Saturday, March 27, 2010

Seafaring in the Philippines

In previous writings and blog posts, I have discussed ancient sea exploration, and also specifically Austronesian navigation and seafaring techniques. Now I would like to touch upon the subject of the seafaring culture in what is now known as the Philippines.

In 1540, Portuguese royal agent Bras Bayao recommended hiring the capable pilots from Luzon whom he describes as "discoverers."  At the time, Luzon merchants, mercenaries and seamen were widely in use throughout Asia.  Luzon merchants like Surya Diraja controlled the pepper trade in the South China Sea.  The admiral of the Sultan of Brunei's fleet was a prince of Luzon according to Pigafetta, and in 1525 a "captain" from Luzon commanded the flagship in the exiled Sultan of Malacca's attempt to retake the city from the Portuguese.  Luzon mercenaries were in the service of the Sultan of Aceh in holding the island of Aru, and in 1529 and 1538 they fought for the Batak-Menanagkabau kings who were battling Muslim enemies.  In 1529, Luzon forces were also in service with the Muslim fleet of Aceh.

Bras Bayao's recommendation of Filipino seafarers came at the beginning of a long legacy in which the Filipino played a major role in nearly all the merchant fleets, and many of the armed navies of the world.

Indigenous navigation techniques

One of the early notices of the outstanding abilities of Filipino seafarers came in Alexander Dalrymple's description of the Sulu navigator Bahatol, whom Dalrymple estimates was more than 100 years old when they met:

Amongst the authorities of this kind, I cannot omit mentioning a very extraordinary Chart, of the Sooloo Isles, and Northern part of Borneo; it was formed by the description of Bahatol, from the reflected experience of almost a Century: particular Observation was made some use of, in limiting the Islands adjacent to Sooloo, and mistakes, in these, were the source of some confusion; but, though it cannot be supposed a draught, made from memory, and delineated by the hands of another, should be free from very material error and omissions; I need not be afraid of exceeding, in my Applause of so remarkable a Work of Natural Genius! when I consider also, that his descriptions were conveyed through means of an Interpreter, and in a few days, which period did not admit a recollection of those inaccuracies, which are found in Works executed by the rules of Science. To confirm my sentiments of this Person's Genius, I have presented a faithful Copy of part of his Performance, even without his latter Corrections...

Bahatol had the ability to create charts of the region from memory that were the only ones Dalrymple considered accurate -- to include those made by Western navigators and cartographers.  Another indigenous navigator of the same period, Tupaia of Tahiti, also had the ability to create modern maps based purely on mental references.  Also, like the Tahitians encountered by James Cook, weather prediction played an important part in the indigenous navigation of the Sulu mariners.  Dalrymple states:

Perhaps the conclusion of this chapter, which are signs of weather and land, communicated by Bahatol, the old Sulu, may expose me to ridicule. However, few are so ignorant of human nature, as not to know that experience exceeds the deepest reasoning, and that an illiterate fisherman shall often be found, better acquainted with the signs which indicate changes of the weather, than the most acute philosopher with his barometer. Bahatol informed me, that these signs have passed down from father to son, through many successions, and that his long experience has warranted their veracity: However, I only present them, to be confirmed, or refuted, by observation and experience. These signs are chiefly taken from lightning. When lightning explodes upwards, it shews there will soon be wind, though it does not denote a storm.
A storm is predicted, by a woo-ing sound in the water.
Tremulous lightning very high, is a sign of rain.
The same not so high, indicates a hill.
When the lightning is red and fiery, it shews the hill to be rocky.
When yellow, it is a sign the hill is earth.
Low flashes upon the surface of the water, denote a shoal under
A shoal above water, has an atmosphere hanging over it, which appears like an island.
Low long lightning, upon the surface, shews an island with trees; and when an island, or hill, is high at one end, and low at the other, the lightning will be in an inclining line like the hill.

Use of the compass

Upon the arrival of Europeans, native seafarers were quick to obtain the latest mariner's compasses and telescopes from Europe, but mainly as prestige items.  Most evidence suggests that the compass, at least, was rarely used.

