Aiming for the Stars...

by Jean Quintero Hall


[July 1999 Issue]

Go forth, and then the sacred fire
of thy genius to the laurel may aspire;
To spread around the fame,
And in victory acclaim
Through wider spheres the human name.
-- Dr. Jose Rizal, "To The Philippine Youth," 1879

Rizal's knowledge of European history was extensive. He was aware that Renaissance Europe (1304-1500) was parochial -- that there was little knowledge of far-off places. Prior to the "Age of Discovery," Europeans' limited knowledge of Asia came from travel narratives, such as those of the Greek historian and traveller, Herodotus (450 B.C.), Alexander the Great in his conquest of India (327 B.C. and Marco Polo's 25-year trek to Cathay (China) and Zipangu (Japan) beginning in 1254. And there were other documents written by religious missionaries who had reached "exotic" places like China and Mongolia as early as the 1200s. Rizal was familiar with these sources and was undoubtedly disappointed at the lack of identifiable references to the Philippines in these ancient narratives.
The next reasonable step to seeking references to the Philippines dating back before Magellan's discovery of the islands in 1521 was to search through ancient maps at the British Museum. What Rizal found in the cartography holdings in the British Museum was reported by the British scholar, Dr. R. A. Skelton in a paper presented at the 1961 International Congress of Rizal. In this paper Skelton stated that Rizal must have found very little in his search for references to the Philippines during pre-Hispanic times. The only pre-Hispanic maps were in a meager assortment of nautical charts used by sailors and explorers. They were extremely limited in scope, sketching only the coastlines of known places and were not helpful to Rizal. Rizal learned that the Philippines was an unknown place to Europeans prior to Magellan. Europe must first undergo a radical transformation.

Europe's parochialism came to an end with the launching of the "Age of Discovery," initiated by the religious Prince Henry of Portugal in 1450. But the seeds were planted much earlier by the 2nd Century geographical works of Ptolemy, the great astronomer, physicist, mathematician and geographer. The European "rediscovery" of these works early in the 15th Century spearheaded the advancement of geographical science and cartography based on mathematical calculations and projections and provided the conceptual revolution and the practical tools that would allow men to imagine circumnavigating the globe. With newly built ships designed for long distance travel and improved navigational tools and skills, and motivated by the desires for wealth, immortality, adventure and prestige, Portuguese and Spanish monarchs launched the search for "Asia" -- a place romanticized by Herodotus, Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. So intense was their desire to discover "Asia" that Columbus' discoveries in 1493 were mistaken to be Asia and so would the later discoveries of Mexico, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Not until Amerigo Vespucci published his work, Mundus Novus in 1505 did the geographic designations of "America" and the "New World" begin appearing on the maps.

Magellan's discovery of the Philippines in 1521 proved significant for Southeast Asia's legitimacy, and literally placed the Philippines on European maps. By 1550s up to the 1600s, the Philippines appeared on world maps with the name Magellan had christened it: "Isola Di San Lazaro" or "Archipelago de San Lazaro." Magellan's death in 1521 on Mactan Island would leave the Philippines with this label until 1565 when it was changed to "Felipinas" by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. Had Magellan lived, the Philippines might still be known as "San Lazaro Archipelago." But why San Lazaro, one might ask? As a proper name mentioned in the parables of Jesus, "Lazaro" is connected to two stories: the story of Lazarus of Bethany who was raised from the dead, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar. The discovery apparently occurred on the saint's day.

[Author's Note: For deeper insight on the history of mapmaking, see Peter Whitfield's The Image of the World -- 20 Centuries of World Maps, 1997]

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created: September 1, 1999
updated: September 29, 1999
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger