Palawan History

22 February 2019

Earliest inhabitants

Mostly the islands of the Philippines and Indonesia were formed by subduction along the continental plate boundaries, creating chains of volcanoes and parallel formations of uplifted sedimentary rocks. The western Sunda Shelf is separated by the Wallace Line from the Sahul Shelf.

More than 1.5 million years ago populations of Homo Erectus flowed down the Malay Peninsula to Java. A flow would have branched up through Borneo and Palawan.

From 110,000 to 12,000 years ago what is now Palawan was then part of a continuous land mass called Sundaland, stretching from South East Asia through the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. It was separated from the remainder of the Philippines, and from the Sahulland which contained Australia and NewGuinea by Wallacea. (Most authors consider the rest of the Philippines not to be part of Walllacea, although some have done so, e.g. Huxley). By 40,000 years ago Homo sapiens was established in Southeast Asia and Australia.

The oldest inhabitants of Palawan so far discovered lived in the Tabon caves on the south west coast, and some may have lived there 50,000 years ago. The Tabon Cave is one of the biggest in the Lipuun Point Reservation (its name derived from the local tabon bird) with a chamber 41 metres long, dry and in sunlight throughout the day. Within the Tabon Caves was the skull cap of the Tabon Man, approximately 22,000-24,000 years old (and was probably a young female). This is the earliest skull cap of a modern man, Homo sapiens, found in the Philippines. The earliest human remains in the cave are dated at 47,000 years old.

To do Port Barton 1 4

Inside the largest of the caves at Tabon

It is believed that rice cultivation began in the Yangzi and Yellow River basins about 7000 BCE and would have flowed via Taiwan via the Philippines (and Palawan) towards Borneo and the Malay Peninsula, possibly by the late third or early second millennium BCE. The plough would have been in use in the Old World from some time after 5000 BCE.

A rare etched carnelian bead was found in jar burials in the Guri Cave of the Tabon complex, dating from 500-300 BCE, along with the oldest documented gold beads in the Philippines. A bead historian suggests that this technique of etching carnelian beads originated in the Indus Valley about 2500 BCE and the beads were traded to Sumer in Mesopotamia in this period. Gold beads from 100 BCE to 300 CE were also found in the Tadyaw Cave at Tabon.

Pre-colonial commerce

Although Palawan does not have the gold deposits that are found in the islands from Luzon to Mindanao, a gold ornament found there depicts Vishnu’s vehicle garuda, a creature combining human and bird-like attributes such as a large beak, talons and wings.

A number of Chinese Junks have been found of the shores of Palawan described in the National Museum web material:

  •  Breaker Reef, Southwest Palawan (Late 11th-early 12th Century). This find provided the earliest evidence of the role of junks in the industrial centres of south-central China. The wreck contained brown or celadon-glazed stoneware (light green glazed), ceramics with Cizhou-style painted decorations and porcelain with a feldspathic glaze. The ceramics recovered, specifically the porcelain, are the oldest of its kind discovered so far in the South China Sea.
  • Investigator Shoal, Kalayaan, Palawan (13th Century). This vessel’s cargo was primarily greenware (celadon) and qingbai in the forms of cups, bowls, saucers and plates. Also among the pieces recovered was a splendid ewer ornamented with spiral motifs incised with a comb.
  • Off Pandanan Island. South tip of Palawan (15th Century). This is one of the rare shipwreck sites dated around the middle of the 15th century, from a period when the Chinese imperial court totally banned private trading. The wreck yielded 4,256 pieces of pre-colonial artefacts. The majority of the finds were Southeast Asian wares from Vietnam and Thailand. There were also metal, glass and stone artefacts. Scholars believe that the cargo was brought to the Philippines by a Chinese-type merchant vessel to trade in forest products, gold and the famous south sea pearls from an Indianised Kingdom of Champa. A Chinese copper coin belonging to the Yung Le Period (1402-1424) gives the relative dating of this vessel.
  • Lena Shoal. North eastern Palawan (c.1490 during the Ming-Dynasty). There are 5000 items on board including small bronze cannons and elephant tusks. Some of the ceramics are very fine, especially the porcelain decorated in cobalt blue.The destination of the junk ‘Lena’ is a puzzle. After loading with ceramics from the kilns at Jingdezhen, Longquan and Guangdong and other merchandise such as bronze gongs and bracelets, frying-pans and iron ingots, the junk set sail from the port of Zhejiang or Fujian. The vessel took on jars of various types in Southern China and then sailed for a port in Siam where the holds were loaded with more ceramics. Maybe the ‘Lena’ also sailed the coast of the Malay peninsula and Sumatra where the tin ingots and copper utensils were loaded. The presence of Siamese goods suggests that the junk followed the coast route to Malacca where the cargo would then be exported towards the Middle-East. So it is intriguing to find it nearly 3,700 km from a Siamese port or the Malacca Straits.
  • Off San Isidro. Coast of Zambales (Mid-16th Century). Ceramics produced in kilns in the Swatow region of southern China. They show the most advanced methods in use at Jingdezhen and exhibit both spontaneity and simplicity.

