Am writing this on a Saturday, June 12, which is of course Philippine Independence Day, and the occasion makes me wax historical.  Since this coming June 23 also marks the 119th anniversary of the civil government of the province (after the Philippine-American war), the “historical” had to center on Palawan, of which too little seems to have been written or published.  

In his account of the “First Voyage Round the World”, Antonio Pigafetta mentions a stopover somewhere “between West and North-west, and after running twenty-five leagues” from Cagayan (de Sulu/de Tawi-Tawi, now the municipality of Mapun) and describes the people as follows:

“The people of Palaoan go naked like the other islanders, they almost all till their own fields. They have blow-pipes, with thick arrows more than a span in length, with a point like that of a harpoon; some have a point made with a fish bone, and others are of reed, poisoned with a certain herb; the arrows are not trimmed with feathers, but with a soft light wood. At the foot of the blow-pipe they bind a piece of iron, by means of which, when they have no more arrows, they wield the blow-pipe like a lance. They like to adorn themselves with rings and chains of gimp and with little bells, but above all they are fond of brass wire, with which they bind their fish hooks.”

Post-Pigafetta, the earliest resource I could find is the seminal History of Palawan by the late Diokno Manlavi (1970).  Another is Katutubo, Muslim, Kristyano: Palawan, 1621–1901, by Nilo Ocampo (Tagalog), published in 1985, but I could no longer find my copy and the book is currently unavailable on Amazon.com.

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According to the Manlavi History, citing “a book written by a German author”, Magellan had been to the Calamian Islands (now comprising the municipalities of Busuanga, Coron, Culion, and Linapacan) on a previous expedition, where he supposedly obtained his slave, Enrique, whom he brought to Spain and back on his 1521 Philippine landing.  My cousin, Andrei Acosta, has an interesting article circulating in cyberspace that makes “Enrique of Calamian” (not “of Malacca”, as conventional historiography has it) the first circumnavigator of the globe.   

Apparently, upon colonization by Spain, the province was known as Calamianes; it was subsequently divided into two: Castilla (north) and Asturias (south); and, later, even three: Calamianes, Paragua (main island), and Balabac.  At the start of the American regime, it appears that we were already one Province of Paragua: On June 28, 1905, Act No. 1363 was passed by the Philippine Commission “Changing the Name of the Province and Island of Paragua to that of Palawan”.  

Paragua seems to be a corruption of the Spanish paraguas (umbrella), an allusion to the narrow, elongated shape of the main island on the map—indeed, very much like a closed umbrella.  The law does not say where these names came from, but one can also surmise that Palawan has its root in the Malay word pulao, for “island”.  

It is not clear how June 23 (and 1902), came to be considered the date of the foundation of the provincial government (no mention of any historical records on which it may be based), but it is the date carved and inscribed by law (without saying what year):  “In commemoration of the ‘Foundation of the First Civil Government of the Province of Palawan after the American-Philippine War’”, R.A. No. 9748—approved into law by President Gloria Arroyo on November 10, 2009—declared June 23 a “special non-working public holiday in the Province of Palawan and the City of Puerto Princesa”.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, an aphorism attributed to the Spanish philosopher George (Jorge) Santayana, is a good reason to study history; but I suppose simple patriotism—love of one’s native (or adoptive) homeland—is equally good for studying the history of one’s country, and for that matter, of one’s home province, town, village.  One can hardly love what he does not know; and knowing a nation—people, place, culture, etc.—means knowing its past.  If, as the Benedict Anderson coinage goes, the nation is an “imagined community”, the imagination still has to be fueled by and anchored on past and present realities.

Interestingly, the virtue of patriotism can be differentiated from “nationalism”.  In a 1945 essay (“Notes on Nationalism”), George Orwell wrote: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”  And Saint Josemaria Escriva writes: “Love your own country: it is a Christian virtue to be patriotic. But if patriotism becomes nationalism, which leads you to look at other people, at other countries, with indifference, with scorn, without Christian charity and justice, then it is a sin” (Furrow, No. 315).

I end with the wish that more scholarly work were undertaken on Palawan’s rich history (and pre-history), and made accessible to the public.  Happy Foundation Day to all my co-workers in the Provincial Government of Palawan and to all our fellow-Palaweños all over the world!  All the best canendong tanan! (12.VI.2021)

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