The Rediscovered Islands

The rediscovery of the Philippines in the 19th century.

By Museu Marítim de Barcelona

Museu Marítim de Barcelona

Reduced map of the Philippines. (1752) by Editor: Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (cartógrafo)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

The Philippines entered the West's history books with Ferdinand Magellan's 1521 expedition, and were taken over by the Spanish with the arrival of another expedition led by Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565.

The archipelago then formally became part of an empire that extended to both sides of the Pacific, leading some historians to call it the "Spanish Lake."

However, the islands barely had any direct influence on Europe except through the Manila Galleons (also known as China Ships). This maritime service connected the ports of Manila and Acapulco a couple of times a year between 1565 and 1815, stopping at the island of Guam on their way.

Products from the Philippines could only reach Spain by traveling across the American continent to the Atlantic coast.

The islands were part of a declining empire for centuries—until a radical change in the mid-1800s, when the new Suez Canal opened up a direct and easy route between Spain and the Philippines in 1869.

This technological change led to a phenomenon that could be described as the islands' "rediscovery," when Spain belatedly realized the potential of these 7,000-plus isles and their natural resources, especially tobacco.

Following attempts to make the most of and hispanicize the archipelago for a few decades, the 1896 Philippine Revolution and 1898 Spanish-American War signaled the end of the Spanish presence in the Far East.

The story that began with Magellan's 1521 voyage, and ended in 1898, is one of an incomplete and imperfect relationship between two nations half a world away from each other. It should be remembered as part of the 500th anniversary of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation.

Facsimile of the Catalan Atlas. Leaves V and VI (1959) by Abraham Cresques (1325-1387); Jafudà Cresques (1350?-1410)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

The Pacific: The "Spanish Lake"

At the end of the 15th century, Europeans had a limited understanding of the world. However, they did firmly believe that by sailing east they would reach the wondrous Orient and its limitless riches. With the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, the world's size was called into question and a new route to Asia was sought.

Model of the Ship "Victoria" (1992) by Antonio ZamudioMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

Magellan's expedition opened up a new route to the other side of the world, before Elcano commanded the return voyage aboard the ship "Victoria." This proved that the Earth was round and that the ocean was made up of a single, interconnected body of water. And on the other side of the globe, there was an archipelago to explore: the Philippines.

Reduced map of the seas between Asia and America. (1742. ( Cette carte a conté corrige en 1756 )) by Francia Dépôt des Cartes et Plans de la Marine; Maurepas, Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, comte de, (1701-1781)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

The Pacific Ocean became theoretically known as the "Spanish Lake," with the Philippines on one side and the colonies of the western Americas on the other. It took centuries for its boundaries and archipelagos to be identified and mapped.

Guangzhou (Canton) Boat Album Guangzhou (Canton) Boat Album (1800-1830) by UnkownMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

China's mysteries and riches traveled to Europe via the Cape Route, or aboard Manila Galleons via Acapulco, before being taken across the Isthmus of Panama on foot and shipped from Havana to Seville and Cádiz. In the East, trade was primarily controlled by the Chinese.

Seaports in Egypt, Africa View of the Isthmus of Suez Canal. View of the Isthmus of Suez Canal. (1870) by Isidore-Laurent Deroy (drawer and lithographer); L. Turgis (editor)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

The Rediscovered Islands

The Philippines were essentially disconnected from Spain for generations, until the new Suez Canal opened up a shorter and quicker route in 1868. This provided an excellent opportunity to rediscover the Philippine archipelago.

Suez Canal: A view of the famous canal and a dock (ca 1900) by UnkownMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

The Suez Canal route linked Europe to the Far East and was used by scheduled steamboat services. The intensive flow of goods and people passing through it piqued the curiosity of those unable to travel.

The nascent art of photography captured images of exotic cities and landscapes, revealing other cultures that people had previously only been able to imagine.

Panoramic view of Barcelona and the fleets taken to mark the 1888 World's Fair. (1888) by Antoni de Caula (painter); José Maria Mateu (chromolithographer);Museu Marítim de Barcelona

Barcelona became Spain's gateway to the Philippines as a hub for scheduled services and a driver of late economic development.