European engagement

There is some reference to Palawan by Antonio Pigafetta, (translated R. A Skelton) in his Relation or statement of Magellan’s Voyage, Chapter XXX:

About twenty-five leagues (a league being imprecise, but about 3 nautical miles)from that island (Kagayan de Sulu), between west and north west, we discovered a large island, where grow rice, ginger, swine, goats, poultry, figs half a cubit long and as thick as the arm, which are good, and some others much smaller, which are better than all the others. There are also coconuts, sweet potato, sugar-canes, roots like turnips, and rice cooked under the fire in bamboos or wood, which lasts longer than that cooked in pots. We could well call that land the Land of Promise …. That island is in latitude toward the Arctic Pole nine and a third degrees (so that is about the latitude of modern Quezon, and the Tabon caves) … it is named Pulaoan.

Chapter XXXI

The people of Pulaoan go naked like the others and they all work their fields …. They have very large domestic cocks, which they do not eat for a certain veneration they have for them. Sometimes they make them joust and fight against one another, and each man stakes a wager on his own; then he whose cock is victorious takes the other man’s cock and wager. They have wine distilled from rice, stronger and better than that of the palm.

[The southern tip of Palawan is about 90 nautical miles north-west of Kagayan de Sulu, which is about 7 degrees latitude. The ship left Palawan on 21 June 1521 after sailing up and then down along the coast for about three weeks. Magellan had died on 27 April on Mactan Island, very close to Cebu.]

The Spanish presence is evidenced in Taytay by the Santa Isabel Fort built in 1667 by the Augustinian Recollect Fathers, and was used by the military. A small chapel and cannon are still intact.

Misty Badbury Rings

Santa Isabel Fort in Taytay

The English buccaneer William Dampier’s 1697 map indicates Palawan and labels it with the name Paragoya. It seems that he visited Mindanao and Mindoro, but not to Palawan.

In the south-west of Palawan you’ll see the town of Brooke’s Point, named for Sir James Brooke the white Rajah of Sarawak. He seems to have visited the site, and much later the Americans named it after him as he was still remembered by the local Palaweños.

In his 1905 book A History of the Philippines David P. Barrows observes that:

Besides these peaceful tribes there are in Bontoc, and in the northern parts of the Cordillera, many large tribes, with splendid mountain villages, who are nevertheless in a constant and dreadful state of war. Nearly every town is in feud with its neighbors, and the practice of taking heads leads to frequent murder and combat. A most curious tribe of persistent head hunters are the Ibilao, or Ilongotes, who live in the Caraballo Sur Mountains between Nueva Ecija and Nueva Vizcaya.

On other islands of the Philippines there are similar wild tribes. On the island of Paragua there are the Tagbanúa and other savage folk.

Twentieth Century

During WW2 this island was occupied by the Japanese. Notoriously there were 150 American troops captured on Bataan and Corregidor who on 14 December 1944 were forced into underground bunkers. Only 11 of these prisoners survived the subsequent shooting and burning. (There is a memorial behind the basketball court next to the Church in Puerto Princessa towards the pier.)

