By K.L. Tam, Hong Kong




In the ancient world, the most influential cartographer was Claudius Ptolemy who lived in Alexandria in the second century. His most important work is a geography book entitled Geographia, which consists of some 8,000 geographical coordinates of localities. This information enabled a map to be made in 1477 on the eve of European maritime discoveries. After that, a series of Ptolemy-style world maps were produced until the end of the 16th century when actual new discoveries made the old information outdated. However, even then, a lot of the new maps still followed the traditions of the old ones.

In Ptolemy’s Geographia, there is an island to the east of the Indo- Chinese Malaysian peninsula. It is marked “Pentam.”
In 1522, Laurent Fries World Map spelt the island’s name as “Peura;”
In 1522, Martin Waldseemuller named the same island as “Peuto;”
In 1540, Sebastian Munster called the island “Paloan.”
In 1548 and also 1561 Giacomo Gastaldi enlarged the size of the island and called it “Polaguan”
It must be noted that the Portuguese had been in Malacca and the surrounding region since 1510. When they needed to sail to Canton, they usually hugged close to the coast of Palawan and followed in the same direction until north Luzon when they would tack north-west to the Pearl River Delta. The Palawan on Portuguese maps became a series of dots all the way to Luzon.
Gastaldi was a respected Italian cartographer who redrew Ptolemy’s world map. In those days, new land discoveries overseas were top secret, as no nation wanted their rivals to know what they had secured as their colonies. That raises a difficult question - how did Gastaldi know to enlarge an island in the Philippines and call it “Polaguan,” which is today’s Palawan?


Jump forward to 1900, the date of publication of the Atlas de Filipinas, now in the CERS collection in Hong Kong. By then the young, newly prosperous nation of America had fought and won almost ten consecutive wars in the 19th century, taking over large chunks of territory including Florida, Texas, New Mexico, California, Oregon and the states along the Rocky Mountains. American soldiers had also won the last skirmishes with indigenous Native Americans and successfully herded them into remote reservations. On top of that, they also fought overseas and had beaten the Spaniards and taken the victory trophies of Cuba and the Philippines. The State Department must have been very busy solidifying the newly acquired territories.
In most cases after a war of conquest, the victor country will almost certainly issue a new map to showcase their sovereignty over the new colony. Not so in the case of Philippines, as the U.S. Government opted to use maps prepared by the local Spanish Jesuits. It is understandable that, given the need to survey and map an archipelago of 7100 islands and islets each requiring circumnavigation by a survey ship to mark the shape of the island, the task of mapping the whole territory in short notice would face unsurmountable difficulties. If a detailed and accurate map was difficult to come by, could that produce problems in terms of concluding a Peace Treaty?


In the case of the Treaty of Paris, in which the Philippines was ceded to America by Spain, the territories involved were clearly described, as stated on Page 4 of our Atlas de Filipinas, dated 1900:
“Geographical Limits of the Philippines”
“The Philippine Archipelago was ceded to the United States by Treaty signed at Paris December 10, 1898. The cession includes the islands in the geographical limits set forth by the wording of the Treaty as follows:
A Line running from West to East along or near the Twentieth Parallel of North Latitude and through the middle of the navigable channel of Bachi from the One Hundred and Eighteenth (118th) to the One Hundred and Twenty-Seventh (127th) Degree meridian of Longitude east of Greenwich to the parallel of four Degree and Forty Five minutes (4 degree 45 ‘) North Latitude............”.
Reading this Statement, one will summarize that the northern boundary of Philippine is the 20 degree North Latitude, even though it was also mentioned that the 20 degree North parallel runs through the navigable channel of Bachi. However, this name of Bachi is not printed anywhere in the Album, nor on Map 13, which covers the area North of Luzon, including the northernmost island of the Archipelago, called Itbayat. Southwards, there are two islands named Batan and Sabtan. This group of islands are collectively called “Islas Batanes.”
The problem is that this whole group of islands is far north of 20 degree Latitude. Bayat even has a subsidiary island that straddles the 21st degree North Latitude.
For a long time, geographers and map readers were wondering if the Batanes Group of islands, by International Law, belong to the Philippines. Quite a few articles produced by academics openly queried if Batanes should still be owned by Spain or if the Island group should be considered independent.
The Philippine Government appears to have been very quiet on this issue.


