Imagining our nation through our maritime culture (Manila Times Walking History)

by xiaochua

April 13, 2019


“THE story of our nation began with a boat.” This is how I began an essay titled “The boat as a metaphor of nation,” a text I contributed to a new coffee table book published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Tataya: Documenting the Story of the Ivatan Boat.

It comes together with another handsome volume, Vahay: Documenting the Story of the Ivatan House, published in cooperation with the De La Salle University, the main texts written by Dr. Lars Raymund Ubaldo, Edwin Winston Valientes, Christian Vaso and Gary Mariano, with images from photojournalist Jimmy Domingo.

My main point was that the still existing boat culture in Batanes, can give us an idea of our ancestors’ maritime culture and may inspire us to imagine and to see our commonalities as part of the Austronesian peoples, and thus unite us as a nation with a base culture.

I first talked about the basic political community in the Philippines, called the “barangay”: “It is said that the Spaniards adapted this unit from the political whole that was already existing when they came in contact with our ancestors during the 16th century. But that barangay was not actually a political unit, but an economic one consisting of a clan which was led by a datu. A datu performed a blood compact with another datu, a ritual which symbolized brotherhood and unity, and a more complex political unit—the bayan, banua or ili—was created.

“But the term barangay came from the word balangay — a boat with outriggers which our ancestors invented. Starting about six thousand years ago, they rode these boats and lived as a family as they dared the violent waves due to the Pacific monsoon winds to find new islands to inhabit, peopling our islands and other parts of Southeast Asia, Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and as far as Easter Island in South America to the east and Madagascar in South Africa to the west.

“According to archaeologist Peter Bellwood, our culture and language came from these ancestors of ours, which the experts refer to as the ‘Austronesians.’” In his message for the book, NHCP Chairman Rene Escalante explained: “If we are to believe Peter Bellwood, Batanes was the jumping-off point of our Austronesian ancestors going to mainland Luzon. Therefore, it can be said that the construction of the Ivatan boat called tataya came from ancestor-given wisdom passed from one generation of Ivatans to another and developed it through time.”

I continued: “It has been claimed that the Filipinos are regionalistic and divided because we are archipelagic. But it seems now that we were divided not by our geography but by our colonizers with their divide and rule strategy. Because historians and social scientists have now realized that since roads and land transportation were still to be introduced by the Spaniards during their colonization of our islands, our ancestors, whose kingdoms and bayans where always located in the riverbanks and seashores, mastered travelling with ease through the rivers and seas which made us more connected culturally.

“Therefore, our waters acted as a pre-modern Internet. Our waters became the network which linked our culture, trade and diplomacy. And the manifestation of this cultural unity is our maritime culture — the mastery of making boats and the skill in navigating using these boats.
“One of the most important evidence of this maritime culture of our ancestors was a boat found buried underground in 1976 in Butuan which was dated to 320 A.D. Eight more boats would be unearthed from the area. What can be observed from these boats is the absence of metal nails to connect them, only wooden pegs.

“Part of this culture is the ability to use the stars as a guide for navigation even before the Europeans had taught us their concept of constellations. Ethno-astronomer Dante Ambrosio once wrote, ‘Kapag tumingala sa langit ang mga sinaunang Pilipino, hindi lamang basta langit ang kanilang nakikita. Nakikita nila ang sarili nilang kabihasnan dito.’ Our ancestors had the north star as their constant guide and named their constellations from everyday things; for example, ‘Orion’s belt’ was called ‘Balatik’ which is a wild-boar trap while the ‘Big dipper’ was called ‘Bubu’ which is a fish trap.”

When we learn about this ancient maritime culture as reflected in Batanes and other places in the country, we realize that despite being a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic people divided by islands and having 171 different languages, we can actually be one in our affinity with our maritime culture.

How did this maritime culture reflect in the many spiritual beliefs and burial practices of our ancient people throughout the islands? What separated us from this culture and how did our heroes reimagine uniting us through this idea of a maritime community?

Next week: The metaphor for nation as a boat