There is a record of a Japanese convoy in Pagdanan Bay:

22 April 1944:
At 0615, OGURA MARU No. 1 departs Manila in convoy MI-02 (outward) also consisting of fleet oiler ASHIZURI and tankers TACHIBANA, NITTETSU, HAKUBASAN, SANKO (YAMAKO), TAKETSU (BUTSU), MATSUMOTO MARUs and YAMAMIZU MARU No. 2 escorted by torpedo boat SAGI. At 1040, patrol boat PB-38 joins as an additional escort.

23 April 1944:
At 2000, arrives at Pagdanan Bay, Palawan. 24 April 1944:
At 0720, departs Pagdanan Bay.

… and of a heavy cruiser which may have been there in the same Pagdanan (Bacuit Bay is near El Nido):

5 November 1944:
ASHIGARA arrives in Pagdanan (Bacuit Bay), Palawan Islands to rendevous with DesDiv 31 from Brunei.

On the road out of Puerto Princessa towards Port Barton you may spot Viet Ville, populated by refugees of the war there. The Philippine First Asylum Center was established in 1979 by the  government following an initiative by the Catholic Church, in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and was located in Puerto Princesa City near the airport. It was built with a capacity of 18,000, plus room for local staff and foreign workers. Perhaps half a million refugees passed through here en route to resettlement in the US or other countries, or repatriation to Vietnam, from 1979 until its closure in 1993. Typically 50,000 dwelt here in the 1980s. The remaining Vietnamese asylum seekers were relocated to Santa Lourdes further out of the city. The new location was named Viet Ville,  more like a community rather than a camp. In 2005, the remaining Vietnamese were finally allowed to settle in the US and Canada. Viet Ville is now one of the tourist attractions of Puerto Princessa.

Port Barton

The Pagdanan area to the west of Port Barton was exploited for its plentiful hardwood and ease of access to the sea.

According to the famous travel writer Paul Theroux, it was the British loggers of the 1930s who named many of the harbours, bays and islands. So Port Barton is a corruption of ‘Burton’ from that era.

Double Island

… one very hot night, on the uninhabited Double Island, I found myself lying in my mosquito net tent, the moon bathing the island and tree-tops in a lunar fluorescence. There was no wind. I had achieved the ultimate in fresh-air fiendishness. I was flat on my back. Fulfilled, content, stark naked, alone, happy, I thought, I am a monkey.

Paul Theroux, Fresh-Air Fiend. Hamish Hamilton.


Indigenous people were reportedly living on Capsalay as recently as the 1960s. There is an old well in the Capsalay Reef Camp area that would pre-date that time, and various useful trees that would appear to have been intentionally planted decades ago before the  site was purchased by the Australian prior to the current ownership. (Kapok, mango, jackfruit, etc.) The mangroves around the Capsalay tombolo are now colonising that area, seemingly reestablishing after being cutback maybe in the 1970s. The erosion that was progressing at some pace in 1995 is now reversing, partly due to a sea defence wall, but with the mangrove contributing.

Reference material:

Barrows, David P.  A History of the Philippines. 1905

Bourne, Edward Gaylord  et al. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. Blair and Robertson. 1906.

Capistrano-Baker, Florina H. Philippine Ancestral Gold. Ayala Foundation. 2011.

Dampier, William. A New Voyage. 1697

Giraldez, Arturo. The Age of Trade. Manila galleons and the dawn of the global economy. Rowman and Littlefield. 2015

Goddio, Franck. Sunken Treasure: Lena Cargo. 2000

Mann, Charles C. 1493 How Europe’s discovery of the Americas revolutionised trade, ecology and life on earth. Granta. 2011.

Pigafetta, Antonio (translated R. A Skelton). Relation or statement of Magellan’s Voyage

Preston, Michael and Diana. A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The life of William Dampier. Explorer,  naturalist and buccaneer. Corgi. 2004.

Theroux, Paul. Fresh-Air Fiend. Hamish Hamilton.