Manila, Havana, and the ‘Observatorios’

During the weekend, while dreading the landfall of hurricanes in Cuba and Puerto Rico and the deadly tremors of tectonic plates in southern Mexico, the vermin of memories bit me.  Observatorio, observatorio — the word dribbled around the circuits of my brain and I wondered why. What was the connection? Observatorio is an enormous bus terminal in Mexico City, the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Poniente a.k.a. Observatorio because it is near an eponymous metro (subway) station. From there you can take a bus to popular tourist destinations like Acapulco and Guadalajara and go as far as San Luis Potosí. We should build terminals like the Observatorio so provincial buses do not have to circulate in Metro Manila and aggravate the traffic problem.

My brother Toto forwarded portions of his exchange of PMs with a fellow Atenean; they must have been extolling the education they had received from the Society of Jesus and the virtues of the scientist missionaries. A Father Sedeño, SJ did invent anti-earthquake architecture, there is a street in our village in his honor, but their crowning glory was the Manila Observatory. His friend saw a picture of it online and sent it to Toto who replied: “My Lolo Alfredo said it [the Observatory] was moved to the Ateneo grounds on Padre Faura where I attended Grades 1 to 3 before moving to Diliman.  I remember seeing the ruins of it, a derelict rusted burnt-out steel globe structure…”

Our grandmother used to fetch us from school every day and while waiting for my brother to come out of a  quonset hut classroom, I would gaze sadly at the gnarled ruins  of the Manila Observatory.  No one told us then of its leading role in the prediction of catastrophic baguios, typhoons, and earthquakes. My grandma said the Japanese needlessly destroyed it.

In this part of the world and in the Caribbean, the Spanish Jesuits and sailors could very well be considered pioneers in the prediction of tropical meteorological and tectonic phenomena.  The various regions of the Philippine archipelago attracted scholars and scientists interested in observing and studying wind currents, tides, cloud formations, magnetic fields, and other such phenomena vital to agriculture, mining, trade and commerce, as well as to naval defense and war.  No wonder the Manila Observatory run by the Jesuits became an unrivaled educational center and a vital source of information, just like its counterpart in Cuba, the Observatorio del Colegio de Belén in Havana,

Historian Aitor Anduaga said that the special relationship between the Jesuit missionary scientists and the Spanish navy developed in the overseas colonies when the scientists discovered how invaluable were the logbooks painstakingly kept by the navy.  Cyclone prevention demanded not only sophisticated equipment but also a constant flow of detailed meteorological observations “…data which could only be found in the naval logbooks.”

In both Cuba and Filipinas, the latest equipment were donated by wealthy landowners, prosperous traders of agricultural products and manufactured goods, shipping magnates and insurance companies, in other words, the economic elite. However, Dr. Anduaga said, the Jesuits did not have any qualms about serving the needs of commerce because they found in cyclone prediction, “…the Catholic dimension of the faith in God’s domain.”

Dr. Anduaga pointed out in his riveting book that although the Jesuits were the missionary scientists who did the research, observation, and dissemination of valuable data, their observatories in Havana and Manila were spurred mainly by commercial imperatives of a burgeoning economic elite. The patron of the Observatorio del Colegio de Belén was the Havana Board of Commerce; likewise, trading and maritime interests in the Philippines prompted the creation of the Manila Observatory.

Today, cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes are detected from birth, their trajectories shown on global television networks, tablets, mobile phones, and other personal gadgets, almost by the minute.  Cuba prepared to face Hurricane Irma by evacuating citizens from critical areas and  distributing basic supplies efficiently.  They even had time to evacuate four dolphins from the city zoo. After the furious passage of  the hurricane, Cuba sent more than a hundred doctors with medical supplies to the devastated Windward islands. In the 19th century, safety at sea and on land was greatly improved because of the studies generated  about tropical cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, and earthquakes in Cuba and the Philippines.

After Hurricane Irma, two more are expected to pummel through the same path and  cause heavy downpours and floods even in our area of responsibility. I shall send my brother Dr. Aitor Anduaga’s book so he can read about the Cyclones and Earthquakes, the Jesuits, Prediction, Trade, and Spanish Dominion in Cuba and the Philippines (1850-1898) during the stormy weekend to come.