Some Historical Notes on Kaplag…

Kaplag (finding) of the Santo Niño

Kaplag (finding) of the Santo Niño

Note: This article is entitled “Some Historical Notes on Kaplag: The Beginning and the Propagation of the Filipino Devotion to the Child Jesus”, “Kaplag 2015: A Commemorative Book” Published by the Prior Provincial of the Augustinian Province of Santo Niño de Cebu – Philippines, Inc. 2015. Pp. 29-41.


“Kaplag” is a Cebuano term for “discovery” or “finding.” In the context of the series of celebrations which the Augustinians in the Philippines celebrate in the year 2015, it refers to a particular historical event which took place 450 years ago – the “finding” of the miraculous image of the Child Jesus (Santo Niño) in Cebu when the Spaniards, under the leadership of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, returned to the Philippines and re-conquered the island in 1565.

It must be remembered that some 44 years earlier (in 1521) the Portuguese navigator Fernando Magallanes (or Ferdinand Magellan) set foot in our land. On that occasion, some local inhabitants of Cebu were converted and baptized. Accounts have it that the local chieftain of Cebu, Rajah Humabon, and her consort (later named Juana), with hundreds of their subjects, embraced the new faith. Moved by fervor and devotion, the later requested Magellan’s chaplain, Fr. Pedro de Valderrama, to give her an image of the Child Jesus. The request was promptly granted (cf. Amoreti 1889:46-47); Diez-Aguado 1921:309-318).

A few days after the above-mentioned conversion and baptism, animosity ensued between the Spanish conquerors and the local chieftain nearby Mactan by the name of Lapu-Lapu, ending in a bloody encounter and leading to the death of Magellan on April 27, 15212. There was also an attempt to poison the rest of the Spanish fleet. (Cf. Tenazas 1965:22) Those who survived were able to escape and leave the island. In this way, the evangelization vis-à-vis the conquest of the rest of our land was momentarily interrupted.

After the 1521 incident, there were other attempts to claim the Philippine Islands for the Spanish crown (like the 1525 expedition under Fray Garcia Jofre de Loaysa, that of 1526 under Sebastian del Cano, that of 1528 under Alvaro de Saavedra, and that of 1542 under Gen. Ruy Lopez de Villalobos; cf. San Agustin 1998: 141-157; Tenazas 1965: 23). What interests us in the present article is the Legazpi expedition. What exactly happened when his armada reached in 1565? What were the circumstanced that led to the “discovery” of an image of the Child Jesus on the island? What was the impact of the said event?

Finding of the miraculous image of the Santo Niño de Cebu

Many historical documents have come down to us narrating the prodigious discovery of an image of the Child Jesus in Cebu in 1565. Definitely the most reliable among them is the notarized statement of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi himself (dated May 16, 1565) sworn before Fernando Riquel, the official notary, and corroborated by three witnesses – namely, Juan de Camus, Mateo del Saz and Esteban Rodriguez. The said document is presently preserved at the General Archives of the Indies (AGI) in Spain (cf. AGI Patr* 23, r* 16, folio 35). Publications of its extract are available both in original Spanish version and in modern translations (for example, in vol. 1 of Fr. Isacio Rodriguez, OSA, Historia de la Provincia Augustiniana del Sm. Nombre de Jesus de Filipinas, Manila 1965, pp. 73-74, and in Fr. Gaspar de San Agustin, OSa, Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas (1565-1615), Madrid 1698, with bilingual (Spanish-English) edition published in Intramuros, Manila 1998, Chapter 26, pp. 333-343).

Kaplag (Finding) if the Santo Niño Image

According to historical sources, when the fleet of Legazpi reached the island of Cebu, attempts were made to establish an amicable settlement between the Spaniards and the local inhabitants. However, when such attempts were made to establish an amicable settlement between the Spaniards and the local inhabitants. However, when such attempts failed, the former resorted to violence, opening fire on the latter’s paraos (boats) and setting their village aflame. The locals retreated in the mountains, leaving their burning village deserted. (Marin 1964: 126) Let us read an account concerning this.

A house in the middle of the village caught fire. It was doubtful if the natives set it on fire or if it was caused by a shot which the ship Almiranta had fired, hitting the roof of the hut, which caught fire easily because it was made of dry palm (which the natives common call nipa). In the end, the house burned down, together with another hundred, and the entire village would have been burned to cinders if the wind had not changed…. (San Agustin 1998: 334). Otherwise indicated, we propose own translation.)

After the fire was extinguished, the armada’s soldiers inspected the place, going into every single hut that was spared by conflagration. It was at this point that the finding of an image of the Santo Niño took place.

