First baptized adult CHamoru

Maga' Låhi Kepuha

Kepuha (also spelled Quipuha) was a maga’låhi from Hagåtña, whose role in welcoming Spanish missionaries to Guam makes him a controversial figure in the island’s history. Kepuha was the first CHamoru to be baptized after he gave Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores the authority and land to start a Catholic mission in Hagåtña. San Vitores’ mission led to the Spanish-CHamoru Wars and eventually solidified the prominence of the Catholic Church in the Mariana Islands.

On 16 June 1668, San Vitores arrived in Guam in the San Diego. He brought four other priests, four missionary brothers and 32 soldiers to establish a Catholic mission in the Marianas. When San Vitores docked near Hagåtña, about two hundred CHamoru warriors surrounded his ship. He sent Father Luis de Medina, Superior of the Philippines, and another priest to greet the CHamorus. The priests were brought immediately to Kepuha’s house, which was richly embellished and decorated with palm fronds. Father Medina acted according to his knowledge of the CHamoru culture and language in greeting the CHamoru chief.

The priests, who described Kepuha as tall and robust, gave him gifts including a velvet hat and iron hoops and nails. The missionaries then told the chief their true intentions of teaching CHamorus “the law of God and the way to heaven.”

Spanish accounts of the meeting say Kepuha had a favorable reaction, and stated, “You please us, Fathers and you bring us good news which will cause joy to our entire nation for we have wanted you here for a long time.” When night fell and the missionaries could not return to their ship, they asked Kepuha to stay in the village. He not only gave them permission, he kept them in his own house.

As was the common strategy of the Jesuits, they attempted to first convert the CHamoru chiefs in order to convert the people. Upon hearing the priest’s intentions to create churches, the records show that Kepuha volunteered land for a church in Hagåtña. In addition, a large cross was erected on the seashore where the Spanish first landed.

Kepuha was appointed protector of the Hagåtña mission, and the Spanish gave him the title of Don Juan Quipuha, naming him after St. John the Baptist who they had chosen as the island’s guardian. The Hagåtña church, built of stone and lime, was named Dulce Nombre de Maria and was formally opened on 2 February 1669. A school was built at the same time and was called Royal College of San Juan de Letran.

In San Vitores’ first sermon he stated that he had come to make heaven available to CHamorus by means of baptism. More than 1,500 people were present, but only 23 were baptized. Kepuha died shortly after the dedication of the church in 1669. San Vitores took care of Kepuha during his illness and was there when he died. He treated Kepuha’s death as an opportunity to challenge the native burial customs and insisted that Kepuha’s body be brought to the church for Christian services and burial. Kepuha’s relatives, however, insisted that his body be laid in a cave with the remains of his ancestors. San Vitores prevailed, and Kepuha was buried in the church.

This angered many CHamorus, and added to their growing list of concerns with San Vitores’ mission. Although Kepuha accommodated the missionaries and used his influence as a chief from Hagåtña to encourage other chiefs to accept them, the CHamoru people started to see that Christianity was going to drastically change their social order and way of life.

They began to fight the Spanish, which prompted the Spanish-CHamoru Wars. Kepuha had a son, also named Kepuha, who led several revolts. Kepuha II was very upset that San Vitores buried his father in the church. He believed the Spanish had disrespected his family, and did not support their mission on the island. Thus, Kepuha II began mobilizing youth against the Spanish. San Vitores noted that Kepuha II “brought ruin to many priests and soliders” during the Spanish-CHamoru War. Kepuha II upset San Vitores greatly when he killed Diego Bazan, San Vitores’ personal companion and messenger from Mexico.

The Spanish were also very critical of Kepuha II’s lifestyle. A woman left her husband for Kepuha II, and the two lived together openly. The Spanish priests and the woman’s husband objected, but the woman and Kepuha were unwilling to separate. The priests continuously tried to convince Kepuha that this was wrong. At every opportunity, they warned him of the “vengeful wrath of God.” Kepuha became frustrated with their constant intrusions on his life. Once when San Vitores and another priest named Father Solano were on a mission in a nearby village, they were nearly attacked by Kepuha II, who told San Vitores, “Better burn in hell than to extinguish the flame of passion.”

San Vitores was eventually killed for baptizing the daughter of another chief named Matapang without his permission. A few days after San Vitores’ death, Kepuha II was visiting his plantation, where he suffered a quick and unexplained death. Shortly after, the Spanish took his house.

It is unclear why the elder Kepuha did not fight the Spanish as his son did, but several historians have attempted to understand his motives. Some believe it may have been a political gesture to ensure the rise of Hagåtña to islandwide prominence. Kepuha may have also hoped to elevate his own personal status. A church in Hagåtña would allow Kepuha to boast to other chiefs that he had something in his village that they did not have in theirs. Some question whether or not Kepuha acted alone. At that time, land belonged to clans and only women could inherit land. Therefore Kepuha must have received the authority from other members of his family to give land to San Vitores as a way to benefit the clan.

Ancient CHamoru society was based on rank and prestige, and chiefs were constantly trying to outdo each other to raise their status. Accepting the Spanish may have been seen as a way to boost the family and gain foreign goods. It is also important to remember that CHamorus were traders who valued iron. Since Spanish ships would only come every few months, or even years, CHamorus would have to wait a long time to trade for iron. When San Vitores said that he was on the island to stay, Kepuha probably thought about the increase in the amount of ships that would come to Guam to trade. If the mission was based in Hagåtña, Kepuha’s clan could control trade with the Spanish. Whatever the reason, Kepuha’s decision changed the lives of CHamorus forever. From their base in Hagåtña, the Spanish were able to set up missions throughout the Marianas, and ultimately gained complete control over the islands.

A statue of Kepuha currently stands at the center of the island, near Paseo in Hagåtña. It was built during a wave of US federal funds for Typhoon Pamela rehabilitation efforts. Governor Ricardo J. Bordallo erected the 11-foot statue in July 1976. Bordallo looked upon Kepuha as a shrewd business leader, and idolized him during his two terms in office. Bordallo eventually took his own life wrapped in a Guam flag and chained to the foot of the statue on 31 January 1990 after he was sentenced to serve time in a federal prison.

In 2008, members of the Chamorro Art Association made a sinahi (which means “new moon” in CHamoru, but is a moon-shaped pendant made commonly of clam shell and worn as a traditional necklace) and placed it around Kepuha’s neck to honor the leader. The large, white shell necklace stands out prominently against the gray statue as a reminder of Kepuha’s ancestral lineage.

Kepuha, in contemporary Chamorro, means to “try to turn over” or “to attempt to capsize.”

By Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, MFA and Nicholas Yamashita Quinata

For further reading

Benavente, Ed LG. I Manmañaina-ta: I Manmaga’låhi yan I Manmå’gas; Geran Chamoru yan Españot (1668-1695). Self-published, 2007.

de Morales, Luis, and Charles Le Gobien. History of the Mariana Islands. Mangilao: University of Guam Press, 2016.

Hezel, Francis X., SJ. “From Conversion to Conquest: The Early Spanish Mission in the Marianas.” The Journal of Pacific History 17, no. 3 (1982): 115-37.

Lévesque, Rodrigue. History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Vols. 1-13. Québec: Lévesque Publications, 1992-1998.

Risco, Alberto, SJ. The Apostle of the Marianas: The Life, Labors, and Martyrdom of Ven. Diego Luis de San Vitores, 1627-1672. Translated by Juan MH Ledesma, SJ and edited by Msgr. Oscar L. Calvo. Hagåtña: Diocese of Agana, 1970.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.