On March 2021, 500 years had gone by since the Spanish expedition, led by Ferdinand Magellan, arrived in the archipelago of the current Philippines, after 17 months of sailing into the unknown in search of a new route to the Spice Islands (Malaku, or the Moluccas).
That first meeting between the East and the West on the islands of Suluan and Homonhon was, in fact, very cordial. The chronicler Pigafetta described the meeting between Magellan and the king of Samar as follows: “… to celebrate a ceremony of our worship. The King approved everything and sent us two recently slaughtered pigs”. Pigafetta was referring to Easter Sunday: the first Christian mass in what is today the third country with the most Catholics in the world. This adventure of the First of the Philippines, culminated by Juan Sebastián Elcano with the first circumnavigation, demonstrated the sphericity of the Earth and drew a new world map.
Spanish rule over the Philippine archipelago ─whose name originates from King Philip II─ ended almost 4 centuries later, when the United States shattered the desire for independence and occupied colonial power during the Disaster of 1898, as this period is referred to in Spanish history books. The Spanish fleet was destroyed in May of that year in the naval battle of Cavite and Manila capitulated three months later. But such news did not reach Baler, an isolated town between the northwestern coast of Luzon and the Sierra Madre mountain range. Blinded by hunger, disease and the continuous threats from the Katipunan rebels, the Expeditionary Hunters Detachment No. 2, made up of 3 officers, 50 soldiers, a medical lieutenant and his assistant, locked themselves in the small church of Baler while waiting of reinforcements from Manila, stoically refusing to believe that the twilight of the Empire on which, for centuries, the sun never set, had in fact taken place in just a few weeks.
Having overcome their agonizing adventure towards unreason for 337 days of confinement in subhuman conditions ─19 soldiers died inside the church─, the 33 starving and emaciated survivors, in addition to two Franciscans, finally laid down their arms and left the church, on their own feet, on June 2, 1899. Manila was no longer officially Spanish territory for 10 months. Fearful of possible reprisals from the Katipunan insurgents, it was the leader of the Philippine Revolution himself, Emilio Aguinaldo, who best defined their feat in a famous safe-conduct, a praise for the defeated that has no precedent in world military historiography. He decreed that they were to be considered “not as prisoners of war but as friends.” and added: “… the valor, determination, and heroism with which that handful of men, cut off and without any hope of aid, defended their flag over the course of a year, realizing an epic so glorious and worthy of the legendary valor of El Cid and Pelayo.”
Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day
The legacy of the heroes of Baler -better known as the Last of the Philippines– contains a universal code of honor, based on imperishable values, such as empathy, sense of duty, attachment to life, magnanimity, gratitude, dignity in defeat and humility in victory. This is how Senator Edgardo Javier Angara interpreted it in 2002, when he promoted the Law of the Republic No. 9187, which establishes June 30th as Filippine-Spanish Friendship Day to strengthen the relationship between two nations that share so many memories and traditions.
In the words of Senator Sonny Angara, son of late Edgardo J. Angara, “we commemorate that what began with death, war and fatality ended in friendship and mutual respect. Instead of commemorating how the colonists surrendered after a siege of 11 months, it is better that, as a nation, we remember that almost four centuries of Spanish rule concluded with reconciliation, friendship, compassion and camaraderie”.
Both countries now look into the future on the basis of their enormous background of coexistence, with its lights and shadows, like all History worthy of being prolonged for several centuries. The recent inauguration in Madrid of a statue dedicated to the heroes of Baler, located precisely in the same district as the monument that the Spanish capital dedicated in 1996 to the poet José Rizal, is another step forward to rescue from oblivion the universal legacy locked in the distant church of San Luis de Tolosa since the dawn of the 20th century.
The documentary The Last of the Philippines. Return to Baler is dedicated to that noble purpose.