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Looking Back

The Velarde-Bagay map as a historical document

/ 05:06 AM September 18, 2019

When, years ago, I heard that a 1734 Velarde-Bagay map of the Philippines could be had for a million pesos (roughly $20,000 then), I asked my father to advance my inheritance so I could buy it. My pragmatic father refused to indulge in an extremely expensive piece of paper, and offered the same amount to jump-start a business that would earn more money. I wish my father lived to see the 1734 Velarde-Bagay map sold last weekend for P46.72M, or $905,000.

Former Ateneo Dean Leovino Garcia has a similar tale. In 1991, a 1734 Velarde-Bagay map was up for auction in Frankfurt; he convinced a handful of alumni to pool P200,000 and acquire it for the university, but the leading Jesuit historian dashed his plan, arguing that despite the significance and rarity of the map (none was available in the Philippines then, today there are three in private collections), it was not appropriate to spend that much in the wake of the Pinatubo eruption. Frustrated by this “Judas argument” (remember the traitorous apostle commenting on an expensive jar of perfume used on Jesus’ feet: “Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”), Garcia asked aloud: “Does man live by bread alone?”

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While those two maps got away, I am wiser now and not swayed by hype; a Velarde-Bagay map of 1734 or 1744 is a good investment if it is acquired for resale. Unsold in a museum or library, it remains a dead investment. While its value rises with inflation and auction results, so do costs for security, insurance, conservation, etc. So, the map is best enjoyed as a high-resolution copy downloadable free from the internet.

What makes this map so special in an age when millennials consult maps on their phones and tablets? It remains relevant because it contains more than geographic and hydrographic features. It can be read as a historical document that begins with: “On August 10,1519, Hernando Magallanes left Seville, arrived in Cebu on April 7, 1521, and was killed in Mactan. Miguel López de Legazpi arrived in 1565, and on June 24, 1571, founded Manila as capital of the Philippines named after Felipe II.”

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Magellan’s flagship, the Victoria, which completed the first circumnavigation of the world, is drawn on the map together with 11 other vessels and different types of sea craft. The map is a sea chart showing the routes taken by the Spanish Galleons from the Philippines to Mexico in a trade that lasted 250 years. Philippine products are listed: “gold, wax, sugar, honey, tobacco, ginger, indigo, sibucao or Brazil wood in a variety of colors, siguey, balate, cotton, cacao, civet, seashells, ima, sulphur, tar, rice, salt, wheat, maize, lemons, oranges, bananas and many fruits and edible roots, palo maria [hardwood], tamarin[d], cassia trees, Catbalogan seeds, Dragon’s Blood [a resin, not real blood from a mythical creature], lignum vitae [Tree of Life], manungal that is better than quinine, and many medicinal herbs, abaca that is like cañamo, coconuts, bamboo, rattan, many kinds of palm, mahogany, tindalo and excellent lumber for ships, horses, carabaos or buffaloes, cows, pigs, deer, chickens and much fish.”

The map suggests that Spanish dominion covered Luzon and the Visayas, while Mindanao was a large island of promise: “productive if cultivated.” It produced “cinnamon, pepper, dewdrop pearls, amber, pinchbeck and iron.” A Philippine census in 1734 was undertaken by the Church, which had: “1 archbishopric,  3 bishoprics, 3 governorships, 21 provinces, 18 presidios or prisons, an artillery foundry, gunpowder factory, printing houses, etc.” The secular clergy had 4 dioceses, 142 towns and 131,279 souls. The Dominicans were in 51 Tagalog Pangasinan and Cagayan towns with 98,780 souls; the Franciscans in 63 Tagalog and Camarines towns with 120,000 souls; the Augustinians in 119 Tagalog, Pampanga, Ilocos and Panay towns with 292,273 souls; the Jesuits in 88 Tagalog, Bisaya and Mindanao towns with 160,199 souls; the Recollects in 109 Mindoro, Caraga, Bisaya and Calamianes towns with 53,384 souls.”

It is not just a historical map, but one that states that: “The natives or indios are well-built, good featured, brown in color, and much inclined to religion, to the Spaniards they are capable and turn out to be good calligraphers, painters, sculptors, engravers, silversmiths, embroiderers, sailors, etc.” Proof that even before the Americans arrived, Filipinos were not barbarians that needed to be “Christianized and civilized.”

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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