Dr. Ambeth Ocampo: Maps divide countries, history connects people

Community News & Features Jun 14, 2019 at 2:55 pm
DR. AMBETH OCAMPO

DR. AMBETH OCAMPO

By Michelle Chermaine Ramos
The Philippine Reporter

In celebration of the 121st anniversary of Philippine Independence, the Philippine Consulate General, Sentro Rizal Toronto and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts hosted lectures by renowned Philippine historian Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo in Toronto. Professor Ocampo is a public historian and the former Chairman of the Department of History at Ateneo de Manila University. He is a prolific multi-award-winning author of books on Philippine culture, an art curator, journalist, and also served as Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2005-2007), Chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (2002-2011) and President of the Philippine Historical Association.

The lecture on June 3rd 2019, titled “Mapping the Philippines: Before Waze and Google Earth” was held at the Kaneff Tower at York University’s Keele Campus in collaboration with The York Centre for Asian Research where Ocampo delivered an informative and entertaining presentation on how the Philippine islands were first mapped by visitors from other cultures such as the Spanish, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese. “Maps are important because they teach us about the shape of a country. But what I realized as I grew is that school taught me that maps divide- that maps separate countries from each other. It shows you division but what I realized while working on them was that history does the opposite. History actually gives us connections,” says Ocampo.

Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo with the Philippine consulate staff at York  University

Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo with the Philippine consulate staff at York University

As a collector of antique maps, his first purchase was an 18th century map of the Philippines made by a Jesuit named Murillo Velarde published in 1760. What he found fascinating was how it depicted the general shape of the Philippines almost as we know it today despite the absence of Google Earth and modern technology at that time. He emphasized the importance of questioning historical sources and seeking updated information as he went through his slideshow presentation of antique maps starting with one from 1540 which depicted Mindanao and an archipelago of 7,448 islands according to the limited data at the time. History and maps made Ocampo question the accuracy of the source that stated that there were 7,107 islands. He then discovered it was from the 1918 edition of the Miller and Polley Intermediate Geography textbook, which remained mostly unchanged except for the cover. After pressing for updated information from the National Mapping Agency, they finally investigated, and the number is now officially 7,641 islands (excluding 1,000 rocks) according to modern mapping methods.

Word choice also matters and shifts the paradigm when narrating history. Did Magellan discover the Philippines (the traditional Spanish viewpoint), re-discover it (the nationalist Filipino viewpoint) or simply arrive in the Philippines in 1521? Ocampo explains that maps can serve as a re-presentation of reality or can be read in other ways to illuminate history because depending on who is telling the story, maps can imprison or liberate us from history. More recently, the resurfacing of a 1734 Murillo map helped win the legal dispute with China over the South China Sea islands since it proved that Scarborough Shoal (shown as Panacot) and the Spratlys (shown as Los Bajos De Paragua) have long been part of Philippine territory. Many young Filipinos may not be aware of their culture’s rich history, but if only more history teachers shared Ocampo’s engaging delivery and sense of humour, I doubt that any of them would ever want to skip class.

Abidin Kusno, Director of York Centre of Asian Research

Abidin Kusno, Director of York Centre of Asian Research

Philip Kelly, Professor of  Geography

Philip Kelly, Professor of
Geography

Christine Santos of ABS-CBN, Michelle Chermaine Ramos of The  Philippine Reporter, Dr. Ambeth Ocampo and Dr. Patrick Alcedo of  York University. (Photos: MC Ramos)

Christine Santos of ABS-CBN, Michelle Chermaine Ramos of The Philippine Reporter, Dr. Ambeth Ocampo and Dr. Patrick Alcedo of York University.
(Photos: MC Ramos)