Retelling Magellan’s Southeast Asia
500 years ago, before any European had set foot in them, the cities that would become the Manila metropolis were already busy with international traders. Among them were the Wakō pirates of Japan’s Ryukyu islands. Here’s an imagined encounter between them and local Tagalog-Filipinos based on historical documents and other anthropological data.
Note: Tagalog has a non-gendered pronoun: “siya” [sha] for he/she/they. This narrative will adhere to singular they.
WARNING: CONTAINS DESCRIPTION OF ANIMAL VIOLENCE
“Halika dito!” big brother ordered to Mabilis as they pushed through the crowd. As Mabilis caught up, Kuya leaned in and pointed to a man holding a well-decorated kampilan sword and scabbard. “Ayan na siya” There they are.
Raya-Matu Ake, the crown prince, wore red silk head to toe: A red embroidered cap; A red sarong around the waist; A red shirt. But the vivid blue indigo scarf stood out; it was wrapped twice around Ake’s body from left shoulder to right hip. One tasseled end was hanging across the chest and the other swinging behind the left thigh. A full black mustache arched under Ake’s nose and around the mouth down to the jaw. The Raya-Matu’s eyes were focused; their posture was solid; their voice was carrying over the crowd, ordering everyone to place their bets and tie the blades tight around the ankles of their fighting roosters.
This was the man that Mabilis would work for. Kuya had spoken with the Raya-Matu personally; Kuya wasn’t close to Ake, but Mabilis was assured that Kuya could get what was needed for Mabilis and the family.
“Are we going to talk right now, kuya-po?” Mabilis asked. Kuya shook their head, “Hindi, just watch.”
Mabilis looked around the center of the crowd. A few men were standing about holding big roosters with elaborate tails and smooth bright feathers. The men would approach each other with one rooster tucked under their arm. They would turn to let the roosters see each other. And they would pair up and reach forward, pushing their rooster into another rooster’s face until one would squawk and peck at the other. Some pairs would half-squat and touch their roosters’ feet on the ground, then push them towards each other and apart again. The point was to make the roosters angry at each other; ready to fight.
Soon all the owners had paired up for their matches and made their wagers. So then they tied a blade onto each rooster’s natural spurs behind their feet. Each blade was the size of a small knife, and curved. Soon the first fight was set to start; one of the Raya-Matu’s well-dressed followers carried a bird whose feathers were shining golden in the sunlight. And whose tail was deep blue. He paired with a man in foreign clothes, with a shirt that folded left-over-right in the front. This man’s rooster was a ruddy brown in the chest, rising to a thick red color on its crown, and fading to bright white in its flamboyant tail.
The two owners approached, holding the roosters toward each other. Then, after stepping back, the men dropped them lightly on the ground and stepped further back. The roosters strutted towards each other, lowered their heads, and flared up the feathers on their necks. Then they burst towards each other and for a moment they joined into one fluttering ball of feathers in the air. One beat later they were back on the ground having switched sides.
The roosters crouched among loose feathers shivering in the breeze. The golden bird poised defensively. The red bird closed the distance across the dirt and leapt up. The feathers scattered around them. The gold one ducked under, turned around, and then they both leapt up. They flared out their wings — red wings and gold wings — and kept their distance in the air. Then the gold rooster made two successive leaps over the red, back and forth. The red stepped back, leaned forward, and launched up again, this time kicking its talons (and blade spur) forward as it passed.
It turned and repeated this move twice; on the third pass, the gold bird ducked too slow or too high. And the blade caught its wing. Feathers and blood were pulled out of it and thrown across the dirt. The birds came apart and together a few more times, each time the golden bird getting slower. The judge picked them up, one in each hand holding them face-to-face. They took a few steps toward each other and butted heads. The golden rooster fluttered and jumped once but fell to its side and stood up. It took two steps away and turned to one side, exposing its flank. When the red rooster approached, the gold turned away and fled.
The judge caught the pursuing rooster with one hand, then stepped over and picked up the gold one too. He put them beak-to-beak again in his hands. Then he dropped the gold one first and it turned to run. But he put it in place again. He dropped it again. And a third time, at which point it ran between the judge’s legs. He declared a victor: red.
Mabilis noticed that Kuya’s face seemed anxious at the result. “Kuya, did you place a bet -po?”