It was Saturday, the 28th of April 1565 (feast of Saint Vidal the Martyr), at dusk, when a seaman from the ship Capitana – Juan de Camus (called Bermeo by others because he was native from a place with this name in Vizcaya) – decided to enter into one hut spared by the fire and found some boxes in it. It was described as “one of the poorer houses, moderate, humble and small, with few utensils.” (San Agustin 1998: 33), note 3) Inside he first came across two boxes tied up together (apparently ready to be easily carried away by the owner upon fleeing from the village). The first box contained only a wild boar tusk and a bowl (escudilla), while the other one was empty. Entering deeper into the hut, Juan Camus found another box. It was “tied with Castilian sailing thread and Castilian cord made of hemp.” Its particular weight compared with the other boxes he encountered suggested that it contained something inside. He cut the cords and discovered another box in it, made of pine wood, which contained an image of the Child Jesus. Thus we read:

Coming to a small house, which seemed to have not been entered into by anyone, he went into it and upon entering he found two native boxes tied together. He opened one and it had nothing inside except a bowl and a wild pig tusk. The other one seemed light to him and contained nothing. He went deeper into the thread and Castilian sailing thread and Castilian cord made of hemp… and since it seemed heavy to him and to contain something inside, he cit the rope and opened it. Once opened, he found another box made of pine wood and a Child Jesus in it. (San Agustin 1998: 342).

Juan de Camus was ecstatic over his discovery and shouted in his native Vizcayan tongue: “Fir the Body of God, I found the Son of the Holy Mary!” He rushed out of the hut carrying the image, presenting it to the first person he encountered – a soldier in the company of Cap. Martin de Goiti. Further on he gave the image to the maestre de campo (shipmaster), Mateo del Saz (on eof the witnesses of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sworn statement), who in turn brought it to the General and the religious men in his company.

As to the reaction of Legazpi upon seeing and receiving the image of the Child Jesus, let us read the dramatic account we find in the document itself:

The General (sc. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi), falling to his knees, venerated it, weeping copiously and displaying singular acts of devotion, accompanied by the religious with tender sobs of joy, as well by those of the armada – all confessing that God rewareded the devotion that the General had always had for His Holy Name and the ardent zeal with which they undertook the temporal conquest, because from it resulted spiritual good to a great multitude of souls. The devout General, together with the rest, gave thanks to God for this blessing, considering it a full remuneration for the numerous difficulties they suffered during the voyage, and promising anew to dedicate the rest of his life to make the Holy Name known and venerated throughout those islands… (San Agustin 1998: 336,338).

The Discovered image of the Child Jesus

The witnesses’ descriptions of the image of the Child Jesus agree on specific details as to the statue’s size, position of the hands, garment and other paraphernalia. This was what er read in Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s account:

… an image of the Child Jesus… with his cap of flounced colored (red) velvet akin to those made in Flanders, and his valance shirt, with two fingers of his right hand raised as one who blessed and, on the left, holding a round ball (sic.) without a cross, with a small golden metal necklace on the neck. (San Agustin 1998:341, note 3).

This is corroborated by Juan de Camus himself who directly found the image inside a box made of pine wood. He says that the image was… “akin to those that come from Flanders, with its flounced shirt and small golden metal necklace, and a small hat of colored (red) wool velvet like those in Flanders.” (San Agustin 1998:342, note 3) Finally, the Maestre de Campo (shipmaster), Mateo del Saz, adds: the image was “while and well-treated, except that the lacquer had been removed from a part of the face as well as slightly on the apple” (referring to the orb on the image’s left hand). (ibid.)

Kaplag (Finding) if the Santo Niño Image

Gaspar de San Agustin also has his own description of the discovered image: “The Divine child was the size of a tercia and was dressed up with a flounced shirt; his dress was of colored damask, with a velvet flamenco cap in the old style; it had a pectoral or small hanging from its neck on a nice chain or gold collar; it had a small sphere in the hand; its beauty was so striking that it attracted everyone who saw it. “A tercia would be approximately equivalent to eleven inches. (San Agustin 1998: 338, 229), note A)

It is worth-noting how the earlier accounts clearly suggest a Flemish origin of the statue: “akin to those made in Flanders” (Legazpi), /”like those in Flanders” (Juan de Camus). In her study of the history of the Santo Niño de Cebu, Astrid Sala-Boza explains the high probability that the image, indeed, could be Flemish origin. She first gives us a background on Charles I (1500-1558): he was born in Ghent and brought up in Flanders; in 1516 he assumed the title “king of Castile,” but he went to Spain only in the following year (1517). Until that time he was raised by his aunt, Margaret of Austria, in the Belgian town of Mechelen – famous for making wooden icons in the 16th century. “It has been noted by some European art historians that the Santo Niño de Cebu icon is very similar to those made in Mechelen… Assuming that the image brought by Magellan’s expedition to Cebu was from Mechelen, it is most probable that it was a contemporary image (made in 1500-1517) when Magellan left Spain in 1519.” (Sala-Boza 2008: 250-251).