However, there is some evidence of the use of the medieval floating needle that was commonly mentioned in writings concerning the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

William Barlowe's Navigator's Supply, written in 1597, mentions encounters that Thomas Cavendish -- most popular for having pirated the Manila galleon Santa Anna -- had with two "East Indians" from Asia:

Some fewe yeeres since, it so fell out that I had severall conferences with two East Indians which were brought into England by master Candish [Thomas Cavendish], and had learned our language: The one of them was of Mamillia [Manila] in the Isle of Luzon, the other of Miaco in Japan. I questioned with them concerning their shipping and manner of sayling. They described all things farre different from ours, and shewed, that in steade of our Compas, they use a magneticall needle of sixe ynches long, and longer, upon a pinne in a dish of white China earth filled with water; In the bottome whereof they have two crosse lines, for the foure principall windes; the rest of the divisions being reserved to the skill of their Pilots.

Dead reckoning using stars, currents, winds, etc.

James Francis Warren, who personally observed the indigenous navigational techniques of the Iranun and Balangingi peoples of Mindanao, states:

Sailing directions of other kinds were used when the Iranun struck off across expanses of open sea; bearings were taken from the direction of the winds, the currents, and the position of the sun.  At night they were guided by the stars, the moon and weather signs.  Even in the sky, the Iranun and Samal raiders saw the sea; every type of star, wave and current, every rock and navigational landmark had been given a name.  There at least a dozen words to describe the color of the sea and the varying tides.  In deep haze and fog the Iranun and Samal navigated by reading the currents, swells and sounds as if hunting a living creature.

The ability to navigate in haze and fog -- when no visible means of orientation are available -- using only the action and sound of the waves and currents mirrors the practice of navigation used by Micronesian Mau Piailug and other Pacific navigators.

Eric S. Casino conducted a study of navigational bearing stars and the use of currents and winds for navigation among the Jama Mapun, a Samal "sea gypsy" people of Mindanao.  When visible, the Jama Mapun use the stars, Sun and Moon to guide them.  However, during storms and other conditions of limited visibility, they depend only on the currents and winds to know what direction they are traveling in, and how far they have traveled toward reaching their destination.

The Jama Mapun know the difference between prevailing winds and currents, and those kicked up by storms and other weather conditions.  One method they use to detect an original current as opposed to a current that arises, for example, from a squall, is to dip their legs or paddles into the water so that they can feel the old current under the surface.  In this way, they are able to calculate the boat's drift and changes in bearing. These seafarers have an advanced vocabulary for winds, currents, swells, etc.

Dante L. Ambrosio, who studies indigenous star lore, notes the following regarding Samal navigators:

My Sama Dilaut informants said that the position of the stars, which form the rope used to pull up the bubu out of the sea, indicated the strength of the current. These stars form the handle of the Big Dipper. When they are in the east, the current is strong but when they are in the west, the current is weak or there is no current at all.
Several stars, together with the wind, are used in direction finding. Samas know that the morning star Lakag or Maga is in the east, Bubu and Mamahi Uttara are in the north, while Bunta is in the south. The western direction is reckoned with stars Tunggal Bahangi and Mamahi Magrib. Unfortunately, I failed to identify these stars. The same goes with Mamahi Satan, the south star. Of course, the east-west direction is easily identifiable with the aid of the sun which is also a star. For the same directions, the Samas also observe Batik and Mupu which traverse the sky from east to the zenith to the west.
Together with stars, winds are also used to mark direction. Satan or salatan, the south wind, is associated with Bunta, the asterism named after a puffer fish. The heavenly fish releases the air from its puffy body once it ends its seasonal appearance in the night sky. That air is satan or salatan.
When Anakdatu, which follows Bunta, has come and gone, the north wind called uttara replaces the south wind. Another marker for uttara is the appearance of Mupu in the east at nightfall. It is also uttara that blows when the northern stars of Batik get dimmer. Its southern stars dim when it is satan’s turn to blow.

