Our fellow blogger from Cold is the Sea, a marine blog that’s wonderfully off the beaten path, asked if we knew of any Filipino sea authors. The man has a passion for maritime literature aside from being adept at drawing and painting, typically portraying those who work at sea or on the waterfront. We told him that the Philippines, a so-called maritime nation, has no such writers, past or present. We felt a bit embarassed in saying so but we had to be honest.

We recommended to our inquirer the great Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad and the Spanish Basque writer Pío Baroja, whose sea adventure novel, “The Restlessness of Shanti Andia,” is a must-read for all literature junkies. We had time later to think over the matter. England and Spain were able to produce sea-related literature because both countries have long and rich maritime traditions that provided inspiration to their writers. The same can be said of other traditional maritime countries, not least of them the US, which boasts some noteworthy sea writings as exemplified by Moby Dick author Herman Melville. And the Philippines?

Neither Jose Rizal, the national hero, nor the late contemporary writer Nick Joaquin (the only Filipino writers, in our view, with any real stature) devoted his literary energies to musing and writing about life at sea. Rizal’s novel “El Filibusterismo” contains passages about the Pasig River, the main tributary running through what is now Metro Manila. But that doesn’t make it maritime writing unless one stretches the definition of the term to include any literary work that mentions a body of water..

This conspicuous lack of a maritime literature is actually the least of the things that belie the oft-repeated claim that Filipinos are a maritime nation. More telling are the country’s stagnant ocean-going fleet, which is almost entirely made up of bareboat chartered foreign tonnage; the paltry container volumes at major Philippine seaports; the lack of a national shipbuilding industry, with local ship construction and even ship repair dominated by foreigners; and the virtual absence of marine equipment manufacturing.

But don’t Filipinos have a long seafaring tradition? Those who keep parroting the line really have in mind the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade which ran for 250 years (1565 to 1815). And they forget that the Filipinos who served on board the Spanish galleons were conscripted labour, not sea adventurers or sea-going merchants. In a sense, the galleon tradition continues. Filipinos today are sailing as seafarers and cruiseship hotel personnel to all corners of the globe – manning other nations’ fleets as before and not their own. ~Barista Uno

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