What old maps say about us | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

What old maps say about us

05:20 AM May 25, 2018

The Philippines is a young nation with a long history and a complex narrative. That’s the broad landscape every Filipino historian grapples with in deciding whether to focus on the forest or the trees.

A delightful way to make sense of our opening statement is to look at old maps. One must gaze beyond those wonderful Google maps that provide a range of images on your computer or smartphone screen, from a sketch like those you find on a traditional paper map, to that converted with a flick on the mouse into a colored satellite image—like those projected on long-haul flights to provide passengers with a sense of where they are during the journey.


If you have the time to tinker around Google maps, any searched place can be viewed further. With a bird’s-eye view, for instance, you can zoom in to see laundry drying on a roof. The street view, worm’s-eye view, etc. are other points of view you would never have imagined possible on a physical or paper map.

Google is a shameless display of technology. It is slick and accurate, but its maps can never replace old maps of the Philippines in libraries, museums and archives.


Maps from the 16th century are definitely inaccurate, obsolete for present use or reference. But they are wonderful for the aesthetic pleasure of viewing the crisp lines that make up the images. These were first inscribed on a copper plate and printed on paper that has survived the ravages of time, climate, vermin and human beings, the most destructive of all.

The early maps of the Philippines got the general shape of the archipelago correctly, but were printed the wrong way—horizontally, with Luzon on the left and Mindanao on the right, instead of vertically, with Luzon on top and Mindanao at the bottom. When I showed this in class once, a student explained that it was configured from the point of view of a captain on a galleon, not from the bird’s-eye view of an airplane or a satellite.

Old maps are delightful because they express a world-view so different from our own. Some maps are ornamented with sirens, mermaids and an assortment of sea monsters threatening ships and sailors. Winds are portrayed as gusts emanating from the mouths of cherubs. All maps also contain a compass in the form of the sun or an elaborate rose that point to the True North.

Maps are not just drawings of land and sea; they can also be a re-presentation of reality in a given time. From the Spanish period, one of my favorites is the frontispiece to “Conquistas de las islas Filipinas” (1698) by Gaspar de San Agustin. It shows the holy name of Jesus in a radiant sun with beams that carry Scripture passages in Latin.

On the left, a group of Augustinians led by San Agustin carry a book and crozier on his left, and on his right his heart, from which rays project a map of the Philippines at his feet. The friar behind San Agustin carrying an astrolabe is Andres de Urdaneta, best remembered today as a Pangasinan town or a gated Makati Village.

On the right are men in military uniform led by Philip II, whose right hand points at the map of the islands that bear his name. Behind him is Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, first governor-general of the Philippines and best remembered today as an Albay town, and part of the Makati commercial and business district.

They always point with their right because the left in Latin, “sinister,” needs no further explanation.


Another favorite is an illustration for the 1751 thesis of Vicente de Memjie that depicts the “symbolic aspect of the Hispanic world.” Hispania is a maiden with crown, flag and scepter whose upper garment is fashioned from a map of Spanish America. Her bare legs are outlines of sea routes that lead to her tiny shoes, zapatillas, fashioned from a map of the Philippines, underscoring the foundation of an empire so wide that the sun never set on it.

Old maps are nice to look at singly, and are precious by themselves. But to look at these maps of the Philippines in a series reveals a visual record of how people slowly formed their knowledge of the world around them, the shape of the archipelago where they lived, and from where they drew their nationality and sense of identity.

All these thoughts came flooding back when I attended the International Congress on Philippine Cartography, sponsored jointly by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Instituto Cervantes Manila. The bonus was an opportunity to examine in detail the rare 1734 Murillo Velarde Map of the Philippines, which was deployed by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio as key evidence in our territorial dispute with China. (More on Wednesday)

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