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  • By Robert A. Underwood

Commemorating a historical event 'with a more robust imagination'

The Juan Sebastián de Elcano ship. Photo by Joseph Taitano

Following speech was delivered March 2, 2021 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary commemoration of the circumnavigation

It is a privilege and extremely high honor to be afforded an opportunity to offer a few observations in my capacity as the Ge’hilo- Chairman of the Estoria-ta Kumision. It has been a difficult and complicated task to bring attention to the Circumnavigation on behalf of Guahan.

In that the members of the Kumision, especially the vice chair, Adrian Cruz, were diligent and met the challenges of the pandemic, international affairs, bureaucratic misunderstanding and rough sailing waters well.

Some 500 years ago on a yet undetermined shore near here on the island of Guahan, there was an encounter, a meeting, a fateful event between Europeans and Pacific Islanders. The Europeans were represented by a voyage sponsored by Spain but with an international crew from other countries. The Pacific Islanders were represented by the CHamoru people as they existed in 1521.

Today, we represent both the Europeans and the Pacific Islanders in ceremony and in the spirit of mutual honor and respect.

Today, we also remember the actual events of that fateful encounter. After 100 days in the open ocean, the Magellan Expedition landed on March 6, 1521. We don’t know what time of day, but if it were in these times, we might actually say it would be on March 7 at 10 a.m. CHamoru Standard Time. We are always one day ahead in Guam and we have taken to honoring our ancestors.

Today, we engage in this commemoration in anticipation of cementing a relationship which will allow all of us to grow in knowledge, understanding and contribute to the future historical imagination.

Guam is an island of history. I stood out on the rocks of the Paseo to watch the Elcano sail by. The Paseo is built on the rubble of pre-war Hagatna. The rubble from World War II was bulldozed into the ocean and I now stood on it to watch the re-enactment of another historical event 500 years ago. With the puny Statue of Liberty behind me, I looked to the ocean for ships and canoes. The cacophony of history was loud and boisterous in my mind, in my historical imagination.

In the distance, I could see the ship that represented the first encounter, then I remembered the missionaries and colonialism, then there was the arrival of the Americans, World War II and finally a small Statue of Liberty raised after I was born. Making sense out of all this is nearly impossible and tests the strength of every person of this island, especially the CHamoru people. Others are left to contemplate when they came and how they fit in; the CHamoru is left to wondering why they don’t fit in to every story. It can be painful.

As the Elcano came into view from the distance and as it made its way to show its broadside to us, my heart raced-- I saw the Guam and the U.S. flag through binoculars; both were present but I really only focused on one. We were re-enacting an event that happened 100 years before Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and 255 years before the United States was created. America is but a historical newcomer.

I could feel the beating of my heart as I contemplated what this meant; as I took a picture with the Guam flag and Spain’s flag on shore with friends and relatives. But all the imagination and all the historical memory and conversation over the years was suspended and rendered speechless by the site of four canoes, kuatro na sakman, which represented us – for the first time in our history. Four sakman appeared the other day when there were probably 400 in 1521.

I realized that those canoes carried the heart and pride of a great people who have been largely ignored in the great historical drama of the circumnavigation. Discovered rather than discoverers; savages rather than civilized; victims rather than actors; part of the natural landscape like plants, animals and geological formations. But these canoes represented the first people in human history to migrate over the open ocean – the people that thousands of years came to these shores and initiated the culture and language that we can trace the origins of the modern CHamoru people.

We commemorate that encounter and interaction between Magellan’s crew and unnamed CHamorus today. Hopefully, we do so with a more robust historical imagination than we had yesterday; than we would have had if we did not take the time to look at each other, to see beyond our eyes. Historical imagination is necessary for all of us; historical imagination and historical empathy is crucial for every people and the CHamoru people need to re-imagine their past based on what we know and what is knowable.

There are always political agendas, there are always academic disputes, but the historical imagination enlivens all of us, allows us to look into the ocean and see something more than water, to look to the nighttime sky and see more than stars; - to look into each other’s eyes and see each other’s humanity and dignity.

Today is testimony to the encounter, a continuation of the historical imagination and the visit of the Elcano brought that about- Admiral Barber, the head of a delegation in the name of the King of Spain makes it significant, the Honorable Lourdes Leon Guerrero, the first Maga’haga of the modern era seals its importance. The spark that is in all of our historical imagination at this moment in time makes it all worthwhile.

Biba Guahan , Biba Espana na’la’la’ i manCHamoru

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