Looking Back

Early maps and Philippine history

“Geography and Chronology,” declared Richard Hakluyt, “are the Sunne and Moone, the right eye and the left of all History.” I did not appreciate this quote much, until I was invited to join the Philippine Map Collectors Society two years ago.

I learned to look at maps in grade school — to locate bodies of water, to recognize the shapes of continents, countries and cities (Italy looks like a boot, Cavite a hook, and Lake Titicaca when upside down forms a puma eating a hare). Since grade school geography formed part of Araling Panlipunan, maps were a visual means to learn about capital cities, flags, languages, population statistics, gross national product, export crops and major industries. But maps were not that relevant to me in grade school, not even a map of the Philippines because, then as now, maps are not part of a textbook — a ploy to make students buy one separately, like the Periodic Table, and pump more profit into school supplies stores.


To test my French proficiency, the late E. Aguilar Cruz gave me a 1760 edition of the famous Murillo Velarde map of the Philippines and asked me to translate its cartouche or decorative emblem, which contained details such as the map’s title, map maker, date, etc. Later, he challenged me to translate the condensed history of the Philippines at the bottom near Mindanao.

Being a hydrographic map, the Murillo Velarde depicted bodies of water known in the 18th century that moved within and without the land. Following the path of Manila Bay into the Pasig and its tributaries, I saw how people used to travel before the Spanish introduced the wheel, roads and bridges in the 16th century. Bodies of water made me rethink the grade school description of the Philippines as an archipelago, or a group of islands separated by water. The Philippines in pre-Hispanic times was a group of islands connected by water!


Joining the Philippine Map Collectors Society, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Magellan expedition and the first circumnavigation of the world in the 16th century, made me revisit textbook history. Now that Spain had its way in the renaming of the Magellan-Elcano expedition and emphasizing Magellan’s defection from the Portuguese court to the Spanish Crown, we must recall that Elcano, at a trying time during the trip, mounted a mutiny against Magellan, grabbing part of the glory of the circumnavigation he wanted to foil.

I hope the 500th anniversary will go beyond the stale commemorations of the victory of Lapu-Lapu and the introduction of Christianity to discuss how the Philippines and Mexico formed the nexus of trade that connected the Old World and the New, the joining of East and West, and thus what could very well be seen as the first globalization. Can we look into spices and how these plants and aromatics from Asia brought a revolution in trade, taste, cooking and life in the West? Can we revisit nautical charts of the 16th to 18th centuries that situated the Philippines within the old commercial and cultural routes, thus expanding our view beyond Spain to include Mexico, Portugal, China, Japan, the English, the Dutch, etc., and providing a wider horizon into global history?

Since there are not many topographical maps of Spanish Philippines available before the 18th century, does this suggest neglect by Spain, or her selfishness in keeping the neighboring Portuguese, Dutch and English in the dark lest they lay a covetous eye on their Pearl of the Orient? Later maps not only gave away the shape of the land and provided sea routes, but also the layout of cities, their defenses and fortifications.

As early as 1513, in Malacca, Francisco Rodriguez drew a sketch of what was to become the Philippines based on information gathered from Chinese and Malay traders who had visited the archipelago. It has been suggested that the Portuguese sent exploratory expeditions into Mindanao as early as 1510. So the Portuguese knew of the islands before the Spanish “discovery” and laid claim on them based on the papal bull, Inter Caetera of 1493, that granted half of the undiscovered world to the Spanish and the other half to the Portuguese crown. The Philippines lay on the Portuguese side of the demarcation line, but how it came to be Spanish is a fascinating story partially told in maps that can fill in gaps in our textbook history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Amberth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, Philippine history, Philippine maps
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