For the past few hundred years, there has been an assumption that history in the Mariana Islands, Micronesia and Western Pacific begins with Ferdinand Magellan. Over the past few decades, there have been concerted efforts in academia and the community to remind ourselves, and the world, otherwise.
In recent years, however, the particular ways I’ve been thinking about Magellan have centered around the fact that this month marks the 500th anniversary of the world's first documented circumnavigation.
Two years ago, the Spanish government and Navy began a voyage to trace the path of Magellan and his crew. The ship they are using isn’t exactly the type Magellan would have sailed, but it is a more traditional ship, with masts and sails. It bears the name of Juan Sebastian Elcano, the captain who finished the circumnavigation of the globe after Magellan was killed in the Philippines.
For Spain, the 500th anniversary is about telling their story, in their own national and international terms. Their commemoration is framed around the idea that Magellan’s voyage made possible the first instances of globalization.
The Spanish connected (sometimes violently) continents and communities in the forming of their empire. Part of that work was the colonization of the Marianas, which all began with Magellan giving the Chamoru people the name “ladrones” or thieves.
The question is, when some of the world looks to Guam for this historic commemoration, will Guam be able to tell its story? Will the voices of the Chamoru people and their descendants also be heard in this commemoration? As one Pacific historian polemically wrote, “the rape of Oceania began with Guam.” This is part of our legacy in this story of globalization, but it is not all we are.
In 2019, I Estoria-ta Commission was formalized with the intent of ensuring that Guam and the Chamoru people are not lost in that commemoration. There have been some concerns in the community that the Estoria-ta Commission will be celebrating Magellan, but this isn’t true. You only need look at the name of the commission to understand its intent: “I Estoria-ta Inetnon Estudion I Umali’e’ yan Umafana’ I Taotao Hiyong Yan Taotao Tano.” The full name uses the Chamoru terms of “umali’e’” or “umafana’” meaning “to meet each other” and “to face each other” to express an equality between parties.
The point is not something to celebrate colonization, but use it as a chance to retell the Chamoru story in a way in which we are no longer just ladrones. And further, we are no longer just the victims of history, but are also the inheritors of a complicated and vibrant history where there remain issues of justice that have yet to be settled, namely the continuing struggle for Chamoru self-determination and Guam’s decolonization.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted most of the plans made in Spain, Guam and elsewhere to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage. Conferences, exhibits and cultural exchanges have either been cancelled or gone virtual.
In recent years I have talked to some Chamorus who feel strongly that this anniversary should be ignored. In the two days that Magellan was in Guam, his men acknowledged killing seven Chamorus and burning dozens of houses.
Magellan’s visit put Guam on the map of European colonization and religious expansion and as a result the Marianas would be colonized far earlier than any other Pacific Island. Part of his legacy is that Guam is first found, and also one of the last to be freed.
They argue that we shouldn’t celebrate Magellan and his story, in the same way that indigenous peoples and others are pushing for a reimagining of celebrations of figures like Christopher Columbus. I definitely agree with this. Guam after all in those stories is nothing more than a dot on a map. Even the fact that Guam might be the first dot in the Pacific on the map of the modern world, it is nonetheless still just a dot. The people that live on that dot, the story of the people who have called that dot home for millennia is easily glossed over.
The purpose of Guam in that story is to exist. The purpose of the Chamoru people in the story is to give Magellan water and food so that he can continue on his historic voyage.
The late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, most famous for his book, “Things Fall Apart,” was known to quote an African proverb, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This is an apt sentiment when thinking about what role a Chamoru today should take in terms of this commemoration.
If we ignore it and don’t take advantage of the chance to tell the story of the Chamoru people and how Spanish colonization has impacted us, we may end up silenced again. Except this time, instead of lions and hunters, the 500th anniversary would be a tale that glorifies European explorers, while once again Chamorus are left voiceless, their presence simply there to glorify the great Magellan.
The “ladrones” label stuck for centuries. Magellan and his crew went back home and told tales about the Pacific that defined us and this island in primarily negative ways. Chamorus had their own version of those events, but no one asked us what we thought, and we lacked the means then to make sure the truth was heard.
The world will turn its attention to Guam albeit briefly this month. It will be a time when former empires will talk about their great navigators and reminisce about their former glory. It will be a time for the modern, globalized world to reflect on its own roots and the cartographic conquistadors who made it possible. If we are silent, we run the risk of being reduced to just another link in the colonial chain, albeit now in a new millennium.
We can use this same moment to make sure the Chamoru story is told. We can make sure another ladrones moment doesn't happen.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is a Guam historian and a scholar of Chamoru Studies. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Spain, the 500th anniversary is about telling their story, in their own national and international terms. Their commemoration is framed around the idea that Magellan’s voyage made possible the first instances