Training Seafarers: Science Education in the Escuela Náutica de Manila

The chapter titled “The Physics Class” in José Rizal’s El filibusterismo provides an unflattering portrait of science education in the Spanish Philippines. It portrays a stifling university education, symbolized by “the mysterious laboratory” where closed cabinets held “enigmatic apparatuses” that the students were not allowed to touch. Nevertheless, Rizal offered a warning against any hasty generalization, saying that at “the Ateneo of the Jesuits . . . the science is taught at the laboratory itself.”

In their article titled “Escuela Náutica de Manila: Scientific Education in the Philippines,” Philip V. Ay-ad and Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. correct the negative impression that “The Physics Class” conveyed. By examining select aspects of the Escuela Náutica de Manila’s history, they redress the “marginalization of nautical science in Philippine historiography.” They refute the dominant impression portrayed by “The Physics Class,” claiming that science education was “substantial” during the Spanish era.

The occlusion of the said nautical school in Philippine historiography can be related to the relatively low prestige of seafaring, which is paradoxical considering that the Philippines is the biggest source of ratings among the world’s seafarers. The Escuela Náutica is the first scientific and educational institution established in the nineteenth-century Philippines and survives today as the state-run Philippine Merchant Marine Academy based in San Narciso, Zambales.

The rise of transoceanic navigation in the sixteenth century meant that knowledge of nautical science became indispensable for navigators. During the implementation of the Spanish Bourbon reforms in the eighteenth century, a royal decree mandated all of Spain’s coastal merchant guilds in all open ports across the empire to establish nautical schools.

The idea of opening a nautical school was propelled by the deputy governor, Francisco Muñoz y San Clemente, who recognized the colonies’ reliance on shipping and the importance of pilots for transoceanic and domestic shipping. In 1793 he proposed the establishment of a school of pilotage, which was granted royal approval. However, the nautical school would not open by the time Muñoz left the Philippines in 1803 due to the lack of funds of the consulado (merchant guild) owing to its huge infrastructure investment in cleaning the sand bar of Pasig River in 1793. Moreover, a royal order in 1804 prohibited the consulado from drawing funds from the Caja de Avería, which was a tax fund to cover galleon damages.

However, by the end of the galleon trade in 1815 and the emerging growth of Philippine export trade, there was a huge demand for pilots, who were mostly foreigners. Under these circumstances in 1819 did the king allow the consulado to draw funds from the Caja de Avería and establish a nautical school in Manila. Thus, the Escuela Náutica de Manila, the first nautical school in the country, was opened on 5 April 1820 within the consulado’s premises on Calle Cabildo in Intramuros. The consulado would assume financial responsibility for the newly established institution, but the school also received assistance from the colonial government, which allowed it to offer free education.

For the school’s curriculum following the Bourbon reforms of 1787, an empire-wide policy subjected all nautical schools to adhere to a two-year program set in 1790 by the commander-in-chief of the Cuerpo de Pilotos, Francisco Javier Winthuysen, and was implemented until 1850. The subjects for the first year were Mathematics and Drawing; second-year subjects were Cosmography, Navigation, Maneuver, and Drawing. Muñoz adhered to the two-year policy but in 1799 added another subject, Geography and Astronomy, as knowledge of celestial bodies and astronomy was deemed important for a successful application of nautical astronomy. The Escuela Náutica’s curriculum conformed to Muñoz’s preferences, including the dropping of Maneuver as a subject.

Recognizing the deficiencies of primary education in the colonies, Muñoz wanted to add Arithmetic to the curriculum. The consulado initially rejected Muñoz’s proposal based on the assumption that students studied the subject at home. The Escuela Náutica’s first professor and director, José María Tirado, much like Muñoz, recognized the deficiency in basic arithmetic education. The need to add more arithmetic lessons would cause the Escuela Náutica to eventually accept the inclusion of Arithmetic, consequently leading to a three-year curriculum when the school opened in 1820.

The 1820 curriculum of the Escuela Náutica included six subjects in a three-year curriculum. The subjects of the first year were Arithmetic and Geometry. The second- and third-year subjects included Cosmography, Navigation, Drawing, and Chart Construction. There were curricular changes in 1839 up to the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines. The school’s first curricular change involved devoting the entire first year of study to Arithmetic, suggesting a continuing deficiency in basic education among students who entered the nautical school. Education would take three years, with basic education taken up in the first two years and navigation subjects in the final year.