Ambrosio states that the North Star -- Mamahi Uttara -- was prominently used by Sama Dilaut navigators.  The North Star is also important among the Jama Mapun who know it as Sibilut.  Using Iman Yasin as a source, Ambrosio gives an example of how a Sama navigator would set a course using the stars:

Using this [North Star] as a guide, one may reach Cotabato and Zamboanga by sailing northeast, Sabah northwest, Celebes or Sulawesi and Balikpapan in Kalimantan southeast with some necessary adjustments along the way.
Bunta is used in crossing the Sulu Sea from Mapun near Palawan to the capital town of Bongao on the Tawi-tawi mainland. To reach Bongao, the pilot with an outstretched arm must keep Bunta one dangkal — from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the middle finger — to the left of the boat’s prow. If the prow veers to the left by a dangkal, it will reach Languyan instead which is at the northern end of Tawi-tawi. But if it veers to the right, the boat will land at Sibutu which is at the southern end of the archipelago.

According to Aspalman Jalman, an expert navigator from Tawi-tawi, by knowing the "position of Mamahi Uttara and Mamahi Satan and the relative position of one’s destination, one could readily lay down the path to be taken by the boat."   The idea that one can always correct one's bearings by knowing the "relative position" of one's destination gives an important clue as to how the local navigators projected their own vessel's position upon their mental maps of the region. Similar types of navigational techniques have been preserved among other peoples in Insular Southeast Asia such as the Bugis to the south in eastern Indonesia.

In addition to possessing excellent navigational capabilities, the peoples of the Philippines were also expert boat builders.  According to Fr. Francisco Combes (1667, 70): "The care and technique with which they build them makes their ships sail like birds, while ours are like lead in comparison."

Filipinos as hired seafarers

When Europeans arrived in the area at the start of the colonial period, the kingdom of Luzon was heavily involved in the regional trade that included sending ships to Timor for sandalwood, and distributing pepper throughout the trade routes. Luzon merchants had a special relationship with the ports of China that allowed them to be the primary and at times exclusive middlemen in the commerce between South China and other countries using the maritime trade routes.

After colonization, Filipino seafarers continued to work on Spanish and other ships in the region.  Francisco Leandro de Viana (1751-1765) writes:

There is not an Indian in these islands who has not a remarkable inclination for the sea; nor is there at present in all the world a people more agile in maneuvers on shipboard, or who learn so quickly nautical terms and whatever a good mariner ought to know. Their disposition is most humble in the presence of a Spaniard, and they show him great respect; but they can teach many of the Spanish mariners who sail in these seas. In the ships of Espana there are sure to be some Indians from these islands, and investigation can be made to ascertain what they are. The little that I understand about them makes me think that these are a people most suited for the sea; and that, if the ships are manned with crews one-third Spaniards and the other two-thirds Indians, the best mariners of these islands can be obtained, and many of them be employed in our warships. There is hardly an Indian who has sailed the seas who does not understand the mariner's compass, and therefore on this [Acapulco] trade-route there are some very skilful and dexterous helmsmen. Their disposition is cowardly, but, when placed on a ship, from which they cannot escape, they fight with spirit and courage.

By the 19th century, Filipinos had established themselves as highly sought seafarers for crews on international ships.  According to Conrad Malte-Brun writing in 1827, the "natives of Manilla are almost universally employed as gunners and steersmen in the intercolonial navigation."

The importance of the Filipino seafarer has continued into present times.  In 2009, for example, about 40 percent of the world's container vessel and oil tanker crews were Filipino.  In the same year, about 70 percent of all Japanese shipping used Filipino crews.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Ambrosio, Dante. "Mamahi:’ Stars of Tawi-tawi," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 1/26/2008.

Casino, Eric S., "Jama Mapun Ethnoecology: Economic and Symbolic,"  Asian Studies, 5, 1967, 1-32.

Logan, James Richardson, and George Windsor Earl. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia: Singapore, 1847-1855. Nendeln, Leichtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1970, 514.

Malte-Brun, Conrad. Universal Geography, Or A Description of All Parts of the World, on a New Plan, According to the Great Natural Divisions of the Globe. Philadelphia: A. Finley, 1827, 336.

Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City, Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1997.

Warren, James Francis. Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding, and the Birth of Ethnicity. Singapore: Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore, 2002, 264-5.