Official Position of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines on the Site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass

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The Board of Commissioners of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) signed on 15 July 2020 Resolution No. 2, adopting the report submitted by the panel that reviewed the issue surrounding the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass in the Philippines. In the report (see below), the panel recommended Limasawa, in today’s Southern Leyte, as the site of the said event.

The panel was convened in response to the requests from various institutions, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), even as the anticipation of the Filipino Catholic faithful had just begun for the 500thanniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines (see attached brief background about the process).

Republic Act No. 10086 or Strengthening People’s Nationalism Act of 2009 mandates the NHCP to “actively engage in the settlement or resolution of controversies or issues relative to historical personages, places, dates and events.”



NHCP’s Latest Ruling on the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass Controversy

Rene R. Escalante, Ph.D.

Chairman, National Historical Commission of the Philippines and
Executive Director, National Quincentennial Committee

(Video) LIMASAWA or BUTUAN - First Mass held in the Philippines

Note: This statement is based on the official report of the panel that NHCP created to settle the said historical problem and by the NHCP Board Resolution adopting the conclusion of the aforesaid panel report.

As part of its mandate to resolve historical controversies, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) revisited the controversy surrounding the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass in the Philippines which, according to Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition, happened on 31 March 1521 in a place he
identified as Mazaua. The issue as to the exact location of the said mass was resolved by the forerunner of the NHCP, the National Historical Institute (NHI), through two panels of experts: the first headed by former Supreme Court Justice Emilio Gancayco (1995) and the second by historian Dr. Benito J. Legarda (2008). Both panels ruled that the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass was in Limasawa Island, now a municipality in Southern Leyte.

Reopening of the Historical Problem
In 2018, NHCP received a number of requests from various institutions, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), to reexamine the earlier decisions of the NHI. These requests were made in the light of some claims that there were new primary sources and evidences that surfaced recently which were not taken into consideration by the previous panels. NHCP also saw the necessity of reopening a new inquiry because of the forthcoming commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the
Philippines in 2021.

NHCP-CBCP Joint Panel
In November 2018, the NHCP created a new panel of experts that reexamined the historical controversy and reviewed the findings of the previous panels. It was headed by historian and National Artist for Literature Dr. Resil Mojares, and the members included national and internationally-recognized historians, paleographers, and translators: Dr. Danilo M. Gerona (Partido State University), Dr. Francis M. Navarro (Ateneo de Manila University), Dr. Carlos Madrid Álvarez-Piñer (University of Guam), and Fr. Antonio Francisco B. de Castro, SJ (Loyola School of Theology, representing CBCP). Historian Dr. Jose Victor Z.
Torres (De La Salle University) was the panel’s Secretary-General. Dr. Rene Escalante, NHCP Chairperson, made sure that no member of the panel came from either Agusan del Norte or Southern Leyte so that their decision would be based primarily on evidence and sound analysis, and not on regional or territorial biases. Aside from Fr. de Castro, CBCP was also represented by other church historians as observers of the panel’s proceedings. Those who regularly

attended the meetings were Fr. Milan Ted Torralba (CBCP Episcopal Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church); Fr. Emil Quilatan, OAR (Archivist, Augustinian Recollect Archives); Fr. Amado Tumbali, SJ (Archivist, Archives of the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus); Fr. Antolin Uy, SVD (historian), and Fr. Albert Flores (Archivist, Manila
Archdiocesan Archives and Museum).

Primary Sources Used
The National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) appropriated funds and provided the panel with the documents it needed to come up with a well-researched output. Through official correspondences with various foreign institutions, NQC obtained high-resolution digital copy of the extant Pigafetta manuscripts. These included the French version (Nancy Codex) currently kept in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library; the Italian version in the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosiana Codex) in Milan, Italy; and the two French versions in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. NQC also secured from the Edward Ayer Collection at Newberry Library in Chicago, the transcriptions and notes made by American scholar James Alexander Robertson, who translated Pigafetta’s manuscript into English in 1906. Aside from Pigafetta, the panel also obtained and consulted the accounts of other survivors of the Magellan Expedition like Gines de Mafra, Francisco Albo, and the “Genoese Pilot.” The Ateneo de Manila University’s Rizal Library also shared with the panel the materials on the 400th anniversary of the Magellan-Elcano expedition in 1921 from the Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera Collection. At least twenty-eight (28) secondary sources, most of them in digital format, were also obtained by NHCP for the examination by the panel.

