Saipan — Every time there’s news about corruption or corruption allegations involving an NMI government official, someone, locals included, will inevitably “remember” that Magellan called these islands “Ladrones,” the Spanish word for thieves.
But did he?
Magellan landed not on any of the Northern Mariana Islands but on Guam where the natives made off with a small rowboat of the Spaniards. So, Magellan called the islanders “thieves,” and Guam and all the nearby islands “Islas de los Ladrones.”
Here was a man whose goal was to seize control of foreign lands and subjugate their peoples whether they liked it or not. And he who was after plunder was the one who called his intended victims “thieves.”
Says Robert F. Rogers in Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam:
“The Europeans were unaware of a traditional custom among many Pacific islanders whereby new arrivals on an island present gifts to their hosts, who can take whatever they wish from the newcomers. The Chamorros, a communal people, also did not share the European’s concept of individual items as private possessions not to be taken without the permission of the owner. Pigafetta [Magellan’s assistant] noted that the Chamorros ‘have no lord or superior’ and were not awed by the Europeans, perhaps because the latter appeared weak and bedraggled after their harrowing trans-Pacific voyage.”
George Fritz, the district officer of Saipan during the German administration of the NMI, wrote a slim book about the Chamorros of the Northern Marianas that was first published in 1904. One of his main sources was the French Jesuit Charles Le Gobien (1653-1708) who noted that the Chamorros “despise murder and thievery.” It was an injustice, Le Gobien added, to call their islands the Ladrones. “Instead of being thieves, they lived in such complete trust that they do not even lock their houses. Everything is left open and no one steals from his neighbor. They are generous and like to bring joy to others. The Spaniards discovered this during the shipwreck of the ‘Concepcion’ [a Spanish galleon that went aground off the Agrigan area of Saipan] in the year 1638. Those saved were welcomed as friends and they tried to alleviate their fate through hospitality.”
Calling these islands, Guam included, “ladrones” is a misnomer as all historians now acknowledge. It persists here, of all places, mainly because of intellectual laziness on the part of those who see the local people’s actions and NMI events reflected in the carnival mirror that is “culture,” which apparently is an affliction or “fate.” And this leads to stereotyping, that ever handy substitute for observation.