“We are descended from Voyagers”: How Disney’s Moana point to Filipinos’ Distant Past
I’m not sure if Disney’s Moana will be shown again in theaters after the Metro Manila Film Festival, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s a riveting animation about a daughter of a Polynesian chieftain who embarked on a long journey to the sea via a small boat with outriggers, to find Maui the demigod and return the heart of an island goddess back to its proper place and save the world.
*A clip from Moana: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, “We Know The Way”
Looking past all the creative license that may have been frowned upon by a few cultural purists from end to end of the Pacific, Disney’s Moana is a breath of fresh air. Make no mistake. It’s not just about a simple Disney Princess stereotype. It’s a laudable exploration of Polynesian culture and a great attempt at that by Disney. But of course, the inclusion of imperialism on a fictional story need not complicate an already good plot, as it did with Disney’s Pocahontas. I’ve read that tremendous research went into the story. I can’t not just put past this film without mentioning that the seemingly Hawaiian or Polynesian story is deeply connected to and enmeshed in our identity as Filipinos. Prior to the Spanish colonization of the islands, we were a people connected to Asia and beyond via the sea.
Archaeological findings and recorded history, point to an earlier past, that if understood fully by us, would make us think bigger when it comes to our origins, beyond the boundaries of our nation-state.
The nearby seas and the large expanse of oceans, for pre-colonial inhabitants of the Philippines, was not a large impenetrable wall that isolated each island in the Pacific as was presupposed. They were in fact inroads to distant lands, never feared but mastered. The people then had excellent navigation skills without the aid of a compass, simply by reading the stars, the ocean currents, and weather patterns. They most probably have learned, thousands of years before the West did, that our world was round and not flat.
Look at the archaeological digs that unearthed enormous balangay (balanghai) boats in Butuan that showed the great craftsmanship that went into our forebears’ shipbuilding. Without using iron nails but wooden pegs, called by archaeologists as “treenails,” hard wood planks called locally as “dongoon” (Heritiera littoralis) were fastened together with the use of these wooden nails to construct a water-proof boat. Such technology is still being done today in Sibutu. The Balangay has so influenced our consciousness that we have called our small communities as “barangay.”
*Archaeological schematics of the Butuan Boat, from the National Museum of the Philippines.
This great art of shipbuilding is only fitting for a people who were well-attuned to the sea. When the Spaniards first encountered early Filipino boats, they were awed by them. Spanish Jesuit missionary Francisco Combes recorded in his Historia de las Islas de Mindanao, Iolo, y sus adyacentes, published in 1667 such skill:
“The care and technique with which they build them makes their ships sail like birds, while ours are like lead in comparison.”
*Sketched reconstruction of the karakoa boat by Raoul Castro, as featured in William Henry Scott’s “Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and History” (1994).
That was why this skill was invaluable for the Spaniards especially at the height of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, when Filipinos became forced laborers doing shipbuilding under polo y servicio.
Going back to precolonial shipbuilding, these recently discovered archaeological clues on the life of the precolonial inhabitants of our islands are just the tip of the iceberg. But since what we know of our pre-colonial past rely basically on foreign accounts (Chinese or Spanish), this past remains fragmented. All the more complicated is the peopling of the archipelago which took place earlier. But there are sound theories that were postulated in the academe.
Nevermind H. Otley Beyer’s debunked Wave Migration Theory, that theory that had found its space in our schools’ textbooks–with the Negritos, Indonesians and Malays coming in waves respectively to the archipelago. Analyzing the theory, while well-meaning, have racist underpinnings, with the first wave (Negritos) seen as having less “civilization.” But thanks to the recent scholarship, more alternative theories have come up which are based on the latest archaeological discoveries.
Peter Bellwood posits that around 4,000 years ago, our ancestors, the “proto-Austronesians,” came from mainland China, made their way to present-day Taiwan, and then the Philippines. And from the Philippines, they proceeded southward, eastward and westward, reaching the islands in Oceania, Indonesia, and even as far as Madagascar in Africa. This movement was sustained in long periods of time, not by waves.
*Map of “Mainland Origin of Austronesians” Theory by Peter Bellwood, from French Wikipedia, showing Taiwan and the Philippines as jumping point of the Austronesian migration.
Another theory is by Wilhelm Solheim II. He theorizes that approximately 5,000 years ago, the “Nusantao,” seafarers, through trade, expanded its migration northward from Celebes Sea to Taiwan and to elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
*Map of “The Peopling of the Philippines and Archaeological Sites” from the Historical Atlas of the Republic (2016). The map features both Bellwood’s and Solheim’s theories.
DNA findings, pottery, linguistic similarities, all point to cultural and ancestral commonalities among the Austronesian peoples, of whom Filipinos are included. Is it any wonder that Philippine languages share many similarities with Bahasa and other Austronesian-related languages? Or how about the Sungka, the Philippine mancala game, which share uncanny similarities with Congkak (Malaysia, Indonesia and Malaysia) and Bao (Madagascar)? Several other cultural manifestations also point to this Austronesian heritage.
*Sungka, the Filipino mancala game, uses pebbles/shells and math. Consider also that all mancala games are boat-shaped.
