of Rada

In 1565, the Spaniards returned to the Philippines under the leadership of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. They planted another cross, made of bamboo and measuring five fathoms.

“It is credited to the Augustinian Martin de Rada and has been called the cross of Rada,” wrote Mojares. He said Rada was known as the Apostle of Cebu because of his evangelization work here.

The cross of Rada was reputed to be miraculous because it “did not suffer the least lesion” in a fire that destroyed houses around the cross on November 2, 1565.

“Augustinian prior Juan de Albarran, during the construction of the current church complex in 1735-40, built an enclosure around the cross. In 1834, Santos Gomez Marañon, the Augustinian bishop of Cebu (1829-40), had an octagonal temple built to protect the cross from the weather and devotees who, regarding it as miraculous, were accustomed to chip away splinters from it as relics,” Mojares wrote. “The “original” cross is now contained in another hollow hardwood cross set in the middle of a stone altar inside the kiosk.

Special indulgence

Bishop Santos Gomez Marañon granted the Magellan’s Cross plenary indulgence who those who pray before it every Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14. The indulgence is gained by praying one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory to the Father for the intention of the Holy Father in Rome.

Symbol of Cebu

Cebu City Hall now uses the cross as a symbol and the chapel’s image can be found in the city seal. Many other Cebu-based government and non-government organizations use Magellan’s Cross in their seals and logos.

Historic landmark

The cross is a popular tourist attraction together with other Cebu historical landmarks like the Fort San Pedro, built by the Spanish conquistador who came some 40 years after Magellan, and the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, considered the oldest church in the Philippines.

Within the vicinity of Magellan’s Cross are Cebu guitar vendors and shellcraft and woodcraft displays. The products are popular with the locals and tourists.

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