Extracting history from maps | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Extracting history from maps

Gathering dust in a corner of the Ateneo History Department is a neglected collection of wall maps. When I was an undergrad, my teachers hung these on the blackboard and ran their hands on them lovingly as they narrated the expansion, contraction, and dissolution of empires. Aside from teaching us the relative sizes and shapes of continents and countries, these maps supplemented lectures on the fabled Manila galleons, showing us the routes of trade and evangelization that connected the Philippines to a wider world.

Wall maps have been made obsolete by animated Google Maps downloaded and pasted onto PowerPoint lectures. While younger faculty won’t be caught dead using these in their classrooms, I may take the hassle of using a physical map or globe once, if only to show my students how I was taught in the last century.


Looking back on grade school geography and the boredom of memorizing the maps, names, and flags of different countries together with capital cities, population, GDP, form of government, natural resources, names of their leaders, etc., one would think we were trained for quiz bees and TV game shows. All these data were committed to memory for exams, and then promptly forgotten. I wondered why we were not taught to look at maps in reference to bodies of water, how human settlements sprouted beside riverbanks and seashores, and how these communities formed into the barrios, towns, cities, provinces that now make up the modern Philippines.

Names on the map reflected the changes implemented after the War, when old Spanish place names were replaced, in the spirit of nationalism and a rewriting of history, with the names of Filipino heroes and presidents. Now that I know more history than when I was in Grade 5, the Spanish names on the map make more sense to me. I recognize Asturias, Barcelona, Burgos (not always the martyred Fr. Jose Burgos), Castilla, Leon, and Zaragoza (the origin of the clothing store Zara) as places both in the Philippines and Spain. I was surprised to learn that Burdeos, Quezon, was named after Bordeaux, France, and that “Albor” in Bohol is short for Alburquerque, a Spanish town in Badajoz.


In terms of personalities, we start with Borbon, Cebu, named for the then reigning house of Spain. Isabela the province, and the municipalities in Basilan, Negros Occidental, and Leyte, were named after Queen Isabel II. Alfonso and Amadeo in Cavite are also named after Spanish kings. Most places that begin with “S” are named after Catholic saints. Women can be Santa Ana, Santa Barbara, and Santa Catalina, while men will be San Agustin in Isabela, Romblon, and Surigao del Sur; or San Isidro, patron of farmers, in Abra, Bohol, the two Davaos, Isabela, Leyte, Northern Samar, Nueva Ecija, and Surigao del Norte. San Jose has the most at 10, but is outnumbered by the Virgin Mary, who has more place names than all the saints combined.

True to the description of the Philippines as “pueblo amante de Maria” (village or people in love with Mary), she is represented by her feasts such as Asuncion (Assumption) in Davao del Norte; Concepcion (Immaculate Conception) in Iloilo, Misamis Occidental, Romblon, and Tarlac; and Natividad (Christmas) in Pangasinan. Other places commemorate her other titles: Carmen (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel) in Agusan del Norte, Bohol, Cebu, Cotabato, Davao del Norte, and Surigao del Sur; and Del Carmen in Surigao del Norte. More: La Paz (Our Lady of Peace), Las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows), Loreto, Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary), Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Help), Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows).

Spanish governors-general populate our maps, too. There’s Legazpi, Albay for Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. Gomez Perez Dasmariñas is honored by a major street in Manila’s Chinatown and a city in Cavite. Obando, Bulacan is from Francisco Jose de Ovando; Basco, Batanes from Jose Basco y Vargas; Marikina, misspelled from Felix Berenguer de Marquina; Enrile, Cagayan—not named after the immortal Juan Ponce Enrile but his playmate Pascual Enrile y Alcedo, governor in 1830-35; Norzagaray, Bulacan from Fernando Norzagaray y Escudero; and, curiously, Pavia, Iloilo and Lazi, Siquijor from one person, Manuel Pavia y Lacy, Marques de Novaliches.

The list goes on to the most obscure governors with kilometric names that will make your tongue twist. Beyond geography, a lot of history can also be extracted from maps.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ATENEO, galleons, GDP, Geography, History, MANILA
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