Vessels of Freedom

Long before Filipinos became a third of the global fleet, they were already building and manning their own ships, serving in the Galleon Trade, and carving out their fortunes in foreign lands.

Originally published by Seafarer Asia Security and Welfare Issue on March 2016.

The Spanish settlement in Manila signaled the Philippines’ first participation in the Transpacific trade.

Filipino sailors—called “listas”, the term now used for ordinary seamen then—were employed in the Galleon Trade from 1565 to 1815. Back then, 150 to 250 men occupied each galleon, and they were paid a yearly salary of P48 to P60 and given 15 gantas (one ganta being equal to approximately three liters) of rice per month—a far cry from their Spanish counterparts earning P100 a year. Regular crewmen and officers’ salaries started at P225 pesos and peaked to P4,325 for commanding officers.

Positions could be bought from the Governor General, usually at the price of P600 to P10,000— regardless whether an aspirant had culled enough experience in naval affairs. What mattered more was their ability to please the one who appointed them to a higher position.

“Some Spanish pilots took their posts just [to get] a free voyage to Mexico, even though most of them barely had any knowledge in seafaring,” shares maritime researcher Jasper Christian Gambito, curator at Asian Institute of Maritime Studies (AIMS) Museo Maritimo. According to him, formal maritime education in the country only started in the 19th century when Escuela Nautica de Manila (now Philippine Merchant Marine Academy) was established. According to Asian Section Professor Rolando Talampas of the University of the Philippines, no native was appointed to any officer-level position to prevent them from smuggling. 

The plight of Filipino seafarers
Onboard galleons, listas were dispensable. They were the least priority, particularly in safety and salary, even though they comprised majority of the ship’s crew and their jobs were crucial to keeping the galleon afloat, and safe from pirates. During encounters with pirates, they were mostly the ones whose lives were compromised, with some even becoming war prisoners of British and Islamic expeditions. Luckily, few were able to escape and survived by fleeing to foreign lands.

Back then, seafaring was survival of the fittest. The Filipino indios who were at the bottom of the system and commanded by potentially incompetent officers, became the least fit to survive in search of their own fortune or freedom.

As stated in Professor Talampas’ papers during the First National Forum on Philippine Maritime Heritage by Museo Maritimo, three to four Filipino crewmen would die every day solely because they didn’t have the necessary clothing to protect them from the cold. Diseases like pneumonia and scurvy would plague the sailors, further increasing casualties due to lack of sanitation, nutrition, and food.

Pest infestation was a problem then, too. “There were several sorts of vermin of sundry colors that would suck the blood of people onboard. An abundance of flies would fall into seafarers’ broths, in which worms of several sorts would swim in,” according to 17th century Italian adventurer Gemelli Careri, as cited by Talampas.

For the most part, pre-Hispanic Filipino mariners navigated by piloting, proceeding from one landfall to another, following islands that could not be seen in high waves, movements of birds or fish, cloud formations on the horizon, and different kinds of lightning

Water shortage was imminent. An expedition would bring around 2,000 to 4,000 earthen jars of water supposedly proportionate to the number of crew, which often wasn’t enough. When water ran out, an alguacil de agua (water constable) was appointed to collect, guard, and dispense rain water.

Shipbuilding and seamanship
By making voyages using only a balangay—a boat carved out of wood, without nails or bindings—early Filipinos became adept in both inland and open-sea seafaring for fishing, transporting goods, and trading with neighboring countries.

“Before the Spaniards came, the proto-Filipinos (prehispanic natives) were already engaged in trade with China and other Southeast Asian countries,” shares Gambito. “Proto- Filipinos, particularly the pintados or the Visayan people, inflicted much terror on Chinese shores after the latter failed to engage in maritime trade primarily because their boats weren’t sturdy enough for the high seas,” he adds.

A bigger version of the balangay, the warrior boat caracoa, could sail three times faster than a Chinese junk or a Spanish galleon. Its maneuverability was far superior to galleons in rough and shallow local waters, that Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, Spain’s first governor general to the  Philippines, built a fleet of caracoas to wage war with the resisting Visayan moros who used the same vessels.

Prof. Talampas describes the natives as “the experienced seafarers of yore.” Unlike regular indios who were pictured as indolent, slow, and complacent, these native seamen were described as patient, hardworking, sacrificing, or stoic due to the nature of work at sea.

A noted American scholar named Henry Scott, who studied prehispanic Philippines, said that Filipino mariners back then did not practice celestial navigation— though Visayans set their agricultural calendars based on their reading of the major constellations. Their observations of the heavens were for meteorological purposes. They knew how to use the Chinese mariner’s compass, called pandaloman, but they used it mainly at nighttime. For the most part, they navigated by piloting, proceeding from one landfall to another, following islands that could not be seen in high waves, movements of birds or fish, cloud formations on the horizon, and different kinds of lightning.

“There is not an Indian (indio) in these islands who does not possess a remarkable inclination for the sea; nor is there at present in all the world a people more agile in maneuvers on shipboard,” commended Francisco Leandro de Viana, an 18th century writer, further noting that those indios, when placed on a ship from which they could not escape, fought with spirit and courage.

New territories
During the Galleon Trade, many Filipino crewmen jumped ship and settled in various parts of Central and North America. While some remained fugitives and went into hiding, others rose to become prominent figures in exploring and establishing settlements in the continent.

One was Antonio Miranda Rodriguez from Manila. As cited by Talampas, Rodriguez gainedthe title of pobladores (founding settler) of Los Angeles, California. And his was not an isolated case—descendants of those Filipinos who successfully found freedom in foreign lands were even part of the American’s fight with the British in 1812.

Present day seafarers
According to Prof. Talampas, a Filipino seaman can be seen as a natural product not only of his physical environment, but also of his participation in the Spanish trades.

The 250-year long galleon trade brought with it many lessons about crossing the Pacific, exposing the seaman to experiences previously un-endured, and to the rest of the world as adaptive workers whose skills were not limited to seafaring alone.

Since 1898, the Filipinos have long found their liberty and independence. Today, the ship not only symbolizes one’s home away from home and a workplace for seafarers—it continues to be a symbol of freedom and better fortune.

Illustration by Chad Villarmino



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