According to Sala-Boza, we are only talking about probability in this case. The fact remains – according to her – that we have no proof that, first, Charles I brought an image (or images) of the Child Jesus from Mechelen to Spain in 1517; second, that he gave Magellan any image (an eventually reaching the Philippine archipelago); and, third (we may add), that the image given by Magellan to Queen Juana during her baptism in 1521 was of Flemish origin. However, let us mention some of the documents discussed by Fr. Isacio Rodriguez, OSA, concerning the controversy as to the origin of the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu. (Cf. Rodriguez 1965: 75-92).

It is true that some scholars (even among the ranks of the Augustinians!) have expressed doubt as to the Flemish origin of the Santo Niño de Cebu. We may name, in this case, Fr. Juan Toribio de Medina, OSA (cf. his Historia de los sucesos de la Orden de N. G. P. San Agustin de estas Islas Filipinas published in manila in 1893, p. 43) and Fr. Juan de la Concepcion, OAR (cf. his Historia general de Filipinas [sic.], vol. 1, published in Manila 1788, p. 364). Some researchers also claim not only that the Franciscans and ot the Augustinians were the first evangelizers of the Philippines, but also that the iamge of the Child Jesus was of Chinese origin. (Cf. fr. Lorenzo Perez, OFM, Archivo Ibero-Americano, vol. 1 Madrid 1914: pp. 160-161) In fact they insinuate that it was the Franciscan missionaries themselves who brought the image to the Philippines from China. Such claims, however, were seriously questioned by other historians. Let us present some of the pertinent documents.

The opinion that the image of the Child Jesus found in Cebu in 1565 was the same religious icon given by Magellan to Queen Juana is backed up by quite a number of reliable historical documents. We have, for example, the words of Fray Andres de Urdaneta, OSA, himself: “It appeared to us that they (sc. The natives) must have kept it there since they killed there some captains of Magellan” (cited by Fermin de Uncilla, OSA, Urdaneta y la conquista de Filipinas. Estudio historico, San Sebastian 1907: 228, note 1). These words are backed up by testimony of his nephew and the King of Spain’s notary, Andres de Mirandola (cf. “Audiencia de Filipinas” in AGI 34 cited in San Agustin 1998: 351).

In 1591, Fr. Antonio Serrano, who was the Procurator General of the Augustinian Order at that time, sent Pedro de Rojas (assessor and lieutenant of the Governor of the Philippines then) to interrogate some of the surviving members of the Legazpi expedition as regards the events that transpire in 1565. When asked about the image of the Child Jesus discovered on that occasion, they all replied that “they had found in a house of an indio a Child Jesus which had been left behind during the time of Magellan, and because of this, they had named that port as the city of the Name of Jesus’ (cf. Revista Augustnian 2, Valladolid 1881: 306-307; fr. Manuel Diez-Aguado, OSA, “El verdadero pilar de Filipinas” in Archivo historico-hispano Agustiniano 16, El Escorial 1921:312-313). In 1597, Fr. Pablo de Trujullio, OSA, commissioned Gov. Francisco de Tello to conduct a similar investigation. A certain Don Gabriel de Rivera asserted that “there was a public and widely-known report that it (sc. Image of the Child Jesus) was left here from the time Magellan passed by the islands.” (“Trabajos de los padres agustinos en Filipinas durante la epoca de la Conquista” in La politica de españa en Filipinas 6, no. 168, Madrid 1897: 401) Likewise, the archbishop of Manila Miguel Garcia Serrano, in his letter to the Kind of Spain (dated July 25, 1626) asserts that “this convent (sc. Of Cebu) has the Holy Child Jesus which was found on the day the daring Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived – meaning this relic was left there from the time of Magellan.” (AGI Patr* 68, r* 1, folio 34 cited in Rodriguez 1965: 80) Another historian, Moreno Donoso, conducted an investigation and affirmed: “… when he (sc. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi founded the city of Cebu on April 28 (1565) – today the City of the Most Holy Name of Jesus – the title he gave to it… for having discovered among its islands a likeness of the Child Jesus, an image, a relic of the venerable Chaplain of Magellan (sc. Fr. Pedro de Valderrama).” (Historia de la Santa Iglesia Metropolitana de Filipinas, Manila 1877:225)