Kuya shook their head without looking and responded, “that’s Raya-Matu’s gamecock. They lost the first fight…”
Already, Mabilis could see what this meant. Raya-Matu Ake, who just moments earlier had appeared a master of composure, had crossed the fighting space and started yelling insults at some of the foreigners — the dayuhan. The fancy kampilan was already bared in Ake’s right hand. A young dayuhan cowered on the ground before Ake — it wasn’t even the one who had held the red gamecock; maybe just the nearest, most convenient one to yell at. But they looked scared: wide eyes and clenched shoulders.
An older dayuhan poked the scared one in the back with a cane and yelled something in their own language. Mabilis couldn’t make out the sound over that distance and over Ake’s voice anyway, but they seemed to be pushing the young one to stand up for themselves.
Sure enough, the young dayuhan rose up about as steadily as palm leaves in storm wind and pulled a long sword from behind their back. Ake tossed the scabbard behind. As soon as it hit the dirt, Kuya scooped it up and pressed it into Mabilis’ hands.
“See how they hold one sword with two hands, Mabilis?” Kuya asked in a perfectly calm voice.
When Mabilis didn’t respond, Kuya turned and ordered, “hold onto that for the Raya.” Mabilis nodded, still a bit a confused.
But Kuya was right. The stranger took a solid stance (as solid as they could): one foot forward and one foot back. Both arms were in front of them, hands gripping at the top of the hilt and at the bottom. They raised the narrow curved blade above the wide hat on their head and took a long step forward; their front foot shuffled forward and the rear foot followed behind.
The Raya-Matu slapped the dayuhan’s weapon aside with a casual cut right-to-left. It caught them on the left forearm and they retreated a couple steps. Raya-Matu Ake didn’t pursue, but stayed planted in the ground. Their feet were still but their face was seething. The dayuhan’s face was tensed too; it still showed fear, but also anger now. Or maybe pain.
More people were joining the crowd: both Ake’s people and dayuhan from Ryukyu. One dayuhan seemed to be their leader, as they were followed by a boy with a parasol and the rest made way for them. When they came to the opening in the crowd, one in their entourage placed a folding stool with a seat of cloth. The leader sat and unfolded a paper fan in front of their face.
The old dayuhan with a cane barked a few more foreign words at the young swordfighter and they straightened up a bit. They adjusted their stance so that now they gripped the hilt with only one hand and let the blade dip towards the ground.
They yelled and again shifted their front foot forward while swinging. Soon they were making swings from several angles. They kept up the attack at a decent speed, Mabilis thought.
“You see what Raya-Muta is doing?” Kuya inquired.
Mabilis frowned as if to make his concentration obvious. Yet it wasn’t so obvious what answer Kuya was looking for.
Kuya asked further, “which side is Datu blocking on?”
“The left,” Mabilis answered confidently.
“O o,” Kuya confirmed, “and on the right — “
“Only dodging.” Mabilis saw Raya-Matu Ake repeat the same move again for the third time at least: as the Dayuhan struck from the right, Raya-Matu moved their blade as if to block, but instead hopped backwards as if startled.
“Isang patibong…” A trap, Mabilis realized.
“O o,” Kuya nodded curtly.
Finally Raya-Matu Ake revealed their true intention. The Dayuhan struck twice overhead, once from the left, and quickly again from the right. But Ake blocked close on the right: the blades crossed nearly at the hilts.
“Gunting,” Mabilis said softly. Scissors— what Kuya had named the technique once before, describing the moment when the blades crossed. And in half a moment Ake was snaking the kampilan blade past the Dayuhan’s narrow curved blade and around their wrist, twisting the sword around and breaking their grip. With a final upward tug the sword was loose. Raya-Matu’s left hand caught it and then punched the Dayuhan’s face with their own sword’s hilt.
The thin young fighter fell on their backside without even a single backstep. On the ground they shook their head and blinked their eyes. And as quickly as they could, they pulled another sword from behind their back and pointed it towards Ake defensively. Raya-Matu Ake hadn’t pressed the attack, but instead stood back with both blades, kampilan and katana, raised lightly to either side. Flaunting like a proud bird.
The Dayuhan leaned forward as if to find their feet again but, apparently forgetting their wound, they put their weight on the left hand and immediately collapsed. Ake laughed as the Dayuhan’s shoulder hit the ground.
Raya-Matu addressed the Dayuhan leader, “Well now we’ve both had our rooster’s wings plucked!” And Ake tossed the katana point-first into the dirt to stick in place. The Tagalog side of the crowd laughed.
