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Revisiting treacherous waters in the Met Museum’s ‘mapping the Philippine Seas’

Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica delas Yslas Filipinas by Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde, Manila, 1734

From 16th-century maps that saw the appearance of fictional sea creatures to 19th-century military maps charting the depths of oceans where few have ever gone, ancient maps are records of fact and the Western imagination, when Europeans raided and traded, and marked their way across the globe.

Co-organized by the Philippine Map Collectors Society (PHIMCOS) in commemoration of their 10th founding anniversary, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila presents “Mapping the Philippine Seas.” The show, launched last March 15, is complemented by a series of Saturday lectures on the history of maritime cartography, delivered by historians and cartographic experts such as Arturo Valdez, Dr. Jay Batongbacal, Dr. Carlos Madrid, Raphael Lotilla, and Stephen Davies.

The exhibit has been extended until May 31, with PHIMCOS vice president Dr. Jaime Laya giving a tour on May 18, and John Silva of the Ortigas Foundation Library delivering a lecture on May 27 about three important maps.

On view at the Met’s Tall Galleries, the show displays 165 original maps and sea charts arranged chronologically from the 16th to the 19th century, from the private collections of PHIMCOS members and the collection of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) museum. It sees the Philippines transform from random bits of islands to the shape and image we know today.

In some cases, maps are seemingly inverted and the continent is standing on its head. With a rose compass, the North was simply indicated through the mark of a fleur-de-lis. Maps are rife with symbols and historical information. Apart from the cartouche, historical notes are scattered in ancient cartography: a ship’s date of voyage and its name, the number of Philippine islands, which is slightly more accurate than what we know today, and, in the case of the earliest maps of Cebu and Mactan, an inscription saying “the captain general was killed here.”

Apart from 16th-century drawings of fictional mermaids used as decorative emblems, there are more detailed vignettes proliferating in succeeding maps. “The vignettes or drawings were usually done by people who weren’t in the voyage,” says the Met Museum’s Bea Bautista. “Those were made for the books to be published, just their idea of what the people in the East looked like, based on what they heard.” Typical of colonial narratives, some maps are less a study in objectivity and more about the West’s perspective. 

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One highlight of the exhibit is the Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica delas Yslas Filipinas, known as the famed Murillo Velarde map, lauded as the era’s most accurate map done in 1734. It was the first chart to use the name “Panacot” for the reef now known as Scarborough Shoal. Vignettes showing Filipinos, Chinese, Spaniards, and mestizos were engraved by Filipino artist Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suarez.





Cartography, in a world long before Waze and the accuracy of Google, was involved in relentless chronicling and even copying. “There was a time when the French were able to get the Spanish and Portuguese maps, the secret maps, copied and used them as reference as well,” says Bautista. Copying was permitted so long as there was added information. “Some cartographers would put fictitious islands,” says Bautista, “so when people copy, they’d know it was from them.” One map, lent by the GSIS museum, copied the map of Murillo Velarde, and included as its identifying marker, the fictitious place of Isle St. Jean.

In later centuries, more maps, like those of the British Admiralty, grew more functional and detailed, showing more routes, lighthouses, and numbers religiously measuring different regions of the ocean’s depths. Functional maps still varied in terms of purpose. The exhibit, displaying both commercial maps and military maps, showed that the former focused on charting trading routes while military maps put a lot of detail on the depths of the sea, charting even the most unfamiliar waters.

“Most of the maps featured in this exhibit are sea charts; that is, they help ships in safely navigating from place to place across the seas,” says former professor of law and secretary of energy Raphael P.M. Lotilla. “They show how the seas bridge communities and peoples.  Rocks and reefs are dangers to navigation and are charted to be avoided, not to be owned.  These sea charts show the importance of freedom of navigation to the world community as a whole and to our country.”

Whether through their design, through their anecdotes, or through their added fictitious details, maps cast new light on both historical and present issues. With their lectures, the Met tackles the continuous chronicling of hydrographic  information for geopolitical issues surrounding, say, the Benham Rise and the West Philippine Sea.

As for the latter, Lotilla remarks, “These charts show that the waters of the South China Sea were never owned by any state.  While they do not show that the Philippines has sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, they do show that our people were never excluded from using them even in ancient times.”

Attempting to further the dialogue, the Met similarly juxtaposed these ancient Philippine maps with contemporary artworks — from meditative seascapes emphasizing the sea as the source of life to satirical commentary on the ancient voyages of the West.  “Seascapes: Tranquility and Agitation” presented paintings and installations by artists such as Cian Dayrit, Martha Atienza, and Toym de Leon-Imao, launching narratives of identity and decolonization. As time and technology march on, ancient maps remain not only potent sources of facts (or what was thought to be factual), but also, as the exhibits show, chronicles of identity and ways of seeing.

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