Long before it became “The Best Island in the World” and became a major tourist destination, Palawan had a significant role over the years especially during those dark days of colonization from one colonizer to another.
The early history of this province was determined by a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Fox who has found the evidence of life from the remains they unearthed in the Tabon Cave – proving that man has continuously lived in Palawan for more than 50,000 years ago.
They also found the remains of those they called “Tabon Man” in the municipality of Quezon. Although the origin of the cave dwellers was not yet established, anthropologists believe that they came from Borneo.
Until now, excavations and explorations are still done in the Tabon Cave which was dubbed as “the Cradle of Philippine Civilization” to find other yet discovered items and remains that could be useful for further studies.
During Ancient Times
It is believed that the Palaw’ans people and the Tagbanuas people are direct descendants of Palawan’s earliest settlers. They have developed an informal form of government, their own alphabet, and their own trade system with sea-borne merchants.
Ancient tribal artworks that managed to survive over time include reliefs of elephants, sharks, and fish found in the walls of the Tabon Cave. Approximately 50,000 years ago that a period of jar burials have begun – this era lasted until AD 500 and at present, over 1500 burial jar have already been found, along with a mural depicting a burial procession.
Approximately between 220 to 263 AD, a new wave of recent migrants came during a period called the “Three Kingdoms” where “Little dark people” who were living in Anwei province in South China were driven South by Han people. Some settled in Thailand while others scattered farther south to Indonesia, Sumatra, and Borneo.
These people are what most Filipinos call Aetas and Negritos from whom Palawan’s Batak tribe descended.
In AD 982, ancient Chinese traders regularly visited the islands. This was attested by the pottery, china and other artifacts that have been recovered from caves and waters of Palawan.
During the 12th Century, Malay immigrants arrived in Palawan with most of its settlements ruled by a Malay chieftain. These people grew agricultural products such as rice, ginger, coconuts, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and bananas.
They also raised animals such as pigs, goats, and chickens. Fishing, farming, and hunting by the use of bamboo traps and bowguns were their economic activities. They were later on followed by Indonesians from the Majapahit Empire in the 13th Century who have brought Buddhism and Hinduism.
Because of Palawan’s proximity to Borneo, southern portions of the island of Palawan were under the control of the Sultanate of Brunei for more than two centuries, and Islam was introduced.
During the same period, trade relations become of trend and intermarriages among the natives and foreign traders such as the Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and the Hindu have also become common. The mixing of races resulted in a distinct breed of peoples in Palawan that may be characterized by both physical stature and feature.
After the death of Magellan, the remaining members of his fleet landed to Palawan where the bounty of the land saved them from starvation, thus, named it “Land of the Promise” by Magellan’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta.
The northern Calamians Islands were first to come under Spanish authority and were later declared as a separate province from mainland Palawan.
In the early 17th Century, Spanish friars sent out missionaries in Cuyo, Agutaya, Taytay, and Cagayancillo but they ended up meeting resistance from the Moro community who were occupying the place.
Later before the 18th century, Spain began building churches that are enclosed by garrisons for protection against Moro raids in the towns of Cuyo, Taytay, Linapacan, and Balabac. In 1749, the Sultanate of Brunei surrendered southern Palawan to Spain.
In 1818, the entire island of Palawan which was then called Paragua was organized as a single province and named it Calamianes with Taytay being its capital.
However, in 1858, the province was divided into two provinces namely Castilla, covering all the municipalities in the northern part with Taytay as its capital, and Asturias in the southern mainland with Puerto Princesa as its capital.
Later on during the Spanish colonization in the Philippines, Cuyo became the second capital of Palawan from 1873 to 1903.
After the Philippine-American war in 1902, the Americans established a civil rule on the northern part of Palawan, calling it the province of Paragua.
In 1903, pursuant to the Philippine Commission Act No. 1363, the province was reorganized to include its southern portions and renamed it into Palawan, and Puerto Princesa was declared as its capital.
During this era, bringing the people closer to the government was among the priority plans of the Americans along with the building of schools, and the promotion of agriculture.
The Palawan Massacre
In order to prevent the rescue of prisoners of war byt the advancement of their American allies during World War II, on December 14, 1944, units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita have herded the remaining 150 prisoners of war in Puerto Princesa into three covered trenches which were then set on fire using barrels of gasoline.
The prisoners who tried to escape the flames were shot down while others attempted to escape by climbing over a cliff that ran along one side of the trenches but was later on hunted down and killed.
Only 11 of these soldiers escaped from the slaughter and between 133 to 141 people were killed.
The massacre is the basis for the recently published book Last Man Out: Glenn McDole, USMC, Survivor of the Palawan Massacre in World War II by Bob Wilbanks, and the opening scenes of the 2005 Miramax film, The Great Raid. A memorial has been erected on the site and McDole, in his eighties, was able to attend the dedication.
The site, at present, is known as the Plaza Cuartel that is found next to the Cathedral in Puerto Princesa.
During the first phase of the Battle of the Gulf of Leyte, just off the coast of Palawan, two United States Naval Submarines, USS Dace (SS-247) and USS Darter (SS-227) attacked a Japanese cruiser task force that was led by Admiral Takeo Kurita, sinking his flagship (in which he survived) Atago, and her sister ship Maya. Darter laer ran aground that afternoon and was scuttled by USS Nautilus (SS-168).
The island was liberated from the Japanese Imperial Forces by a task force consisting of Filipino and American military personnel between February 28 and April 22, 1945.
All these are far from what we see of Palawan now, a home of beauty and culture with a dark history and a chamber of hair-raising stories of war and colonization. Its history is a tough proof that Palawan is not just about the natural resources, white sandy beaches, long sandbars, blue crystalline waters, rich marine biodiversity and abundant ecology.
It is home to culture, heritage, and history. Something everyone could learn from.
Come and visit this destination that is not only environmentally rich but historically significant as well.