The city also played a key role in the policy of "Europeanizing" the islands and exploiting one of their main assets: tobacco.

Philippine Ax (S. XIX) by UnkownMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

The process of occupying and colonizing the islands was not easy, nor was it peaceful. With locals already having their own social and religious conflicts to deal with, European rule made the situation even more complicated.

Spain's limited military presence made it impossible to control the thousands of islands, with their difficult mountainous terrain.

The Philippines—Mindanao Island Group (S. XVIII) by J. MilletMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

The Spanish merchant marine also set its sights on the Philippines, although it was only involved in local trade during the Age of Sail.

It was only after the steam engine was developed that the idea of a direct link between the islands and mainland Spain became appealing. Captains and pilots were studying these seas as an option for the future.

Model of the bangka "El Buisán" (S. XIX) by UnkownMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

Sailing in the Pacific was entirely different from the tradition in Europe and North America, with its own culture, vessels, and navigation techniques.

Westerners were surprised by the islanders' seafaring skills, and experts viewed their boats as exotic little marvels that were worth documenting.

Model of a sampan (S. XIX) by UnkownMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

The waters around the Philippines and the routes leading to them were pirate hunting grounds, making them dangerous to sail through.

Literature and film have recreated images of innocent-looking Chinese sampan boats that turned out to be packed with ferocious pirates.

Because of this threat to maritime traffic, European ships had to carry their own artillery and arms to fend off attackers.

Vinta (ca 1940) by UnkownMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

In the second half of the 19th century, many Spanish historians and anthropologists were curious about Philippine culture and took an interest in their customs, clothing, language, and sailing vessels.

A number of Spanish museums put together collections of Philippine artifacts and art so people in Spain could see the culture of their faraway "cousins" for themselves.

Philippine mail steamboat, "Isla de Panay" Captain J. Basté (1891) by Josep Pineda GuerraMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

Ships regularly sailed to and from the Philippines, first operated by the Marqués de Campo steamboat company and then by Compañía Trasatlántica.

This shipping company in particular capitalized on most of the trade relations between mainland Spain and the Spanish colony in the Pacific. Four of its ships were named after the most important islands: Panay, Cebu, Mindanao, and Luzon.

Reduced map of the Philippines. (1752) by Editor: Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (cartógrafo)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

It was difficult and costly to accurately map all the islands in the vast Philippine archipelago.

This area of over 1,000 islands remained partly unexplored and inaccessible until the Spanish occupation ended. As a result, accurate information about its seas and islands became valuable.

Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas stock (29/05/1985) by Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas (productor)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas S. A. was founded in Barcelona and became the flagship of the Spanish economy in the final years of colonization.

It had its own steamboat fleet and wielded huge influence in the islands. Even after Philippine independence, the company continued supplying the world with excellent tobacco.

Navigation Log From the Polacca "Explorador" (25/05/1876-18/08/1977) by Vidal Albert Sastre (captain)Museu Marítim de Barcelona

At a time when steamboats were already traveling regularly between Barcelona and Manila, some sailboats were still continuing the tradition of crossing the oceans using wind power alone.

One example was the polacca "Explorador," which sailed between the Philippines and the Americas, completing the reverse of Magellan's journey centuries before.

Aneroid barometer (1886) by Federico FauraMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

The exploration of the Philippines went beyond its natural treasures: scholars were also interested in it for scientific reasons.

These barely explored seas provided a vast area of study for botany, biology, and mineralogy, as well as meteorology and oceanography.

"Reina Cristina" Warship (1890-1898) by Josep de Passos i ValeroMuseu Marítim de Barcelona

The Spanish presence in the Philippines ended in 1898, after a revolution there called for independence, and following the intervention of the Americans, who declared war on Spain and challenged the country in the Caribbean.

The Spanish Navy was defeated and destroyed in the Battle of Manila Bay. This marked the end of an era that began when Magellan arrived in the Philippines with his boats and cannons in 1521.

Credits: Story

An exhibition by:
Museu Marítim de Barcelona (Maritime Museum of Barcelona)

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This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

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