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The Mother of Philippine Maps

Mapa de las Yslas Philipinas

The mother map of all in our history, according to National Artist Nick Joaquin, is the splendid one done by Father Pedro Murillo Velarde, S.J. (1696-1753), and published in Manila in 1734,Mapa de las Yslas Philipinas (Map of the Philippine Islands). The map, a copperplate engraving, 51 x 33 cm, is also a sea chart for pilots and carries a brief legend on the Philippinesjust above that inward thrust of North Borneo into the picture.

It was expertly engraved by a mission-trained Tagalog Indian, Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay. The decorative drawings were done by Francisco Suarez, also Tagalog Indian. This illustration is Murillo’s own reduction, also engraved by Cruz and published in 1744. The map covers the entire archipelago, from the small Babuyan Islands north of Luzon (top) to the south coast of Mindanao and the northeast corner of Borneo (bottom). This classic map of the Philippines was, like the geography it imaged, a Hispano-Filipino creation.

In keeping with a policy of secrecy instituted by Spain to maintain control of her overseas empire, maps of colonial Philippines were rarely published. Father Pedro Murillo Velarde’s masterful creation was the first and most important map of the archipelago compiled on scientific principles. Until that time no map had been drawn with the same meticulous care, appeared on such a large scale, or displayed as much detail as the Velarde map. A more accurate delineation of the complex island group was not published until the nineteenth century. Writing in the 1950s, Carlos Quirino, a Philippine historian, proclaimed Murillo Velarde’s publication “the best-known map of the Philippines.”

While most of the many place-names are along coastlines, numerous interior settlements are indicated. In northern Luzon, towns are shown along the Cagayan River drainage that leads from Manila (middle left) to the north coast. Among settlements and anchorages on the China Seacoast is Bigan (Vigan, upper left). This historic settlement in the Ilocos country served as capital of northern Luzon for centuries and is the oldest surviving Spanish colonial city in the nation.Manila Bay is carefully drafted, including the small island of Corregidor across the bay at the southern tip of Bataan Peninsula.

Many of the islands are represented with an exaggerated east-west dimension, a result of the difficulty in determining precise longitude before the invention of an accurate marine chronometer. Paragua (Palawan), Leyte, Samar, and Mindanao reflect this. The landlocked “Lake Mindanao” (lower right) is nonexistent, and the Davao Gulf extends far inland at this location.

This mythical “Lake Mindanao” was a remnant of the tradition of early cartographers of embellishing the map with places and details based on unverified claims of merchants and adventurers. Ferdinand Magellan during his voyage encountered giants in Patagonia (a name from the mythical country in the novel Sergas de Esplandian, written by Garci Montalvo, the author, or recreator , of Amadis de Gaula, and published in Seville by 1510), in South America and often, his men reported, seeing Santo Elmo’s fire, sometimes the body of the saint himself seemed to appear, sometimes birds materialized without tails, sometimes birds of paradise hovered, and sometimes there were flying fish.

At the bottom of the map is a stern view of Magellan’s ship, the Victoria, which had completed the first circumnavigation in 1522.

Hugh Thomas, in his 2003 book, Rivers of Gold, The Rise of the Spanish Empire writes: “Magellan’s ships, which should live in legend as long as Columbus’, were, first, the caravel Trinidad (110 tons), of which the captain was Magellan himself. Antonio Pigafetta sailed as a passenger, as did Alvaro de Mezquita, a cousin of Magellan’s. Magellan arranged for a torch of burning wood, to be place on the poop of his boat so that the others should not lose sight of him. On his ship, Magellan carried good iron guns. Second, there was the San Antonio (120 tons), the captain being the inspector of the armada, Juan Perez de Cartagena, Third, there was the Concepcion (90 tons), whose captain was Gaspar Quesada. The master was a resourceful Basque sailor, Juan Sebastian de Elcano, whose place in history is secure. Fourth, there was the Victoria (85 tons), whose captain was Luis de Mendoza, a protégé of Archbishop Deza. Fifth, there was the Santiago (75 tons), whose captain was Juan Rodriguez Serrano.”

Thirty years after the first expedition of Columbus, Magellan or rather Elcano, showed that a route to the East could indeed be found by sailing west. The sphericity of the earth was demonstrated. It was Elcano’s recollections as one of the survivors of the lone galleon Victoria, which was written down by Maximilianus Transylvanus in his De Moluccis Insulis, published in 1523.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto writes in The Pathfinders, A Global History of Exploration 2006: “Magellan’s journey, for all its heroism, had solved nothing. The Pacific leg of the journey was really important, because it was altogether new and the survivors completed the first recorded circumnavigation of the world. Yet, on the evidence the expedition and the follow-up voyage brought home, the route was unexploitable: it was too long, too slow, and fatally flowed, because it led only one way across the ocean. The task of finding practicable, two-way route across the Pacific remained.”