The Escuela Náutica did not comply fully with the 1850 academic reform package issued by Madrid; instead, it revised the curriculum based on its context. The school expanded the curriculum from a three-year program specified by the edict into a four-year course study, with Arithmetic still emphasized in the first year, and the rest of the subjects taken up in the succeeding three years. By the last decade of Spanish rule, the Escuela Náutica deemed the students having greater competence in arithmetic than before, so much so that the school no longer found it necessary to dedicate a year to the study of this subject and revised the curriculum in the 1890s to include Algebra and Geography as part of first year of study.

An event of note in the school’s history is the enforcement of a commercial law code which resulted in a change of the management of the nautical school. The Spanish government issued the Código de Comercio in 1829 for Spain and its colonies. The order stipulated that the Tribunal de Comercio would supplant the consulados, and in 1834 the Real Tribunal de Comercio replaced the consulado. Henceforth, the Tribunal de Comercio was in charge of the Escuela Náutica. The change in administration came at a time of the full opening of Manila to world commerce in 1835 and the heightened need for competent agents, which prompted the Tribunal to establish the Escuela de Comercio at the same compound as the Escuela Náutica. The Escuela de Comercio taught commercial accounting as its central subject, but also recognized the importance of foreign language in its curriculum. The Escuela Náutica encouraged its students to study foreign language at the Escuela de Comercio beginning in the 1850s, developing an informal merger of the two schools.

It should be noted that the Escuela Náutica’s student body did not include many natives. At its inception, it only accepted children of Spaniards, Spanish mestizos, and other Europeans living in the colony. The ethnic requirement for admission caused a controversy because some contemporary institutions were already admitting native students such as the Colegio de Niños Huérfanos de San Juan de Letrán, which accepted natives as early as 1640. It took until 1860 for the Escuela Náutica to lift its ethnic requirements. There is evidence, however, that the school admitted native students prior to 1860, such as the case of Pascual Ledesma y Villasis. Ledesma, who became one of the most notable alumni of the Escuela Náutica, gained his piloting license at 20 years of age and successfully worked as a captain for fifteen years before retiring and participating in overtly political activities. The number of natives enrolled during the period of Spanish colonial rule is unknown, but what is known is that the school’s student body was primarily creole-dominated.

The Escuela Náutica saw low enrolment rates since its inception; the school’s director explained that it was due to the waning allure of the nautical profession. Some students used the school as a stepping stone to other more lucrative careers, dropping out after receiving the education they needed for other fields.

The 1863 earthquake and its aftermath provide a glimpse of the quality of scientific education at the Escuela Náutica, mainly in its institutional reports of items saved or in need of replacement. Of note was the professor of Topography and Surveying requesting the replacement of several instruments for his class, as these instruments were deemed “necessary for the proper teaching and learning of this course.” The need to catalogue serviceable and destroyed equipment showed the importance of hands-on learning, contrasting with the closed off and inaccessible cabinet of science tools described in “The Physics Class.”

The Escuela Náutica received multiple favorable assessments of its curriculum, both from within the colonial establishment and outside observers. For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, Robert MacMicking praised the Escuela Náutica for its academic training, saying: “it is a most useful institution where arithmetic, geometry, and navigation are taught gratuitously at an expense to Government of nearly 2,400 dollars a year.” At the same time, however, he observed the lack of practical application in its subjects, which he gauged from the competence of the school’s graduates. It should be noted that his view was influenced by the British tradition’s more hands-on instructions. Thus, it can be said that the Escuela Náutica was superior to its British and American counterparts in terms of theoretical knowledge, but not in practical application.

Although arriving at an objective conclusion about the impact of Escuela Náutica on Philippine society is impossible, we could still appreciate the place it had in Spanish colonial education. The school developed basic education in several fields of science related to navigation, teaching students in a manner unlike in “The Physics Class” portrayed by Rizal. Foreign observers praised the school, which offered a good foundation in science and, eventually, foreign language through its partnership with the Escuela de Comercio, which allowed students to use the knowledge gained from both schools to pursue careers outside seafaring. And although the school was primarily creole-dominated, Ledesma’s example showed that anyone, even a native, who wanted to pursue a career in seafaring would be well served by the school.

Read the full article of Philip V. Ay-ad and Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, volume 69, number 1, 2021.

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