Butuan Proponents
One particular task that the panel members agreed was to visit the actual contested sites proposed by both parties. They also agreed that all contending parties would be given equal opportunity and ample time to present their evidences and argue their respective positions.
Participants were asked to follow the basic rule of historiography, meaning that every assertion made must be supported by credible, authentic, and verifiable primary sources. On 9 November 2018, the panel went to Butuan City to listen to the pro-Butuan proponents. Dr. Potenciano Malvar and Mr. Gabriel Atega were given one whole day to discuss their respective position papers. The following day, Dr. Torres, on behalf of the panel, went to Barangay Baug, Magallanes, Agusan del Norte where the 1872 monument commemorating the 1521 Easter Sunday mass was located. On 17 July 2019, Dr. Madrid and Dr. Malvar visited Mount Mina-asog in Tubay, Agusan del Norte which, according to Dr. Malvar, was where the expedition allegedly erected a cross after the mass.

On January 19, 2019, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, who was then the acting Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Butuan, forwarded to NHCP several published articles written by Mr. Gregorio Jose Hontiveros, one of which is entitled, “A Fire on the Island: Reasserting the Pro-Masao Position.” As per recommendation of Dr. Escalante, the Panel considered the article as part of the pro-Butuan position papers on 6 February 2019.

A Visit in Limasawa
The panel went to Tacloban City on 25 April 2019 to listen to the presentation of Dr. Rolando Borrinaga, the representative of the pro-Limasawa side. Aside from presenting evidence reasserting Limasawa as the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday mass, Dr. Borrinaga

(Video) Site of the First Catholic Mass in the Philippines: Limasawa or Masao?

explained that the mass took place in the western side of Limasawa and not in the eastern side (now named Barangay Magallanes) where a shrine commemorating the event is located. The following day, the panel went to Limasawa to conduct an ocular survey of the places mentioned by Dr. Borrinaga. They went to the shrine at Barangay Magallanes and then proceeded to Barangay Triana to visit the site proposed by Dr. Borrinaga. The members also climbed Totoy-Totoy Peak which according to Dr. Borrinaga was the mountain where the cross was erected after the mass. While on the mountaintop, the members noted a view of three islands that seems to be closely identified with the ones Pigafetta mentioned is his chronicle.

Approval process of the terminal report
The members of the panel met thrice to discuss the position papers and to deliberate on the final ruling on the controversy. The first meeting was held in Cebu, second in Tacloban, and third in Manila. On 9 January 2020, Dr. Mojares officially submitted the terminal report of the panel to the NHCP. Dr. Escalante routed the report to the History Departments of the University of the Philippines Diliman, Ateneo de Manila University, University of Santo Tomas, and De La Salle University. He also shared the report to the presidents of the Philippine
National Historical Society (PNHS), Philippine Historical Association (PHA), and Asosasyon ng mga Dalubhasa may Hilig at Interes sa Kasaysayan (ADHIKA) ng Pilipinas. These institutions were enjoined to react and comment on the ruling of the panel. Except for UST
and ADHIKA that did not send an official position on the report, all other institutions favorably agreed with the ruling of the panel. The report was discussed by the NHCP Board of Commissioners in their June and July 2020 meetings. Except for Commissioner Abraham
Sakili, the eight other NHCP Commissioners signed Resolution No. 2, s. 2020 on 15 July 2020, adopting the report of the Panel that the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass took place on Limasawa.

Ramusio and the Centuries-old Butuan Tradition
Among pro-Butuan set of evidences that the panel examined were the numerous accounts written by non-eyewitnesses decades after the 1521 Easter Sunday mass. These include the 1581 Edict of Bishop Domingo Salazar, the Anales ecclesiasticos de Filipinas 1574-1683, the 1886 Breve reseña de diocesis de Cebu, Fr. Francisco Colin’s Labor evangélica: Ministerios apostolicos de los obreros de la Compaña de Jesus (1663), Fr. Francisco Combés’ Historia de Mindanao y Jolo (1667), Fray Gaspar de San Agustin’s Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas (1698), the 1872 monument in Magallanes, Agusan del Norte, and a few other accounts written by American authors in the early part of the 20th century.

They all claimed that the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass happened in Butuan. The panel acknowledged that for almost three centuries, majority of the literature declared that the first mass took place somewhere in Butuan. It was only after the original Pigafetta manuscripts were made available to scholars in the 19th century that the shift to Limasawa started.

