Reinventing Maritime History

Commo. Carlos L. Agustin AFP (ret)Many columnists from time to time mention the observation that we are a ‘fractured nation’ for many reasons. For one, some say that we suffer from colonial mentality, that we forgot our roots and readily accepted what our colonial masters dished out to us.

On the other hand, there is an opposite syndrome, and that is to falsely claim historical grandeur, to the extent of ignoring real historical events.

There is thus nothing wrong with researching history, getting historical facts straight and finding out how we can be proud of ourselves.

Many discoveries, of course, are merely records of historical incidents, such as that interesting finding that came out when a curious item was published about an event that happened here in 1897 that apparently had no record still intact locally – a super typhoon stronger than Yolanda that devastated Tacloban, demolishing the town and surrounding areas and killing almost the entire population, including some 200 foreigners. Colonial Tacloban was not in contact with besieged Manila in the midst of revolution, and it took an Australian steamer that came from China and Japan enroute back to Sydney to have that entered historically because a writer, who made a detailed account of it, published it in a Sydney newspaper upon arrival home. A tsunami in 1917, or devastation of World War II, probably destroyed the Tacloban records on that 1897 disaster.

Philippine Navy
I was an HPN staff officer when we were amused at a ‘historical finding’ of a PN officer attending the NDCP and, in his thesis, recommending that the Navy should rewrite its history and consider itself organized as far back as 1898.

The original ‘discovery’ was actually made by a maritime writer, who read an account of the Philippine Revolution and saw that a Ministry of the Navy was established by General Emilio Aguinaldo, but the Navy officer, then LCDR Fernando Edralin (The Navy’s PIO at the time) took it on with the aim of rewriting Philippine naval history.

He being a cousin of President Ferdinand Marcos, and being the Navy Public Information Officer, Edralin had an easy time making waves in the media and before the command. Alas, the Navy was the first to discover its historical roots‼ I was then a Special Staff officer (The Naval Weapons Officer) and did not think much about it. But was there a real connection between the two?

In reality, an Offshore Patrol (OSP) was created under the Philippine Army, which was established in 1935. That was reactivated with the Army after World War II, became the Philippine Naval Patrol (PNP) later on, and  that was the service, with its own roster, that President Elpidio Quirino transformed into a Philippine Navy in the early ‘50s.

In its website ( the PN has a well-written Philippine naval history. That account, just like the accounts on Lapu Lapu and other events, can well be defended, except mention of the incorrect assertion that the present Philippine Navy was founded in 1898.

The Philippine Army website ( , while citing the army of the Philippine Revolution and referring to it as an army that continued to engage the US Army until the Philippine Commonwealth was established in 1935, hedged a little bit and now correctly refers to the current organization as the “new Philippine Army”.

The new Philippine Navy, as OSP, indeed was part of that new Philippine Army.

The Philippine Merchant Marine Academy (PMMA)

In a forum of AFP officers, I discussed the controversial Foundation date that changed the real historical account of the creation of the Philippine Military Academy from 1905 (establishment of the School for Officers of the Philippine Constabulary) to that of the revolutionary officers school referred to as “Academia Militar”.

A participant, retired Col Jose Dado, a USMA graduate, asked, “When was the PMMA founded. If the school was formerly the Philippine Nautical school, which was formerly the “Escuela Nautica de Manila”, it is the oldest of our service academies. I hurriedly replied – there is a continuous paper trail. Originally established at Intramuros, it was reopened after the Philippine Revolution by the colonial administration at the same site, etc. etc

I replied merely on the basis of the PNS having been established on the same site, with the same facilities, perhaps with some faculty members that learned English quickly retained  Absent that, maybe a more appropriate date would be the establishment of the PNS itself.

The Philippine Coast Guard

There are various possibilities for the PCG. The present Coast Guard is a creation of RA 5173 in 1967, and was carved out of the PN, merging the Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard Force from the Naval Operating Forces and adding a few units performing maritime safety and MARPOL control functions. There is, however one element that could make it claim earlier origins – the lighthouses, which date back to the establishment of Farola at the mouth of the Pasig River in the early 1500s. As a former CPCG, my take is that the LHS itself can perhaps lay claim to that.

There was, however one important research made by the CG-7 of then Commo Brillante C Ochoco, CPCG 1980-1985, in 1983. His research enabled him to discover Philippine Commission Act 266 in 1902, which created the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation the latter referring to marine transport. Lo and behold, the Lighthouse Service was also created, putting all the personnel and materiel of the colonial service under it. The first BCGT Commandant was a USN officer who later went back to the USN and eventually retired after reaching RADM rank and CO, I believe, of the US Naval Shipyard at Philadelphia, PA.

The Lighthouse Service provided the important link between the BCGT and the PCG, and thus you could say the PCG went from the office of the Governor General to the Bureau of Commerce, then, after WW II, to the Department of National Defense, then to the PN and after the new PCG Law, the DOTC.

The Philippine Ports Authority

The PPA was created by PD 505, as amended by PD 857 in 1975, merging the functions of the Bureau of Custom’s Maritime Affairs Division and the Port and Harbor Division of the Bureau of Public Works under one agency. That is the agency’s foundation.

While ports were actually established by the Spanish colonial government from Batanes to Sulu starting in the early 1500s, there was no clear link to justify such. However, encouraged by the Historical Commission during the “centennial hype” in 1996-98, we agreed to set the foundation of the Port of Manila to its establishment at the Aduana. But that is only the port. There was an incentive for this – a centennial “bonus” prescribed by the Executive Order that created the Centennial Commission.

Incidentally, we also know that the first international airport in Asia is the port of Manila, as that was the landing place of the the China clippers of Pan American Airways until those large hydroplanes were replaced by standard passenger aircraft using the new airport in Pasay during the US colonial days. Manila was a destination in itself, but the US wanted to connect to Shanghai, where the action was in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Before PANAM went bankrupt there was a plan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the China Clipper in 1984. It could have been a major tourism-aviation event had the demise of PANAM not happened before that time.

The National Historical Commission should really follow strictly historical records to show relevance of institutions established before, in relation to organizations existent today in the government and the private sector, including educational institutions.

As I recently posed before my colleagues in the military on the case of the Philippine Military Academy, It is not about patriotism or nationalism. As one researcher wrote in 1998 in an Australian magazine about the Centennial Commission, ‘’they are reinventing history.’’