And Hugh Thomas, in Rivers of Gold, The Rise of the Spanish Empire 2003: “The world had all the same been proved to be one planet. No greater achievement has been performed. It has been claimed rightly as a great Spanish triumph, and so it was. All the same, the captain on whom all depended was a Portuguese, and the best chronicler was an Italian, as so often in the case of adventures of the sixteenth century. Most of the crew were Andalusians, but the captain who led the return was a Basque. It is not clear what happened to the English ‘constable’, Master Andres of Bristol who was among those who set out; we must assume, though, that he died in the Philippines. But we are therefore, once again before a European triumph appropriate for one which the greatest of the European rulers, the Emperor Charles V, a European more than he was a Spaniard, a Fleming, a German or a Burgundian, approved.”

The large Baroque cartouche, decorated with a crowned lion, scrolls, garlands, and allegorical figures and resting on two terrestrial hemispheres, contains the title, the scale, and a brief account of the Philippines from the time of Ferdinand Magellan.

A vignette at lower left of the map depicts the figure of Saint Francis Xavier, “Prince of the Seas,” holding a Jesuit flag surmounted by a cross and riding on a shell pulled by seahorses and cherubs. An apocryphal crab alongside is clutching a cross. An age-old legend in the Philippines held that St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit Apostle of the Indies, visited Mindanao during his missionary work in Asia. The story included an account of Xavier losing his cross during a storm in the Moluccas only to have it returned twenty-four hours later by a giant crab that emerged from the sea bearing aloft the cross. Although later research disproved the story of Xavier’s visit to Mindanao, it was widely believed in Murillo’s day.

The Society of Jesus or the Jesuits were the major proselytizing force in Mindanao. The account of the giant crab could have come from the legends and beliefs of the ancient Mandayas, who called it Tambanakaua. It lives in the sea. As it scuttles about, it causes the tides and high waves; when it opens its eyes lightning appears. In this connection, it’s interesting to note that the Mandaya’s fellow islanders, the Bukidnon, speak of a giant crab that crawled down the mountains, descended into the sea and plugged the world’s navel, thus causing the Deluge. For some unknown reason, this gigantic crab always seeks to devour its mother, the moon.

The figure of St. Francis Xavier is found facing the peninsula of Zamboanga, in Mindanao. During the 17th century, the devotion to Our Lady of the Pillar, which was brought by the Jesuits from Zaragoza, Spain (Nuestra Señora del Pilar), miraculously saved the town of Fort del Pilar, Zamboanga against British invaders.

At upper left of the map is an armed Chinese junk from the South China Sea. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Jesuits played an important role in introducing new cartographic techniques to China – just as they contributed significantly to the advancement of astronomical, calendrical, and mathematical knowledge of the Middle Kingdom. The pioneer in this enterprise was, of course, Father Matteo Ricci, who arrived in China in 1582.

At right of the map is a broadside illustration of an armed Spanish merchant-man, a Manila-Acapulco Gold Galleon, bristling with guns and flying the arms of Spain on her bow, stern, and topmast.

According to The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia 1999, the Philippines never provided Spain with the fabulous riches which it received from the gold and silver mines in America. But it was perhaps because Philip II of Spain was able to rely on a steady source of revenue from the Americas that he was willing to tolerate the losses sustained in the Philippines and magnanimously offer to make it “the arsenal and warehouse of faith.” With this pronouncement the religious aspect of the colonization now took indisputable precedence in the Philippines.

And this map is the greatest testament to the faith of its makers.


Mapping the Silk Road and Beyond

2,000 Years of Exploring the East

Kenneth Nebenzahl, 2004

Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724

Liam Matthew Brockey, 2007

The Pathfinders

A Global History of Exploration

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto


Culture and History

Nick Joaquin, 2004

Rivers of Gold

The Rise of the Spanish Empire

Hugh Thomas, 2003


The Man Who Mapped the Planet

Nicholas Crane 2002

The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia

Volume One, Part Two

From c. 1500 to c. 1800

Edited by Nicholas Tarling


Chinese Maps

Richard J. Smith, 1996

The Soul Book: Introduction to Philippine Pagan Religion

Francisco R. Demetrio, S.J., Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Fernando N. Zialcita


Madonnas of the Philippines

Lutgarda A. Aviado, 1975