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'There are in the Philippines as many dumb people as in any other place of the planet...' - P. Murillo Velarde

The Filipino people according to Murillo Velarde
Jorge Mojarro July 21, 2020

MURILLO Velarde became a hot name in the Philippines a few years ago, when China claimed jurisdiction over the entire archipelago of the Spratly Islands. The Philippines had to prove that the archipelago belong to their territory back in times, and for that purpose they looked for old Spanish maps. The most famous of them is the Murillo Velarde map, a true jewel of world cartography. Designed by this Jesuit priest from the province of Almeria in southern Spain, the artistic execution was carried out by Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay, a gifted Filipino engraver who also printed many books for the Jesuit press. The map, titled Carta hydrographica y chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas (1734), was surrounded by several engravings of scenes depicting Philippine life, many of them carried out by another Filipino artist, Francisco Suárez. The map served to win the case for the Spratlys at the United Nations. Every time there is a Murillo Velarde map for auction, prices can skyrocket dramatically. It is not surprising, then, why the finely printed journal of the Philippine Association of Collector of Maps is named precisely The Murillo Bulletin.

But this Jesuit man did not only make a map. He wrote sermons, poetry, theater, works on canon law and an extremely entertaining chronicle of the Philippine islands. Probably, he was the most intellectually powerful person in the Philippines throughout the obscure 18th century. His encylopedic knowledge came to see full light in Madrid in 1752 in the 10 volumes of Geographia Historica, a major work where he condensed all the available knowledge regarding the geography, nature, history and peoples of the planet. More importantly, although printed in Spain, this book was written in the Philippines, which indicates the exceptional quality of the libraries in Manila at that time.

The book is digitized entirely in the website of Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain-;jsessionid=427B84B93CA4EFFAA273CD606B707E78) in Madrid and one immediately thinks of one single thing: what did Pedro Murillo Velarde say about Filipinos, having spent more than 20 years in the archipelago. So here is an excerpt:

“There are in the Philippines as many dumb people as in any other place of the planet, but they don’t lack skillful and clever people, so even some of them have made some progress studying Latin, philosophy and theology. They are absolutely outstanding when it comes to material things. They are extremely skillful imitating anything they see. There are many tailors and barbers, and they learn the job really fast. There are in the Philippines excellent embroiderers, painters, silversmiths and blacksmiths, whose craftsmanship find no equal in the whole Indies and it could look exquisite in Paris, in Rome or in Augsburg. I have seen maps, drawings and paintings more beautiful and with a better finishing touch than the ones from Paris. They are good at crafting wood, at gilding marble and at carpentry. They build the ships of these islands: galleys of any size, boats and even the huge galleons that navigate until Acapulco (Mexico). They are good architects and they do the houses, the churches and stone buildings. They are good artillerymen and notable sailors, and for that they are famous in the whole East. They are the pilots of these seas and they understand very well the ship’s compass, even better than the Chinese, as in painting or doing sculptures.”

Surprised? There’s more:

“They have learned to make clocks; they fabricate powder, they cast artillery and church bells. There are three printing presses in Manila, all of them handled by natives, and they commit less typos than in Spain or Milan. They are extremely talented for music. Even the smallest villages have musical instruments and produce decent music and have good voices to sing in the church […] Rare is the native who does not know how to play the harp, and they have excellent violin players and flute players.”

Those comments are outstanding for the level of detail, but not for being positive. A look at the chronicles and colonial sources show that the Spanish friars generally had good opinions about the natives — excepting for their native beliefs, of course — and they generally point out things we still can see today: as Murillo Velarde says, Filipinos are world renowned for being excellent seamen, artists, singers and doing careful things with their hands (nurses?).

A few lines later, Murillo Velarde quotes a typical saying from the sangleys, the Chinese community: “The Spaniards are like fire, and Filipinos are like water. And at the end, water always defeats fire.” Little did he know how prophetical those words would be.