Looking Back

Circumnavigator’s paradox

/ 03:20 AM December 31, 2014

Cast iron markers installed all over the Philippines by the National Historical Commission, and the different bodies that preceded it since the American colonial period, are reminders of historical events, sites, and personages. However, one must take the trouble to read these to learn something new, yet people often walk past these markers without looking unless they are newly installed. Sometimes the markers are faded. Sometimes texts on them are too long. Sometimes people in other regions refuse to read text in Filipino. Other times the markers have been stolen and sold for scrap metal. Do these markers really remind Filipinos of their past?

I was once tempted to have a marker fabricated that would mark my home as follows: “Sa pook na ito, noong ika 13 ng Agosto 1897, panahon ng himagsikan ng Pilipino laban sa mga Kastila,  at ika 13 ng Agosto 1899, panahon ng digmaang Pilipino-Amerikano, walang nangyari.” (On this site, 13 August 1897, the time of the Philippine revolution against Spain, and 13 August 1899, the time of the Philippine-American War, nothing happened.) This did not materialize because of the expense; it was too costly a joke.


The impulse to have a marker fabricated to state that nothing historical happened in my home resulted from the first time I attended a board meeting of the then National Historical Institute as a guest, when the eminent Filipino historian, Teodoro A. Agoncillo, asked why most of their time was spent approving, discussing and revising the texts of historical markers. Surely, there were more pressing historical issues to occupy the time of the Board so he asked aloud why were there too many requests for markers on Jose Rizal, adding in jest “Aba! Pati ba naman eskinitang inihian ni Rizal ibig lagyan ng marker!” (What, they even want us to mark obscure side streets where Rizal relieved himself!).

While thinking of a column for the New Year in 2015 I remembered that we actually have a date in history, Dec. 31, 1844, when nothing happened. Nobody was born, nobody died on this date because it does not exist! Spanish governor-general Narciso Claveria, who styled himself as the “Conde de Manila,” decreed that Dec. 30, 1844 would be immediately followed by Jan. 1, 1845. By dropping Dec. 31, 1844, Claveria corrected the Philippine calendar that was one day behind the rest of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Claveria’s decree put the Philippines on the right even before the International Date Line was established in 1884.


Today we have machines that automatically mark our calendars and time correctly depending on location so we cannot fully appreciate the importance of Claveria’s 1844 decree that revised a reckoning of days that had been inaccurate since 1493 when Pope Alexander VI issued the famous bull Inter caetera (Among other [works]). The Spanish pope simply cut the world in half like an orange, creating a demarcation line, pole to pole, 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde islands and granted Spain (or more accurately the joined crowns of Castille and Aragon) all lands west and south of the demarcation line and the other half to Portugal. His solution created more problems leading to a move in the meridian line following the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 and the creation of an antimeridian line following the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529 that divided the other half of the world. All these dates, names, places and demarcation lines can be quite confusing for students so it is easier to imagine these ancient European kings and popes playing a board game like Monopoly dividing the world among themselves.

The significance of all these is that when Magellan arrived in the Philippines in 1521 he did not discover the islands he named “Islas de San Lazaro”—rather the islands and their people encountered him. He did not live to complete his journey because he was killed in Mactan after involving himself in a local political problem between Humabon of Cebu and Lapu-lapu of Mactan but that is another story. His chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, kept a diary and upon completing the circumnavigation of the world was puzzled by a discrepancy in his recording of the days that is sometimes referred to as the Circumnavigator’s Paradox. Pigafetta wrote upon reaching the Cape Verde islands:

“On Wednesday, 9th July [1522], we… sent the boat ashore to obtain provisions… we charged our men [that] they should ask what day it was. They were answered that… it was Thursday, at which they were much amazed, for to us it was Wednesday, and we knew not how we had fallen into error. For every day I, being always in health, had written down each day without any intermission.”

Why did they earn a day? Pigafetta later recorded: “As we were told since, there had been no mistake, for we had always made our voyage westward and had returned to the same place of departure as the sun, wherefore the long voyage had brought the gain of twenty-four hours, as is clearly seen.”

When Filipino travellers today get confused by a missing or extra day in their itineraries resulting from crossing the International Date Line, they should remember Dec. 31, 1844, one date missing in Philippine history that changed the way we reckon our days.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand magellan, Governor-General Claveria, International Date Line, Philippine calendar
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