HISTORY OF DAVAO – British ‘footprints’ in Davao

By Antonio V. Figueroa

Aside from the Spaniards, the Portuguese, and the Dutch, the British also left few historical footprints in Davao. These reminders, chronicled in books, took place three decades before the Dutch made periodic trade missions in Davao Gulf.
It was Polynesian historian Andrew Sharp, a New Zealander, who first advanced the idea that during the circumnavigation of the world by Englishman explorer Francis Drake (1540-1596) on board the Golden Hind (originally known as the Pelican) he reached Mindanao on Oct. 21, 1579, in two places, namely: the eastern coast in the vicinity of either Bislig Bay or Lianga Bay, and the Davao Gulf area.
This incident is backed by William Armand Lessa, an American social anthropolo-gist, who assessed the event on the basis of the double-outrigger canoes found in historical documents. Two hundred eighty-two years later, HMS Sphinx captained by Cmdr. Brown made a stopover in Davao and made preparations for an eastward search through the Caroline Islands of the missing crew of the British vessel ‘Norna’.

Pirate Drake
Drake, a former pirate knighted by the Queen of England, called Bislig Bay the “Is-land of Thieves,” in reference to the shortchanging and stealing the Englishmen experienced while bartering for food, water, and other supplies with the natives, while Davao Gulf was called the “foure Ilands” due to the island-like formations and the two peninsulas that are visible from the southernmost point of Davao Gulf.
Norman Joseph William Thrower, in his book ‘Sir Francis Drake and the famous voyage, 1577-1580: Essays Commemorating the Quadricentennial of Drake’s Circumnavigation of the Earth’ (1984), wrote:
“Although [Drake] saw two islands named Samal and Talikud within the upper reaches of the large gulf, he mistook the eastern and western peninsulas bordering this body of water for two more islands… His confusion was instigated by a two-centuries-old belief that a nonexistent St. John’s island [in Surigao del Norte] was located off the northeast coast of Mindanao. One might wonder how two peninsulas could be mistaken for two islands, but the answer is simple: at the southern latitudes of Samal and Talikud, Drake could not see the land uniting the two peninsulas at the head of the gulf.”
The description the natives of Bislig—the Mandaya–were “thieves” is an exaggeration. They could not have carted away the goods for no reason. Given the previous experiences local residents had in the hands of strangers who enslaved, abused, and maltreated them, the theft could have been an act of defiance, or a display of resentment.
On Oct. 22, 1579, Drake’s vessel passed between the islands of Sarangani and Balut en route to the Spice Islands, in Indonesia.

‘Bay of Deer’
Another Englishman who reached Davao region was William Dampier (1651–1715), the first to person to go around the world thrice. On board the privateer ship Cygnet, he reached Sarangany Bay, which he christened ‘Bay of Deer,’ in 1686. This took place during his first circumnavigation of the globe.
H.G. Mowat, in ‘Captain Carteret and the Voyage of Swallow,’ (2011) described Dampier’s Bay of Deer as follows:
“The coast hereabout was uninhabited, a flat open savannah stretching from the shore to the mountains thirty miles in the distance. There deer were there…hundreds of them feeding on the plain at night and sheltering in the woodlands during the heat of the day, as much as meat as the ship could want, requiring only a reasonable marksman and some-able-bodied men to carry the carcasses to the boat.”
The Spaniards who personally witnessed the predominantly English ship crew la-beled the British navigators as pirates, heretics, and cannibals.

‘HMS Sphinx’
Owned by the shipping firm Dent & Co., the wrecking of the British sailing ship, the 460-ton barque ‘Norna’ on an uninhabited atoll in the Caroline Islands, was first reported on April 24, 1862, by the Hong Kong China Mail. She was carrying general cargo for delivery along the China coast between Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports.
Fully loaded with 4,000 tons of coal and cargo from Australia and the coast of Newcastle for delivery to Hong Kong, it sailed north of the equator, adjacent to the Caroline Islands where it was marooned by a strong breeze and, in part, due to the failure of its captain to avoid the coral rimmed Oroluk Lagoon.
Right after the shipwreck, Captain Wilson, along with his family, four Europeans, and two sailors, promptly set sail for Guam where they took a Spanish frigate bound for Manila, and from there traveled to Hong Kong to report the fate of ‘Norna.’
On Aug. 16, 1861, the auxiliary paddle steamer HMS Pioneer was dispatched to search the missing crew but returned back after finding only a glass bottle with a mes-sage at St. Augustine, which the surviving lascars left.
On the Dec. 4, 1861, HMS Sphinx, a steamer under Lieutenant Ralph Brown, sailed from Hong Kong through Lei Yue Mun (Lye Moon Passage), then headed for Manila. Passing through the San Bernardino Strait while searching the east coasts of Samar and Mindanao for survivors, it eventually arrived on Dec. 24, 1861, in Davao where it made preparations for an eastward search through the Caroline Islands.
It was only on March 3, 1862, after nearly a year of searching that the HMS Sphinx was able to link with the missing crew at Truk (Chuuk), the group of islands in Micronesia, where most of the crew were held hostage by the natives, who engaged the foreigners in a fierce and bloody confrontation.

Later chronicles
Under American rule, British ships called port at Davao primarily for trading pur-poses. As of 1931, there were close to a hundred foreign vessels that entered the gulf, sixteen of these were flying the British colors. The other international ships were American (12), Dutch (1), Norwegian (1) and Japanese (65) registry.
During World War II, British participation in naval activities in and around the gulf was limited to submarine refueling and transport of supplies. The war theater in southern Mindanao was participated mostly by the Allied Forces, namely the Dutch and the Americans, who fought tooth and nail the Japanese aggressors.