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Getting History Straight


By David Haldane

April 8, 2024



Ever since moving into our house overlooking the ocean in Northern Mindanao, I’ve believed the spot was historic.

First, Ferdinand Magellan was said to have passed by in 1521. And it was here in 1944 that the Allies defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Battle of Surigao Strait. There’s even a memorial of that epic battle across from our house which, prior to the pandemic, attracted many visitors. And though usually closed these days, it still hosts a gathering each October commemorating the event.

Another recent gathering, however, has shaken my faith. Billed as a remembrance of Magellan’s nearby passage, it took place not by my house in Surigao City but in the municipality of San Jose on Dinagat Island more than 25 kilometers north. The featured speaker, in fact, was my good friend and noted historian Fernando A. Almeda Jr.

“I was asked to speak about Dinagat’s place in local history,” he began. “I said I’d be happy to speak, but on its place in world history.”

Which doesn’t prove, of course, that the legendary Portuguese explorer didn’t also pass near the spot where my veranda now stands. But it calls into question the historical uniqueness of that storied event.

The real jaw-dropper, though, came when provincial governor Nilo P. Demerey Jr. conducted a tour of Dinagat’s latest architectural triumph. It’s a 525-square-meter replica of the Japanese battleship Yamashiro sunk by Allied torpedoes in that iconic World War II battle. The shocker? The ship went down, Demerey said, in the waters off Dinagat rather than anywhere near the gates of my house.

“The inspiration to be drawn,” the governor explained, “is that the Japanese are a resilient and patriotic people. It is that spirit of nationalism—the willingness to die for their country—that makes them a superpower. If we can instill that in the younger generation [of Filipinos], we will one day be a much greater country.”

In its mission to accomplish that, he said, the new structure will serve as a “people’s hall” wherein citizens can interact with their leaders. Besides housing his office, Demerey said, the ship-shaped building contains a bedroom in which he will sleep.

“Instead of constructing an ordinary building,” the commodore/governor declared, “why not build an edifice for education and history that will bolster our tourism?”

With that in mind, the island is also planning new provincial headquarters in the shape of the USS Louisville, an American ship that probably fired at the Yamashiro. Additionally, it will house a tourism and heritage center, including a museum and souvenir shop, in a life-sized replica of Victoria, the Spanish ship Magellan commanded.

“Siargao Island is famous, so is Boracay, and so is Palawan,” the governor said, mentioning popular tourist destinations in the Philippines. And while Dinagat shares many of the same qualities, he added, there’s no point in competing head-to-head. So, instead, the island will promote itself as a cauldron of history.

“This is community tourism in which everybody can take part,” Demerey pledged. At a total cost of about P450 million, the entire project is expected to be completed by July 2025. “We are one of those provinces not enticed to borrow,” the governor crowed optimistically.

Ok, to be honest, no one ever actually told me that Magellan passed within earshot of my house or that the Yamashiro sank close enough to throw a stone. And yet I always imagined those things to be true, given the proximity of the monument and persistence of its legends. Which is why I’ve often told visitors that, had they sat sipping wine on my veranda in 1521, they’d have witnessed the passage of the Spanish armada. Or, in 1944, seen the frightened faces of doomed Japanese sailors.

Now I may have to revise that spiel. They might have seen those things, I will say, with a powerful pair of binoculars. Let it never be said that I’m not a stickler for history.





David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.


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