The list of documents can still continue, but the point we are trying to make should be clear by now: the majority of the historians and researchers are of the opinion that the image of Santo Niño discovered by the men of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565 is the same statue given to Queen Juana in 1521 on the occasion of her conversion  and baptism. (Cf. Carlos Amoretti [tr.], Antonio de Pigafetta: Primer Viaje alrededor del mundo, Madrid 1889)

How do we explain, then, the claim of the natives, that they were already in possession of the image “since time immemorial”? The Dominican Frs. Juan Ferrando and Joaquin Fonseca have this to say:

It had not been possible to positively verify how and when the Cebuanos acquired his pledge of love (sc. Image of the Santo Niño), but it is probable that the first Spaniards from the expedition of Magellan brought it to this people. The claim of the indios, who later assured (the Spaniards) of having possessed it since time immemorial, does not hold ground because the 44 years that transpired sicne then were enough to erase their memory (as to) the time and circumstances of its acquisition. It is also possible that the Cebuanos intentionally narrated the same circumstances so that they might not be deprived of the treasure (sc. the image), which they esteemed without knowing it, (Historia de los PP. Dominicos en las Islas Filipinas, vol. 1, Madrid 1870: 102)

At any rate, as we have read in the sworn statements of the first witnesses to the discovery, the image of the Child Jesus was about eleven inched height – the equivalent of a tercia, wore “a cap of flounced colored velvet” or “a small hat colored velvet” and a “valance shirt”; its right hand was raised in a benedicente position, while it held an orb (“apple” or “small ball/sphere”) in its left hand; it also had a “small golden metal necklace” or “a small metal necklace on a golden chain.” Most of these features are observable in the actual image of the Santo Niño de Cebu. Small modifications have been introduced and more paraphernalia added (like the pedestal, the crown, etc.) but the religious icon presents itself fundamentally in the same way, corresponding with the description of the religious image discovered in 1565.

From the discovery to the Annual Feast of the Kaplag

The Spaniards headed by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, interpreted the event as a divine sign. In exchange, they decided, first, to build a chapel on the very spot where the image was found, and second, they deemed it proper to celebrate annually the said discovery. Fr. Esteban de Salazar (an Augustinian religious wo took his vows at the convent in Salamanca) narrates in his “Veinte discursos sobre el Grado en declaracion de Nuestra Santa Fe catolica” (published in Granada in 1577):

… having gathered the entire army, with most fervent tears, a devout procession was organized; they went to the house and carried that object which God had given them in consolation of their pilgrimage, edifying an altar in it, dedicating it as a church, and it became the first monastery of that Province, which, for very good readon, they called and they still call today as (the Church) of the Child Jesus. (San Agustin 1998:336)

Aside from organizing a solemn procession, constructing a church and a monastery, and naming the Augustinians’ religious Province after the Most Holy Name of Jesus, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi also ordered that, from that time on, the discover of the sacred image be commemorated annually. (Cf. San Agustin 1998: 337) This explains why the Augustinians and the Cebuanos celebrate the “Kaplag” on April 28 each year.

Entrustment of the Santo Niño to the Augustinians

Entrustment of the Santo Niño to the Augustinians

We are also informed that a Confraternity was instituted on that occasion, with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi himself acting as the rector and Hermano mayor. (Cf. San Agustin 1998: 338, 347)

The sworn statement  of Legazpi (notarized on May 16 1565) confirms all the information we have given above:

(The General), with great veneration and in solemn procession, ordered that it (sc. the image) be brought and placed in the church that temporarily kept it; and he made a vow and a promise – he together with the religious of the Order of Saint Augustine, the captains and other field officials – that every year, on the day the said image was found, a celebration (fiesta) would be held in honor of the Name of Jesus, and in view of this, a Confraternity of the Most Holy Name of Jesus was established or instituted in the same way that (the confraternity) of the monastery of Saint Augustine in Mexico was instituted, and with the same statutes… (San Agustin 1998: 340, note 3)



The discovery of an image of the Child Jesus in Cbeu in 1565 marked the beginning of a progressive propagation of the devotion to the Santo Niño in the Philippines. The building of a chapel or a church and of a monastery in the place where the finding took place, the establishment of a Confraternity bearing the Most Holy Name of Jesus; the decision to commemorate the prodigious event annually; the name, on the part of the early Augustinian missionaries, of their religious Province after the sacred icon etc. are but the start of a series of other numerous undertakings that, in time, had gradually been associate diwt ht eimage ofth Hoyl CHiald among the Filipinos.