The historiography of the Butuan tradition was carefully analyzed by Miguel Bernad S.J. in his article in Kinaadman entitled “Butuan or Limasawa? The Site of the First Mass in the Philippines: A Reexamination of the Evidences” and by William Henry Scott in an article in the same journal entitled “Why then the Butuan Tradition?” They wrote that the tradition was the result of the reliance of early historians on Gian Battista Ramusio’s 3-volume Delle navigationi et viaggi (1550) and Maximilianus Transylvanus’ De Moluccis Insulis. In their books, Ramusio and Transylvanus recounted the voyage of the Magellan-Elcano expedition based on the accounts of the survivors. It became the most dominant and authoritative source of information and were used as basis of recounting some events connected to the first

circumnavigation of the world like the first mass in the Philippines. Scott agreed with historian Mauro Garcia that Ramusio’s work was a garbled and mutilated summary of Pigafetta’s original account. It was Ramusio, according to Scott, who mentioned “Buthuan” as the site of
the first mass which was picked up by succeeding authors and became a long-standing tradition.

We cannot blame the early writers and cartographers of Philippine history if they relied heavily on Ramusio because Pigafetta’s original account was not available to them. The same principle should be applied also to pro-Butuan advocates because they thought that the Spanish sources they quoted are anchored on reliable and accurate eyewitness accounts.

Pigafetta and the Limasawa Tradition
Days after the Victoria (the only ship that survived the Magellan-Elcano expedition) arrived in Seville, Pigafetta went to Valladolid where he presented to King Charles I his account of the journey. Thereafter, he went to Portugal and did the same thing to King João III. Both accounts did not survive in history. Then he went to France and gave a summary in Italian of his chronicle to Louise de Savoy, mother of King Francis I of France. The queen ordered Jacques Antoine Fabre to translate it to French and it came out in printed form in 1525 with the title Le voyage et nauigation. This version was used by most scholars like Ramusio in narrating the story of the first circumnavigation of the world. Pigafetta later composed a more comprehensive version of the voyage but it remained unknown to many scholars until Carlo Amoretti published it in 1800.

Trinidad Pardo de Tavera and Pablo Pastells, SJ were the first two scholars who revisited the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass using the latest and more comprehensive account of Pigafetta that became available only during their time. This was the Andrea Da Mosta transcription which was published in 1894. In an article that Pardo de Tavera wrote in El
Comercio on 31 March 1895, he stated that the Butuan tradition was a mistake. Pastells on his part made a similar remark questioning the veracity of the Butuan claim on the 1521 Easter Sunday mass. While working on his edition of Colin’s Labor evangelica, he had the
opportunity to study Pigafetta and Albo and on his footnote on Colin’s account of the first mass, Pastells wrote: “Magellan did not go to Butuan. Rather, from the island of Limasawa he proceeded to Cebu.”
Robertson published a translation of the Pigafetta manuscript in 1906 using the original Ambrosiana Codex. He wrote that according to Pigafetta, the 1521 Easter Sunday mass was held in an island called Mazaua. Robertson provided a footnote that the present name of the
place is Limasawa. In 1969, Skelton also came out with an English translation of the Nancy Codex and noted that the mass took place in an island which Pigafetta called Mazzaua. He also identified Limasawa as its current name. Pardo de Tavera’s correction from the Da Mosta
transcription, Pastells’ footnote on Colin, Robertson’s translation of the Ambrosiana Codex, and Skelton’s translation of the Nancy Codex may be considered the main reasons for the shift in scholarly opinion regarding the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass.

(Video) Readings in Philippine History-Analysis on the Site of the First Mass- Butuan? or Limasawa?

Intentionally Concealed?
The panel methodically analyzed the evidences and arguments presented by the two protagonists. The paper presented by Dr. Malvar argued that Pigafetta’s recorded latitude measurement (9°2/3’N) was part of a plan of Magellan and King Charles I to conceal the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass. This was supposedly to ensure that the newly-discovered route to the Moluccas would remain hidden from other explorers. The panel argued that if

indeed there was such a plan, the part of the route that should remain secret should be the coordinates of the passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the southern tip of South America. (the present Strait of Magellan) and not that of the Philippines. Many explorers
who sailed before Magellan were in search of this passage and all of them failed. Hence, anyone who would discover this would really keep it as a priceless secret. The panel also noted that Dr. Malvar’s argument was derived from John Regan’s A Singular Captain: Magellan’s Astounding Voyage (2016), a self-published book described by the author himself as a “fictional account” of the Magellan voyage.

