A new museum in Pasay City seeks to retell the Philippines’ rich maritime history and how it has shaped the country through the centuries.
Located on the sixth floor of the Asian Institute of Maritime Studies building on Roxas Boulevard, Museo Maritimo claims to be the first to offer a comprehensive chronicle of the Filipino’s life at sea—starting with a man believed to be from Cebu who may have been the first to circumnavigate the globe ahead of any Westerner.
Antonio Araneta, a scholar who led the research, said the project was long overdue considering that the Philippines provides a significant number of seafarers for today’s global shipping industry.
“Some 1.3 million overseas Filipino workers are seafarers, and our history is basically determined by maritime events. We thought that if we are going to understand history better, we have to understand how maritime trade brought about the country that we call the Philippines,” Araneta told reporters at the recent soft launch.
A pair of doors with round windows—like those on ships—leads visitors to Museo Maritimo which took nine months to build and will formally open to the public in August. Inside, around a floor area that could fit two basketball courts, the walls are painted ocean blue.
A statue of a Franciscan priest, known only in history as Odorico, welcomes visitors with outstretched hands. He celebrated the first Holy Mass in the country in Bolinao, Pangasinan, in 1324, together with Chinese traders and Italian missionaries, contrary to popular knowledge that the first Mass was held in Limasawa (now part of Southern Leyte) in 1521, Araneta said.
Also on display are detailed models of Spanish galleons that plied the Manila-Acapulco trade route, along with reproductions of navigation maps that cover the Philippines from that era. Another section shows ancient ship artifacts like binoculars, beacons and sextants.
Though it departs from the theme of the museum, one item is sure to grab history buffs: An original menu from the legendary RMS Titanic, the proud luxury liner that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.
Araneta said the item was on loan from his personal collection. A similar memento detailing the last meal served on the ill-fated ship fetched more than $118,000 or about P5 million during an auction in the United Kingdom on April 1 this year.
But the museum trains its main spotlight on a local hero, a man called Enrique de Malacca, who entered history books as the companion of Ferdinand Magellan when he made the voyage to the Philippines in search of the Spice Islands in 1521.
A statue of Enrique based on descriptions given by Magellan’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta stands amid panels piecing together his story as the man who may have been the first to circumnavigate the world.
Araneta said that based on research, Enrique was originally a native of Cebu who was captured by the Moros and later sold as a slave in Malacca (now a city in Malaysia). When Magellan invaded Malacca almost a decade before reaching the islands that would become known as the Philippines, he took Enrique with him to Europe.
‘Language Geiger counter’
“In his quest to find another route to the coveted Spice Islands, Magellan brought Enrique to serve as his ‘language Geiger counter,’ a linguist, to find his way back to the islands,” Araneta said.
Magellan paid Enrique the same salary as Pigafetta’s and used him to communicate with the natives when they arrived in Guam, Sulu and Homonhon Island. But his dialect, which is a variant of Cebuano mixed with Ilonggo, was not understood there, Araneta added.
“It was only in an area called Masawa in the Butuan area, a Cebuano-speaking region, where Enrique was understood for the first time. This was when Magellan realized he was near the islands he was looking for,” he said.
After Magellan was killed in a battle with Lapulapu in Cebu in 1521, his men turned against Enrique. “The ship’s crew ordered him to tell local leaders to give the treasures they have promised, but Enrique allied himself with the locals and invited the remaining Spanish leaders to a banquet where they would supposedly receive the gifts. Enrique and the locals used the banquet to ambush the leaders,” Araneta said.
The remaining members of the expedition team then hurriedly left, found their way to the Spice Islands, before returning to Spain. As for Enrique, Araneta said, he settled in Cebu.
“To rally the support and have the trust and confidence of the locals just like that would be very hard if you were not understood,” Araneta said to back up the theory that Enrique was most likely a native of Cebu.
Enrique’s story resonates on the great journeys taken by today’s overseas Filipinos, he said.
“He is not only the first to circumnavigate the globe but he also could be the first overseas Filipino worker. He could have returned to Spain and enjoyed an inheritance from Magellan but he decided to work for the benefit of his fellow natives and he eventually returned to Cebu,” he said.
“I hope this story and this museum will put us in the right perspective globally,” Araneta said.