The Kinilaw, a Filipino dish of raw fish served in vinegar, is popular in the islands, and called by different names in different Philippine languages. Vinegar serves “liquid fire” in the dish as it sort of cooks the food without using fire–a great way of cooking food in long oceanic voyages. It has first been described by Antonio Pigafetta, the Magellan’s chronicler, in his Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo” (Report on the First Voyage around the World, 1550), and may have been imported to Mexico and South America via the Galleon Trade, bringing about the South American version of Kinilaw called Ceviche.
But why has this not been tackled in classrooms or probed in mainstream discourses? Perhaps it is because of our own myopic view of history, which at times can be self-loathing and at the same time “racist” of others. Take for example this nationalistic article that trended in 2009. Here is an excerpt:
Last year, a friend left the Philippines and went to the United States. In his German class, the students were international. The professor asked who the Asians were and one by one the Asian students introduced themselves. And so it went, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Singaporeans etc. all raised their hands. Finally the professor calls this Filipino and asks,
Professor: Where are you from?
Professor: Oh, Filipinos are not Asians! They are Pacific Islanders! Because ASIANS ARE SMART…
In the United States, it is already being taught in schools that Filipinos are not Asians—that we are Pacific Islanders. While there is a lot of reaction against it, I am surprised that many intelligent Filipinos abroad have accepted this without question.
Pacific Islands are places like Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Guam, Cook Islands, Mariana Islands—and their common denominator? Most of them do not possess their own national and political identities—they are islands under the jurisdiction and protection of more powerful countries like USA, France and New Zealand. Most of these Pacific Islands are still referred to as “indigenous natives.” They have very, very small populations and they have no global role or power. While they have their own unique culture and characteristics, they do not hail from any great civilization in the past. Hindi sila lumaban at tumayo para sa sarili nilang lahi.
The article where that came from had multiple problems of its own, but it was clearly wrong for the professor, and even the article’s writer, to look down on Pacific island groups with prejudice that they had no “civilization” or that they are “not smart.” Yes, we are Asians. Historical precedents point to that. But what’s wrong with the tag “Pacific Islanders”? This prejudice, to put it simply, is a colonial construct that silences certain historical narratives–narratives that would have made our view of history richer, and more in-depth. An example of such silenced historical narratives is that of the existence of a legitimate Hawaiian kingdom before it was subjugated by the United States. Unfortunately, as is proven by the excerpt, we have accepted such constructs hook, line and sinker.
Perhaps, worth mentioning is the controversial article written by National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin, entitled “Heritage of Smallness” that basically follows the same train of thought, albeit more convincing. It reads:
The depressing fact in Philippine history is what seems to be our native aversion to the large venture, the big risk, the bold extensive enterprise. The pattern may have been set by the migration. We try to equate the odyssey of the migrating barangays with that of the Pilgrim, Father of America, but a glance of the map suffices to show the differences between the two ventures. One was a voyage across an ocean into an unknown world; the other was a going to and from among neighboring islands. One was a blind leap into space; the other seems, in comparison, a mere crossing of rivers. The nature of the one required organization, a sustained effort, special skills, special tools, the building of large ships. The nature of the other is revealed by its vehicle, the barangay, which is a small rowboat, not a seafaring vessel designed for long distances on the avenues of the ocean.
The migrations were thus self-limited, never moved far from their point of origin, and clung to the heart of a small known world; the islands clustered round the Malay Peninsula. The movement into the Philippines, for instance, was from points as next-door geographically as Borneo and Sumatra. Since the Philippines is at heart of this region, the movement was toward center, or, one may say, from near to still nearer, rather than to farther out. Just off the small brief circuit of these migrations was another world: the vast mysterious continent of Australia; but there was significantly no movement towards this terra incognita. It must have seemed too perilous, too unfriendly of climate, too big, too hard. So, Australia was conquered not by the fold next door, but by strangers from across two oceans and the other side of the world. They were more enterprising, they have been rewarded. But history has punished the laggard by setting up over them a White Australia with doors closed to the crowded Malay world.
Notice how Joaquin framed his version of the Filipinos’ perception of the ocean. We are small-minded, he said, never really venturing off the shore and into the deeps. He then compared our pre-colonial sails to those of the Pilgrims who risked crossing the Atlantic to colonize, and according to him, even that comparison fell short. Ever a hispanophile, he seem to imply that “civilization” only began in the archipelago upon Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s colonization of the Philippines in 1565. Joaquin, no doubt, had the best of intentions in writing this article. Because it’s partly true. Our tendency as Filipinos is to cower in fear from risks. But I take exception from his opinion, in that, that weakness is not necessarily a Filipino’s weakness alone. And that, as I have featured here, many historical and archaeological discoveries as of late have debunked that thinking that our forebears were short-sighted people of the “tingi.” And yes, we “crossed oceans into an unknown world.” Paduka Batara, that “eastern king of Sulu,” and his entourage traversed the wider sea from Sulu to China, for trade mission in 1417. We have become “small” and myopic simply because we have been disconnected from that historical stream of our distant past prior to the Spanish advent.
However, despite the fragmented distant past, we have exemplified our origins by having spread around the world, in almost every country. Filipinos can be found everywhere. Even today, Filipinos are acknowledged as great seafarers.
Hence, even in an animation such as Moana, we find bits and pieces of how we were centuries before. Indeed, History empowers because it enlarges our view of things, it dismantles unfounded prejudices, and highlights our unique role in the wider world. Knowing who we are and where we come from makes us risk takers, and makes us appreciate not only our roots that run deep but also distant peoples related to our own.