Ambrosiana vs. Nancy Codex
Majority of the pages of the panel report dealt with the position paper of Mr. Atega and Mr. Hontiveros because the historiographical and scientific claims they presented appear to be backed up by passages from Pigafetta’s account and Albo’s derrotero (logbook). Mr. Atega
argued that the shift from Butuan to Limasawa as the site of the mass happened after the publication of the Robertson translation and claimed that Robertson’s translation was based on the “garbled” Italian text of the Ambrosiana Codex that Carlo Amoretti, the prefect and
conservator of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, transcribed and published in 1800. Mr. Atega said that the Ambrosiana Codex was “heavily-edited and full of inaccuracies.” Therefore, for Mr. Atega, the Ambrosiana Codex vis-à-vis Robertson’s translation should not be used as the basis
of determining the nautical coordinates of the Magellan-Elcano expedition. Instead, he encouraged the panel to use the Nancy Codex (from the Beinecke collection) of which a translation by English scholar Raleigh Ashlin Skelton was published in 1969.

The panel took the translation issue seriously and found out that Mr. Atega’s claim was baseless. In his introduction to his translation of Pigafetta’s account, Robertson accused Amoretti of committing “the sin of editing the precious document, almost beyond recognition in places.” Robertson also analyzed the Ambrosiana Codex and compared it with the transcription of the same codex published by Andrea da Mosto in 1894. He concluded that the latter contained “few errors and some serious blemishes from the standpoint of historical accuracy.” Moreover, the panel examined the bibliographical section in the last part of Robertson’s translation where he mentioned the sources he used and where he had a long discussion on the history of the Nancy Codex and even described its physical appearance. The panel noted that to make these remarks, Robertson must be familiar with the two Codices. The panel concluded that “Atega’s allegation that the Robertson relied only on the Ambrosiana Codex is baseless.”

Upon the request of the panel, NHCP secured a copy of each extant Pigafetta manuscript abroad and hired paleographers and translators who transcribed and translated the section that narrated the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass. Dr. Navarro took care of the transcription of the two codices. Ms. Jillian Loise Melchor (University of the Philippines Diliman) translated the Italian text and Mr. Robert John Yu (Ateneo de Manila University) worked on the French version. The translation of Melchor and Yu were then compared with the Robertson and Skelton translation.

The panel noted the observation of Robertson that the Ambrosiana Codex was “workmanlike rather than elegant” and agreed with Skelton that it might have been derived from the original Pigafetta journal, while the Nancy Codex was a presentation copy where Pigafetta reworked some of his text to entice possible sponsors to publish his manuscript to be used by future explorers. Two examples that the panel cited is the phrase “pieces of gold” in the Ambrosiana Codex that was changed to “mines of gold” in the Nancy Codex creating an
impression that the island was rich in gold. The method of extracting this gold was also changed from “sifting” (which means panning) to “digging,” giving the impression of a rich land. After noting that Robertson and Skelton agree that the aforesaid codices complement
each other and their translation had only minor differences, the panel dismissed Mr. Atega’s claim that Skelton should be used as the standard text in determining the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass. The panel also disagreed with Mr. Atega’s assertion that historians who
supported the Limasawa position relied only on the Ambrosiana Codex and the Robertson translation.

Reading the Coordinates
While the panel acknowledged Mr. Atega’s painstaking analysis of the coordinates provided by Pigafetta, Albo, and the Genoese pilot, the members exercised caution in using them as the principal basis of their decision. Most experts agree that measurements of coordinates done in the 16th century were done using instruments that yielded imprecise figures.

This observation is not new in the discourse because Mr. Pedro Picornell, a member of the Legarda panel, wrote already in 2009 that “navigators in the early 16th Century had no accurate way of determining longitude and this would have to wait until late in the 18th Century with the development of the marine chronometer” (invented in 1761). Picornell was a historian and avid yachtsman with a lot of experience sailing in Philippine waters.

The panel scrutinized the coordinates of Mazaua given by the eyewitnesses and compared them with contemporary measurements. Pigafetta recorded it at 9 2/3 or 9o40’N latitude, Albo placed it at 9 1 /3 or 9o20’N latitude, and the Genoese Pilot wrote 9 or 9o00’N
latitude. The panel cited a study presented in the 16th International Multidisciplinary Scientific Geoconference (Bulgaria, 2016) by a group of experts who compared the coordinates given by Pigafetta with the present coordinates using a computer-based system and the result was 9056’ N latitude or only a 0016’ difference against Pigafetta’s.