The event of 1565 seems to have indeed, marked a turning point in the history of the Filipino people. Fr. Manuel Diez-Aguado, OSA, puts it this way:


…the venerable image of the Child Jesus discovered by the first missionaries sent by Legazpi to the Visayan capital was – from the very first moments of the incorporation of these islands to the Crown of Castile – the corner stone of the grandiose social edifice raised by Christian spirit in these regions. There in the presence of the Divine Child, the foundations of the Filipino nationality was laid; there, for the very first time, the sentiments and emotions of the Spaniards and of the natives were fused…; there, the day of their religuos salvation began to shine for the Filipinos…; finally, there, under the auspices of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, the first Christian City in this archipelago was built, the first temple of the true God and o love was constructed, and the first school of civilization and of progress was opened to the inhabitants of these islands who, since then, while walking in the bright light of the beginnings of faith, today can show with pride before all foreign nations the heights of a moral culture superior to that of neighboring religions. (“El verdadero pilar de Filipinas” in Archivo historico-hispana augustiniano 16, El Escorial 1921: pp. 5-6)

In the year 2015, as the Augustinians in the Philippines celebrate the 450th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu, we are not only brought back in time to 1565. We are also filled with gratitude and thanksgiving to God who deigned to manifest himself to our people in the humble semblance of a child. The historical finding of the Holy Child truly marked the beginning of our faith, which continues to grow and develop even today. We are privileged to have become the beneficiaries of all the graces that the Lord bestowed to our ancestors. The continuous spreading of the Filipino’s devotion to the Santo Niño under the different titles all over the country and the different manifestations of our love for and trust in him are concrete demonstrations of how God has chosen our archipelago to be the bastion and beacon of Christian faith in this part of the world, and this mission all started with a “kaplag” of the small statue of the Child Jesus. It really does not matter much where the image originated or how the Cebuanos came into possession of it. What truly counts is our people’s faith in the Holy Child and the countless wonders that he has uninterruptedly performed throughout the centuries even for the most critical and cynical historians not only in our land, but worldwide. (Fr. Czar Emmanuel Alvarez, OSA)


Reference Cited:

Amoretti, Carlos (tr.). Antonio de Pigafetta: Primer Viaje alrededor del mundo. Madri 1889.

Concepcion, Juan de la. Historia General de Philipinas. Vol. 1. Manila 1788.

Diez-Aguado, Manuel. “El verdadero pila de Filipinas” in Archivo Historico-Hispano Agustiniano 16 (El Escorial 1921).

Donoso, Moreno. Historia de la santa iglesia metropolitanan de Filipinas. Manila 1877.

Ferrando Juan – Fonseca, Joaquin. Historia de los PP. Dominicos en las Islas Filipinas. Vol. 1. Madrid 1870.

Medina, Juan Toribio de. Historia de los sucesos de la Ordern de N. G. P. San Agustin de estas Islas Filipinas. Manila 1893.

Mitchell, Mairin. Friar Andres de Urdaneta, OSA (1508-1568). Pioneer of Pacific Navigation from West to East. London: Macdonald and Evand., Ltd. 1964.

Rivera, Gabriel de. “Trabajos de los Padres Agustinos en Filipinas durante la epoca de la conquista” in La politica de España en Filipnas 6. No. 168 (Madrid 1897).

Rodriguez, Isacio. Historia de la Provincia Agustiniana del Sm. Nombre de Jesus de Filipinas. Vol. 1 (Bibliografia). Manila 1965.

Sala-Boza, Astrid. “the Sword and the Sto. Niño: Señor Santo Niño de Cebu: history Revisited” in Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 36 (2008) 243-280.

Salazar, Esteban de. Veinte discursos sobre el Grado en declaracion de Nuestra Santa Fe Catolica. Granada 1577.

San Agustin, Gaspar de. Conquistasde las Islas Filipinas (1565-1615). Madrid: Imprenta de Manuel Ruiz de Murga 1698 / Manila: San Agustin Museum 1998 (Bilingual Edition).

Tenazas, Rosa. The Santo Niño de Cebu. Cebu City: San Carlos Publication 1965.

Uncilla y Arroitajauregui, Fermin de. Urdaneta y la conquista de Filipinas: Estudio Historico. San Sebastian: Imprenta de la Provincia 1907.



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