To find out what Philippine Government attitude is on its northern-most islands, this writer several years ago went into a Manila Book Store and bought a map of the Philippines in a large single sheet. Even though it is a large piece of paper, the “Philippines” configured on the sheet shows only up to the northern limit of Luzon Island. The two small island groups to its north, Islas Babuyanes and Islas Batanes, are placed in a side window. On scrutinizing the latitude, one may be surprised to find that these islands are artificially shifted southward, so that the Batanes Group is located just south of Latitude 20 degrees,


which complies with the wordings of the Paris Treaty.
This is probably a unique case that a country tried to move the geographical coordinates to close a loophole in an international treaty. It is however unclear if the plunder of 20 degree north Latitude was committed by Spain on purpose or if an accurate map of the Philippines was unavailable in Paris during the negotiation of the Treaty.


Many books on the history of the Philippines commence by recording the arrival of Magellan. However the archaeological record shows that its pre-history started far earlier. The earliest known modern human was from Tabon Cave in Palawan dating about 47,000 year ago (1). The islands later became the receptive centre of migrants from Taiwan who travelled south utilizing giant ocean bamboo rafts, via the Batanes Islands, to Luzon, from where the new arrivals would fan out to the nearby islands. The islanders who settled down were later influenced by Hindus and Buddhists as well as Muslims from the west. The mainland of Asia, notably China, started trade connections with parts of the islands in the Song Dynasty, and trade continued unabated into the Yuan and Ming.

The Spanish fleet commanded by Magellan left Spain in September 1519. After having assiduously transited what is now known as the Strait of Magellan in the southern extremity of the South American continent, the ships came into a tranquil ocean which Magellan called the Pacific Ocean. Even though relatively peaceful, the fleet would have to practically crawl its way up north until they crossed the equator and finally found a favorable eastward ocean current that brought the dilapidated vessels first to Guam and later to landfall at the island of Samar. Guam and Samar, according to the 1900 Atlas, are located around 10 to 20 degrees north latitude. This is the latitude where the North Equatorial current prevails and it is also the area where Spanish colonialists first landed. Early Spanish maps of the Philippines would only show islands of these latitudes, such as Bohol, Samar, Cebu, etc.

A lot of interesting events actually had happened prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. At end of the 14th century, the Sulu Islands received lots of Muslims through Malaysia via island hopping and they had established a small state ruled by a Datu. If one looks at a map of the southern Philippines, Sulu is a chain of islands linking Zamboanga and Mindanao to its north with Borneo to its south, while to the west, the island of Palawan likewise bridges the islands of San Jose to Balabac, which is only 12 kilometers away from Borneo. Considering the island chains plus the southern Philippines and northern Borneo, the Sulu Sea is in fact like an enclosed lake where weather is relatively calm and the conditions are ideal to serve as a fertile fishing ground. The crystal -clear sea also produces lots of pearls and sea cucumbers, commodities that were sought after in the Chinese market. In addition, the caves in south Palawan were home to thousands of swiftlets that built their nests with saliva that are edible. Chinese believe the nests are a healthy food supplement (2). As the products of the Sulu Sea supported a strong economy, the Sultan of Sulu started to expand its territories. At the height of its power, the State’s territories included islands in South Mindanao, southern portions of Palawan Island, and a large chunk of land in the modern Malaysian state of Sabah.
By the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the trade with southern China was brisk. When the new Ming emperor ascended the throne, he sent envoys to the Southeast Asian states to proclaim the arrival of the Ming Dynasty and the ouster of the Mongols and propose the friendly states pay tribute to the Celestial Empire. Chinese records showed at least two of the states in Borneo and the Philippine region heeded the call. The Sultan of Brunei made the trip to Nanjing in 1412. In 1417, an entourage from Sulu comprising of its East King (東王), West King (西王) and the King of Caves (峒王) (3) sailed to “Amoy” (Xiamen) where they were lavishly treated. They then continued on their inland trip, mostly on junks, until they reached Beijing. The Chinese capital was in Nanjing and did not move to Beijing until 1421, so the reason they had to travel all the way to Beijing must be that the Emperor was then in Beijing inspecting the construction of his new palace. This change was not a good omen. No sooner had the Sultans of Sulu arrived in Beijing and gone through all the festivities of a royal audience then the group found the weather becoming less and less friendly. As the weather of Beijing was turning very cold, the visitors found they were pitifully under-dressed. Chinese annals record the Sulu kings asking for permission to leave Beijing, which was readily given. The group hurriedly went south. As they crossed into Shandong province, they realized it was too late. The East King fell sick. The entourage got stuck at Dezhou to witness the East King finally pass away. A funeral ritual befitting the status of a tributary king was arranged and the king was buried in high order. Today, his tomb is still well preserved. The Sultan of Brunei also could not adapt to the Chinese weather. He passed away in Nanjing. His tomb is located just outside of the South Gate of the Nanjing city wall, where it stands today as a monument to ancient connections and links between distant lands.