The Dayuhan in the crowd were silent. Their leader still concealed their expression behind a paper fan. One of them stepped forward from the leader’s side. This one was shirtless and tattooed, and held a spear with a curved blade. They stepped forward next to their defeated companion on the ground, leaned over, and said something softly in their language. The wounded one got to their knees and started to rise, but paused when the leader folded the fan and spoke their foreign language in a stern tone,
Listening, the young Dayuhan’s face froze in a pained expression— not the pain from their bleeding hand, but the pain of defeat.
Mabilis felt a shove from Kuya and a hushed command to return the Raya-Matu’s scabbard. Mabilis half-fell, half-stepped forward and held it out with one hand. Raya-Matu turned at the sound of the clumsy footfalls and looked Mabilis up and down. The youth’s breath caught in their throat, stunned stupid by Ake’s sudden scrutiny. A drop of blood slipped off the kampilan blade in Ake’s hand. Mabilis quickly took off their cap and offered it for the Raya-Matu to wipe the blade clean. A hair dangled across the youth’s brow while Ake accepted the cap and chuckled.
“Raya-Matu Ake-po,” the Dayuhan leader said in the Tagalog language. “Please accept a gift: this pair of swords is one sample of the stock that I wish to sell in your market for a fair price. Please forgive our insolence.” They stood from their stool and bowed from the waist. Ake was cleaning his blade and looking at the foreigners indifferently.
The young one stood up slowly and unslung the scabbards from their back. They sheathed their short sword and took a couple stiff steps forward with their eyes toward the ground and arms outstretched, offering the pair of scabbards (one still empty). Standing on the other side of the katana in the ground, Ake looked down on the offering for a moment. Then they gave Mabilis a slap on the chest and casually ordered, “kunin mo,” — You take it — and stepped back to their admiring kaba-bayan to resume the raucous gambling and cockfighting.
Mabilis turned to the foreigner. They still stood slightly bowed with arms outstretched but now they looked straight into Mabilis’ eyes. There was stifled anger in that young face — maybe the same age as Mabilis, with eyes just as dark and hair just as black. Mabilis accepted the offering with one hand; the Dayuhan bowed curtly and took a couple steps backward.
The young Tagalog grabbed the handle of the katana and pried it from the ground. Up close there was a ripple visible in the side of the blade. Where the blade met the handle it was ringed by gold in an artful pattern. The weight of it was awkward to balance in one hand. But Mabilis sheathed the katana and pulled out the shorter blade. It was identical in every way except length. Mabilis turned it over, twisting their wrist, then flipped the handle each way in their palm, and then held it steady to find its center of balance. This one would do for proper swordplay with one hand.
The Dayuhan was still staring, Mabilis noticed. Still silently angry, eyes piercing the air from beneath a wide hat like a salakot. How embarrassed they must have been to have lost these swords…
“Maga-ling ka!” Kuya was calling good job and walking up with a big smile.
Mabilis looked around for Raya-Matu, “Ibibi-gay ko ito sa kanya…” I have to give this to them…
“Hindi!” Kuya protested, “it’s yours!” Mabilis felt speechless and looked down at the swords again, full of doubt.
But Kuya’s arm was around Mabilis’ shoulders pulling them towards an approaching stranger. “You need to meet this man.”
The stranger wore a drab colored sarong around the waist and a thin blue shirt of silk. “Mabuhay,” they greeted with a light smile, and introduced themselves, “Ako si Salam. Taga Makassar ako.” Salam was their name, from Makassar. Their voice was soft, but in a kind manner rather than a quiet one.
“Mabuhay Salam. Ako si Mabilis,” the young sword-bearer replied.
Kuya explained, “Salam is a navigator for the Raya-Matu. You stay close to Salam and you’ll be close to Ake. They’re taking the hilagas —” the north wind, but he paused and asked Salam to confirm. “Hilagas?”
“Balas,” Salam corrected. The northeast wind.
“They’re taking balas with a couple hundred fighters over to the Rahmata’s father. If you stay close to Raya-Matu you’ll be safe. So — “
“So we’re going with them to fight, right?”
“Hindi-o! Mabilis, listen, the people who are good at fighting don’t even have to fight. So you stay close to them. You stay safe with the Raya-Matu’s kababayan. In Ake’s service you’re fulfilling Tatay’s debt at half-rate. Then you come back and get married so you can take care of Nanay, na-i-in-tindihan mo ba?” Do you understand?
“O-po, kuya…” Mabilis scowled to big brother as agreeably as one could and asked where they both would be going. “Sa-an tayo pupunta po?”
“Mabilis, ikaw ay pagpunta sa Brunei.” You are going to Brunei.