Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 29 March 2017


I commend four successive short essays appearing in the Manila Bulletin by Jaime C. Laya, a self-made but deep historian of consequential trivia and more important matter.

The  essays of 500 words each come in a series, in his inimitable column, Wala lang (which translates loosely, but not literally as nothing much), on March 27, April 3, 20, and 17.

Laya writes about the maps displayed by the Philippine Map Collectors Society exhibit, “Mapping the Philippine Seas,” now showing at the Metropolitan Museum (beside the Bangko Sentral Building on Roxas Boulevard). The exhibit opened on March 17, and will close on April 29.

Complementing the exhibit is a book that is based on those maps. The book can be purchased at the museum’s exhibit entrance. The book describes the maps and their circumstances and provides their proper groupings to enable coherence. Jimmy Laya’s essays gives them life from a contemporary perspective with a good trail of historic relevance.

History through maps. The exhibit is quite comprehensive from the viewpoint of reliving and gradually mapping the country through its maritime past. Slowly, our national geography became a recognizable entity in the eyes of explorers, traders, pirates, and aggrandizing empire-building-states of the early centuries.

One of the earliest impressions of the country came from a rough sketch made by Pigafetta (Magellan’s historian who accompanied the voyage). Pigafetta’s drawing showed Mactan island many times larger than Cebu island.

From tiny dots in uncertain geographic positions in the area of the islands of the East Indies, the Philippines as an entity became more recognizable gradually, first from maps where Mindanao and other Visayan islands, including Palawan, appeared more prominent than Luzon in earlier years.

By the late 18th to the opening of the 19th century, we were essentially properly mapped, except for a few details, thanks to the many sources of mapmakers.

The exhibit inevitably also includes many maps of the South China Sea that shows specks of lands and shoals that many nations claim, including ours. The portion that we refer to as the West Philippine Sea would provide glimpses of evidence to the areas we claim as ours.

The exhibit ranges from very large canvas to pocket-book picture-sized maps. Some land forms are especially difficult to recognize at first, because the mapmakers of those ancient days were really trying to reveal what to them was terra incognita. Also, even as the forms began to be identifiable, major gaps and inaccuracies appear through an effort to project the known with the unknown.

Map maker’s perspectives. There is also the matter of perspective, from the viewer’s point of view, whether it was of Spain’s, Portugal’s, the Dutch’s and the English’s, or for that matter, from Japan’s view by the 19th century.

In the course of centuries of history, trading nations viewed us differently from those of aggrandizing nations who wanted us for their respective empires.

In this sense, it was not possibly the map maker’s perspective which mattered most, but who paid for and ordered how the maps should be constructed. It mattered whether the empire’s admiralty ordered it or the Dutch or English traders of the East India companies who were scouring for routes to sources of wealth, material and potential trade.

Imagine, then, seeing the Philippine archipelago from the shorelines of mainland Asia with Luzon horizontally aligned with the Visayan islands and Mindanao from left to right and all the Indonesian islands appearing on the eastern end aligned perpendicularly, from top (Celebes) to bottom (Sumatra).

That was how some map makers saw us. Coming from an objective perspective, it was as if an astronaut from a space ship looks at an earthrise as the Asian landmass is just beyond the horizon and sees the Philippines coming into view.

But what impressed me most about the exhibit, despite its comprehensiveness, is the small presence of Spanish cartography from the display. Is it the case that map collectors have scoured mainly the antiquarian shops of the larger Europe and not those of Spain?

But that could not have been. Map collectors (amateurs and professionals there are a-plenty) behave like an industry of discoverers of rare curios, and they include libraries and museums acting mainly on their own volition.

In the end, the market for antique maps among collectors and antiquarian suppliers would have fleshed out, at any given time, the collective wisdom of what remained extant among the maps.

Thus, we end up to see what there is to be seen after all. For that reason we might have to look for the historical logic or sense or motivation why we see mainly this range of collection.

Short of catastrophic events that we know not much about, such as the loss of important archival materials due to fires, natural catastrophes, and wars, these are perhaps what remain.

Why Spain’s maps of the Philippines were less detailed and informative.  What comes out clearly from the exhibits is that Spain’s maps on the Philippines are sparse and less detailed. Other areas of the East Indies (now Indonesia) became much more elaborated as time went on. Those on the Philippines would come out lagging behind in terms of detail.

Though Spain discovered us from a European viewpoint during the age of explorations (15th century), her contributions to the world’s view of our geographic presence in the next centuries was dwarfed by the contributions of the Dutch and the English, and later of the French, which were the main sources of empire or trade during the period.

Spain as an economic power would suffer badly after the defeat of its armada in 1588 by England. The impact of that on Spain’s future as a colonial power would not be completely evident for the next centuries because its empire was large and worldwide, especially in the Americas. But it weakened her considerably, aggravated by its own internal civil wars of royal succession during the following centuries.

The quality of Spanish dominance over her possessions diminished, if maps could tell a story. There was less activity in that regard compared to what other colonial nations were building, propelled by their own interests in continuing their political or economic dominion over their possessions.