OPINION: 'Filipinos, first in America' – Tweaking a historical perspective.

Buddy Gomez – Cyberbuddy

Posted at Oct 20 2017 06:29 PM

There is apt and well-positioned bragging rights, historically documented, over the fact that Filipinos were first to land in America. Since 1587, the clarion claims. Pointedly emphasizing that the event preceded the 1607 English settlement in Jamestown. That was the first English permanent settlement in North America, thereafter becoming the United States of America.

To be precise about it, that landing was not and never a settlement. Nonetheless, there is absolutely a proud ring to it. “We were here first!” Shorn of any profundity, it is easily, simply a delayed reaction to years of discrimination, abuse and degradation suffered by the earliest of post-Philippine-American War labor immigration to the United States. “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” still lingers as a painful memory.

This is an important aspect of the current observance in all of the United States of the Filipino American History Month (FAHM) as sanctioned by an act of the US Congress. By the way, it is “History” and not “Heritage” – a correction that is repeated yearly.

The historical documentation based on that 1587 voyage’s log book says that eight Filipinos identified as “Yndios Luzones” (yet to be known as Filipinos) were with the landing party headed by Pedro de Unamuno, having sojourned for some three days in a Central California Coast point close to today’s San Luis Obispo in Morro Bay. October 18-20. An accidental stop-over, not a destination. The destination was Acapulco, arriving there in November 22, 1587.

Courtesy of Filipino American National Historical Society

A marker/shrine was dedicated in 1995 on a promontory overlooking Morro Bay under the auspices of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), the moving spirit behind the annual national observance of Filipino American History Month.
In 1587, obviously, there was no USA, yet. Remember 1776? Neither were there “Filipinos.” Must we also point out that Christopher Columbus never really set foot on Continental American soil? Neither North nor South. His voyages, under royal Spanish patronage, landed only in islands of the Caribbean and West Indies. Until his death, Columbus was of the belief that he had reached the Orient! Have you ever wondered why she is America and not Columbiana or some such derivation? 

In 1587, there was, however, already a “Las Islas Filipinas.” Named after King Phillip II of Spain, courtesy of Ruy Lopez de Villalobos who recorded “Felipinas” to mean Samar and Leyte in 1543. Heretofore, we were “San Lazaro” an appellation given by Magellan. The inhabitants, our forefathers, were called “Indios” by the Spaniards.

Now, here is a quick look at chronological encyclopedic history. The term America began to be used, not yet quite universally though, in the early 16th century. That is just about before Magellan enjoyed Waray-waray hospitality in Homonhon (1521). This was quite sometime after the Columbus voyages (1492). Here is another fact which is not quite so trivia. German cartographer (mapmaker) Martin Waldseemuller is credited with the first use of “America,” latinized after Amerigo Vespucci, a post-Columbus explorer who proved that the West Indies were not in the Orient. 

Now, here is the tweak. To be indisputably precise, the very first ‘indios de Felipinas’ to land in Continental North America were not the ones of the Unamuno voyage of 1587. Neither was it in Coastal California that they first touched in North America. And, furthermore, the “Yndios” were not from Luzon.

The very first “indios de Felipinas” to land and settle in Continental North America arrived on board the galleon “San Pedro” in the port of Acapulco in Nueva Espana (Mexico in early 19th century), October 8, 1565! 

A prime mandate received by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi from the crown of Spain was to find and establish the return route (tornaviaje) to Acapulco. In compliance, therefore, Legazpi dispatched Andres de Urdaneta (as navigator-in-charge) on board the galleon “San Pedro,” piloted by Rodrigo de Espinosa and captained by Legazpi’s grandson, Felipe de Salcedo. “Friday morning the first of June 1565. The galleon San Pedro departed the port of Zubu” (Cebu)……… “We arrived to this Port of Acapulco on Monday the eight of October 1565.” 

For this information, we are in debt to the Historical Society of Southern California for the English translation of the San Pedro’s logbook written by Rodrigo de Espinosa, as conserved in the Archivos de Indias in Sevilla, Spain. ( “The Log of the San Pedro, The First China Ship, 1565”)

Let me quote from the most relevant and salient portion for purposes of our discourse. “The Indians…..serving as sailors that we have onboard this galleon, that is going to New Spain, say that there is a passage through there that goes to Tandaya.” (The translators of this document concluded that the native sailors were obviously Visayans, coming from Cebu as they did. What followed was a description of the route. ‘Tandaya’ is an ancient name for lower Samar (vs. the upper half which is ‘Ybabao’) Following the description of the route towards the Pacific Ocean, the translators have also analyzed and identified the islands along the way to be Gigatangan, Maripipi, Tagapula, Dalupiri and Capul.)

The ‘tornaviaje’ event we speak of is in fact the successful inaugural of the Galleon Trade (also referred as “Nao de China” by some historians.) The Manila-Acapulco trade route was to serve international commerce for the next 250 years! It is the first “tornaviaje” that brought the first “indios de Felipinas’ to Continental North America. The year was 1565. Not 1587. Until after Manila was settled in 1571, there were still several more voyages that traversed the Pacific with Cebu as the point of embarkation. In other words, to coin a phrase, the seamen were “Indios Visayanos.” 

The most authoritative and indispensable dissertation on the Galleon Trade is a 1939 opus by William Lytle Schurz titled “The Manila Galleon,” backed by a very impressive 29-page bibliography. The book is the ‘go to’ English source for scholars undertaking research. According to Schurz, the return voyages had always relied on the services of native sailors ever since. And hardly did they return to “Felipinas,” unequivocally meaning that “Indios de Felipinas” remained to settle in Nueva Espana.

Here are some more citations from Schurz. “…..the galleon was often left at Acapulco without a return crew for the return trip to Manila.” (p. 211, 1959 reprint / E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York) 
“The earlier galleons carried a crew of from sixty to one hundred, according to the size of the ship or the supply of seamen available.’( p.209 ) By 1724, “hardly a third were said to be of Spanish birth.”(p.210), meaning the Galleon crew were mostly natives of “Islas Filipinas.”

And, “in 1618 the ‘Espiritu Santo’ (galleon) lost seventy-four of the seventy-five native seamen, who were hired by Mexican Indians to teach their tribe the manufacture of palm wine.” (p. 211) Tuba, the Visayan coconut palm wine, had become our first exported transfer of technology!

One last thing about “The Manila Galleon.” There is an unfortunate fly in the celebrated ointment of this history, evincing that scholars do commit mistakes. Schurz misidentified the Galleon of the first trans-Pacific return route. In his book, he referred to the ship as “San Pablo,” an error that was perpetrated many times by many a historian relying solely upon Schurz. There was indeed a San Pablo in the Legazpi fleet but the ship remained in Cebu, to sail at some future date. 

It was the galleon San Pedro that was commissioned to carry the first “Filipino” immigrants to America! 1565 A.D.

(Disclosure: I am not an academically credentialed historian. I am only a history buff and a bibliophile with a limited personal library. I do enjoy sharing my knowledge accumulation, however, throwing in cogent commentaries whenever fancied.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.