The National Museum of Natural History in Manila: An American or Spanish legacy?

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RACHEL A.G. REYES

I AM eagerly looking forward to visiting the National Museum of Natural History in Manila that has just opened to the tune of P1billion. The museum’s website, I note, still needs to get up to speed and properly let the world know of this impressive achievement. If one navigates around the National Museum web page to reach the main “natural history collections” section, one would be disappointed. There are three dismal paragraphs on botany, geology and zoology. The blurb on botany mentions the founding of the country’s herbarium, “in the early 1900s,” by the American botanist E.D. Merrill. The part on zoology contains a glaring inaccuracy. It reads: “The very first survey and collecting expedition was conducted in December 1901…” This is simply not so. The history of surveying and collecting expeditions in the Philippines was far earlier.

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Of course, it is wrong to judge the country’s newest museum on its outdated website. But let’s get one thing straight: the “first” expedition was neither initiated nor undertaken by Americans, as the museum’s advertised turn-of-the- century date implies.

During the Age of Enlightenment, Spain sought to explore the natural resources of far-flung regions for economic, political, and scientific gain. From out of 56 expeditions organized by the Spanish Crown from the mid-eighteenth century and prior to the nineteenth century, five expeditions were solely focused on plant collecting. Naturalists, botanists and artists, of diverse nationalities, joined these expeditions and set about collecting and drawing the flora and fauna of Spain’s colonial possessions. From 1735 to 1805 nine of those expeditions were specifically sent to the Philippines.

One of the most ambitious expeditions to be organized by Spain, and what would be one of the best examples of expeditionary science in the Spanish Enlightenment, was undertaken by Alejandro Malaspina, a brilliant 34-year-old Italian-born naval officer in the employ of the Spanish Crown.

Alejandro Malaspina

At the end of July 1789, Malaspina set sail from Cádiz in command of two ships, the Atrevida and the Descubierta, 120 feet long and three-masted corvettes, each carrying 102 men, supplied with books, manuscripts and maps, the latest scientific instruments and accompanying personnel comprised of naturalists, artists, draughtsmen, and a cartographer—men of exceptional learning and experience, and possessed of eclectic interests. Their voyage lasted five years, following routes that explored the west coast of the Americas from Cape Horn to the Gulf of Alaska, several Pacific islands, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia and Atlantic Patagonia.

Malaspina had with him three naturalist-botanists. Antonio Pineda y Ramírez, appointed the expedition’s chief of natural history, was a Spanish army officer born in Guatemala in 1753. He had served in the Royal Spanish Guards and had been assigned at the Royal Museum of Natural Science where he finished a work on the museum’s collection of birds. The second naturalist of the expedition was a Frenchman, Luis Neé, who was born in Paris but had worked for most of his life in Spain for the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid. He had collected plants in the Basque region sending over 1,200 species from Navarre to Madrid in one year and had completed a study on the vegetation of southern Spain. The third recruit was the 28-year-old brilliant, resourceful Bohemian adventurer Tadeo Haenke. A polyglot, Haenke was fluent in Spanish, French, Latin, Italian, and German; held a doctorate from the University of Prague, and had visited Syria, Corinth and Tyrol.

By the time the expedition arrived in the Philippines, the voyage was in its third year. Malaspina noted his first impressions of the country: “The scenes that meet the eye are so many and varied,” he wrote, and, scanning the landscape of Sorsogon, observed, “a uniformly luxuriant vegetation, the terrain…gently rounded or steeply rising to volcanoes and other higher mountains.” He wasted no time at all and sent out parties by land and sea to undertake soundings, chart harbors and survey coastlines covering eastern Luzon, the passage around the northeast extremity of the island of Samar and the various ports scattered from east to west at the southern end of Luzon. In Manila, Malaspina sought out local officials to gain information on the country’s political conditions and natural history; artists sketched and painted ethnological portraits, vistas and buildings. Antonio Pineda, Luis Neé and Tadeo Haenke set out on inland excursions around the country to make observations and collect specimens.

At the time of Malaspina’s arrival, much of what was already known about the Philippines was through works by the religious orders. Priests were then at the vanguard of botanical and natural history writing in the Philippines. From the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, Historias and Relacíones, written by friar and Jesuit scholars, offered the most detailed sources of information on the archipelago.

The Atrevida and Descubierta

Works such as Pedro Murillo Velarde’s Historia de la provincial de Philipinas de la Compañia de Jesus (1749), and the multi-volume Historia General de Philipinas by the Augustinian Juan de la Concepción published in 1788, one year before Malaspina’s departure, described local customs, flora and fauna, and the geography and climate of the archipelago, with the aim of bringing science into the service of God. The botanical drawings, detailed annotations, and collections of plant and animal specimens by the Czech Jesuit lay brother Georg Josef Camel, for example, were the first serious inquiry into the botanic and zoologic life found in the Philippine archipelago; and the two-volume Historia of the Visayan peoples, written in 1668 by the Jesuit Ignacio Alcina, was a richly detailed ethnography, the result of a 42-year residency in the Philippines and a strong grasp of local languages.

Malaspina’s expedition was distinguished by scientific accuracy and would have substantially added to the knowledge already gathered by clerics. The expedition produced the first accurate charts of Luzon, Mindanao, Mindoro, and Negros; Felipe Bauza, the expedition’s cartographer, drew coastline views and various maps of ports; documents in Filipino archives were copied and, in the field of botany, Neé discovered a variety of unknown plants and wrote a comparative study of plants found in Luzon and Mindanao. Haenke, who had made his way from Manila to Ilocos Norte, amassed an important collection of new and precious plant species. Pineda’s writings included his meteorological observations, research on volcanoes, minerals, commerce and agriculture, and ethnographic notes on Philippine peoples.

The story of American colonial collecting in the Philippines is fascinating in its own right. However, long before 1901 and US colonization, naturalist-botanists on board expeditions sponsored by the Spanish Crown had been busy collecting thousands upon thousands of floral and faunal specimens; completing thousands upon thousands of folio botanical illustrations; and writing detailed descriptions of aerial, terrestrial and marine life.

I am wondering how the National Museum of Natural History has treated this particular colonial legacy?

rachelagreyes@gmail.com

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