(Video) parliamentary debate first mass

Interestingly, the members of the panel noted that the researchers who made the computation have no personal interest in the first mass
controversy and they identified the coordinates purely for the sake of scholarship. Even a layman can confirm the coordinates of Limasawa by simply Googling it and the result will be a 9°54’ N latitude. Taking all these evidences into account, the panel noted that, although the
navigational coordinates during this period were just estimates, Pigafetta’s 9o40’N latitude was still closer to Limasawa than to Butuan which, using the modern coordinates, was located at 8°56’ N latitude.

The panel also examined the studies and projects that retraced the Magellan-Elcano expedition route using modern navigational instruments. One project that they analyzed was the 1971 expedition of naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison and the Colombian historian
Mauricio Obregon. Guided by Albo’s log and other documents from the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, they retraced the Magellan-Elcano expedition route in a two-month journey under sail. When they reached the Philippines, Morison and Obregon were assisted by
Picornell. In 2006, the Spanish Society for International Exhibitions (SEEI) organized a similar project using a replica of Victoria constructed by Fundacion Nao Victoria. It was equipped with 16th-century navigational tools like an astrolabe and a quadrant as well as state-of-the- art navigational instruments. The twenty-member crew was headed by naval engineer Ignacio Fernandez Vial, the leading Spanish expert in reconstructing working replicas of historic ships.
Merchant marine captain Jose Luis Ugarte took charge of the navigation. He is considered Spain’s premier transoceanic yachtsman and had twice sailed solo around the world. The Vial-Ugarte expedition stopped at Limasawa and they logged its coordinates at between 9o
58’N and

o 53’E. The Morrison-Obregon and Vial-Ugarte expeditions found and identified Limasawa as the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass.

Geomorphic Changes
Pro-Butuan proponents argued that the topography of Agusan del Norte changed decades after the Magellan-Elcano expedition. This was caused by strong earthquakes that resulted to the alteration of the topography of the province and the disappearance of some islands in the northern part of Butuan. Dr. Malvar presented a map drawn by the Augustinian Recollects in 1683 mentioning an island called Masao. He presented another map dated 1902 and the island is no longer there. He explained that earthquake and siltation resulted to the fusion of Masao with the mainland. This Masao, he claims, is probably the Mazaua that
Pigafetta cited as the place where the mass took place.

The panel did not take this argument seriously because it needs scientific proof and details as to when the earthquakes took place and documentation of their effects on the topography of Butuan. Assuming that there indeed geological changes that happened between
1521 to the present, the location of Masao, Butuan City is too far from the coordinates given by Pigafetta and Albo and the current reckoning of contemporary experts.

Limasawa Had No Provisions and Spices
Pro-Butuan proponents argued that ever since, Limasawa was a remote island and cannot sustain the daily needs of the members of the expedition. Butuan, on the other hand, is a highly-civilized settlement as proven by a lot of archeological discoveries in this part of
Mindanao. They wanted to point out that Limasawa did not have the necessary provisions that could sustain the expedition for seven days. To answer this point, the Panel revisited the documents of the Villalobos expedition particularly the saga of San Cristobal, one of the ships of Villalobos that was separated from the fleet after experiencing turbulent weather. It stayed in Limasawa for two months and there are no accounts that they had problems with provisions while waiting to be connected with the fleet. This only suggests that 16th century Limasawa
was prosperous enough to host foreign visitors. The panel also asked “if Butuan was the place where the First Mass was celebrated and it was highly civilized during the 16th century, how come it did not become the prime destination of the expeditions that followed Magellan?”


The panel unanimously agreed that the evidences and arguments presented by the pro- Butuan advocates are not sufficient and convincing enough to warrant the repeal or reversal of the ruling on the case by the NHI. Hence, the panel recommended that Limasawa Island, Southern Leyte, be sustained as the site of the 1521 Easter Sunday Mass.


(Video) The First Mass in the Philippines (It's in Limasawa!)

Before it ended its report, the panel recommended to the NHCP and to the Butuan-based scholars to explore further the historical significance of Butuan as a precolonial trading center. Butuan has a lot of archeological artifacts and cultural traditions that could be used to
promote the city as a one of the country’s premier historic sites.


1. Historia Episode XII - First Mass: The Butuan Claim Part I
(Limang Siglo)
2. Historia Episode V - First Mass in the Philippines
(Limang Siglo)
3. Limasawa or Butuan
(Pharsa Ml)
(Ricky Villamor)
5. Historia Episode XV - Verdict of the 3 Commissions: Limasawa the site of the First Mass
(Limang Siglo)
6. Limasawa or Butuan: Unfolding a Controversy


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