Manila, the Philippines
September 26 / October 24, 2010
The Philippines may have more or less 7,107 islands, but when Miss Philippines Charlene Gonzales was asked about the exact number, she cheekily replied, “High tide or low tide?” Regardless, the sea had been regarded as a geographic border that separated people and places. However, in precolonial times before the Philippines became a politically unified archipelago, “communities were connected, not separated, by water,” according to historian William Henry Scott.
For years, the sophisticated maritime culture of precolonial Philippines remained a theory – until the 70s when wooden remains of ancient sailboats, called the balangay, were dug up in Butuan in southern Philippines; the oldest of which was carbon-dated to 320 CE. I hadn’t realized this before: This Austronesian watercraft predated the Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Renaissance in Europe by hundreds of years! Our ancestors had been navigating the seas for centuries before the first Europeans set sail to the Orient. We were not the primitive society that the Spanish colonists projected us to be.
The extant balangay planks exhibited at the National Museum of the Philippines (dated to 1250 CE) occupied almost the entire length of the hall at 15 meters long. With a width of four meters, it had the capacity of about 90 people. These specs indicated its use in trade, warfare, and migration, not merely in small-scale offshore fishing. Early Filipinos were expert seafarers; they navigated their own fleet. Many Filipinos would still take to the seas, mostly as “seamen” (contract workers in international cruise and cargo ships), their seamanship highly regarded even by Scandinavians, sharing our long maritime history.
Our ancestors were akin to other Pacific Islanders, not only in our boat culture, but also in our coastal city-states. Even then, they already lived in small tightly-organized socio-political units called the barangay. The similarity with the word balangay was uncanny yet completely logical. William Henry Scott explained that each barangay was autonomous but not necessarily self-sufficient. It was the same with the balangay used for trading food and goods, as well as ferrying people and ideas, between islands or even within the same island. The barangay concept had been retained as an administrative unit until modern times.
To me, these were the most impressive archaeological museum pieces in both the National Museum and the nearby Museum of the Filipino People. They bridged the gap in our history textbooks focusing mainly on the colonial era and the republic. It was not an encompassing empire or a central government that strung our islands together; it was the balangay. Water was our common ground; the same open seas that scattered islands and the rivers that cut through these islands also provided a link among groups of indigenous Filipinos.
While continental Asians skirmished for territorial expansion on the vast open land of the world’s largest continent, ancient Filipino islanders shared with one another the open waters of the world’s largest ocean.
Other notable archaeological finds in the Museum of the Filipino People:
Clay jars molded into the shape of a human face, dated 2,000 years old, were testaments to the culture and art of our precolonial ancestors. Porcelain dishes from the 14th century provided evidence of trade between the islands and China.
Now a warning: I was an inch away from completely losing my balance on the warped stairs at the Museum of the Filipino People. I could have fallen over and smashed my skull!
Some treasured artworks on display at the National Museum of the Philippines:
Severino Fabie’s sculpture Lady with Mandolin detained my attention at a hall called Beloved Land. The instrument reminded one of Picasso’s Cubist painting, Woman Playing the Mandolin, but Fabie’s poignant piece conveyed profound sorrow. The woman, playing the mandolin on her knees, appeared to be praying, not with words, but with ineffable pain.
In another hall, an intriguing artwork aroused curiosity with its unidentified subject. National Artist Vincente Manansala’s final work was an unfinished portrait of an unnamed woman.
Our museum guides were History majors completing their on-the-job training hours. They were quite knowledgeable about art and, of course, history. In fact, our young guide dished out information about the long-dead artists in celebrity-gossip fashion.
Last but not least, there was the Juan Luna obra maestra, the Spoliarium, which I wrote about in my previous entry.