Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Night To Forget

There was no premonition among those who bade their goodbyes that the ship's voyage was going to be it's last. The ocean was calm and no trouble was expected; so no one worried that there were too few lifeboats for all the passengers aboard ship. Few would have guessed that the ship was sailing towards a fatal collision that would mark the greatest peacetime sea disaster in history.

The vessel of course, was not the RMS Titanic, but the MV Dona Paz. The what? The MV Dona Paz. A ship whose loss on December 20, 1987 killed nearly three times as many as the famous Titanic.

One thousand five hundred and seventeen people died on that fateful Night to Remember on April 15, 1912. The events on that glamorous transatlantic greyhound, with its manifest of the rich and famous, have been memoralized in stage, print and film. But while the Dona Paz disaster eclipsed the Titanic by every measure of human tragedy practically no one remembers it . The four thousand three hundred and seventy five poor people who went to their deaths that night in the Tablas Straits, crammed into the rusty and asthmatic 2,215 ton ferry, were forgotten almost immediately.

A few contemporaneous accounts suggest what life was like aboard the Dona Paz that night. But just as the Titanic was a microcosm of Edwardian society, in all its contrasts, the final moments of the Dona Paz were a reflection of what Greg Bankoff called the Culture of Disaster, a mode of thinking in which physical causality is absent; where there is no relationsip between the prior and the subsequent; and where all occurrences arise from the operations of luck or the will of God. A contemporaneous Time Magazine article describes the atmosphere aboard the doomed ferry.

At about 10 o'clock on a moonless night, the grungy 2,215-ton ferry Dona Paz coursed through the choppy waters of the Tablas Strait, some 110 miles south of Manila. The people who crammed the decks on makeshift cots and slept three or four to a bed were scheduled to be in the capital by morning, and the air was filled with anticipation. Young women from the impoverished island of Samar talked excitedly about finding jobs as maids in Manila homes. Mothers and fathers tucked their children into bed and chatted about the relatives and the sights they would soon see.

As death in the form of a small tanker, the MT Vector, loaded with 8,800 barrels of gasoline, rushed at the Dona Paz from the opposite direction its crew was in a similarly fatalistic condition. A subsequent investigation showed that practically nobody was minding the store on either vessel as they collided with terrifying results. The New York Times reported:

The coast guard said today that its initial inquiry indicated that some of the officers of the ferry Dona Paz were watching television or drinking beer when she collided with an oil tanker, killing at least 1,600 people.

Later it was determined that far more than 1,600 died that night. The Dona Paz was packed full of passengers who had been admitted after the manifest had been closed. The crew of the tanker were not much better qualified. "An inquiry later revealed that the crew of the Vector was underqualified and that the boat's license had expired. ... the two survivors from MT Vector claimed that they were sleeping at the time of the incident." It was almost as if the crew on both ships simply pointed their vessels in the general direction of their destinations and left the subsequent management of affairs to Divine Providence. The entire ethos is summed up in the one indispensible Filipino phrase: bahala na, translated as "Let the future be. Fate will take care of it all."

The loss of the Titanic, operating on the Western mind, stimulated the establishment of the International Ice Patrol and mandatory capacities for lifeboats. Except for wartime disasters like the Lusitania and the Wilhelm Gustloff, Western sea travel became permanently safer after the lessons of the Titanic were fully absorbed. But because of the absence of cause and effect in much of Filipino culture, the loss of Dona Paz had no effect upon the subsequent safety of Philippine maritime travel.

The International Herald Tribune has a depressing list of disasters which followed the Dona Paz. Of ships sailing in disregard of typhooon warnings, catching fire for no apparent reason, overturning while packed with children, or just vanishing beneath the waves. One disaster which a friend of mine personally witnessed but which has left no record on the Internet, involved an interisland vessel that sank while already tied up to the pier. The gangplanks were being lowered but the passengers in their eagerness to disembark rushed to one side so quickly their combined weight overwhelmed the freeboard of the vessel and caused the sea to pour into the main deck, sending her to Davy Jones' locker within an arms length of the dock. And the cause of the sinking? That would be bad luck or the Will of God.

Today more than 800 people are missing as a ferry sank after it sailed into teeth of the worst typhoon of the season. The Scotsman reports:

Sulpicio Lines, the owner of the MV Princess of Stars, put the number of people missing to 845 after discovering an extra 100 passengers on the ship's manifest. Only 28 people were last night reported to have survived the disaster and they said many did not make it off the ship in time. ... "Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," a survivor identified only as Jesse told local radio. "There was just one announcement over the megaphone, about 30 minutes before the ship tilted to its side.

Everything about the disaster, from the shambolic nature of the ship's manifest, the negligence of the Coastguard, the indifference to the weather report, the casual way in which the order to abandon ship was given -- one wonders why they bothered at all -- is redolent of the culture of disaster. Although some might be forgiven for imagining that there might be some correlation between seamanship, material condition, Philippine Coast Guard corruption, weather and ship sinkings -- that one might lead to the other -- those thoughts are alien to the Philippine bureaucracy. What will be uppermost in their minds is how the party will go on; how the bribes should continue. Those are the eternal things. And as to the perils of sea, well, bahala na. All memory of the MV Princess of Stars disaster, like that of MV Dona Paz, will leave as little trace upon Philippine shipping practices as a thrown stone leaves upon the face of the waters. Eight hundred people, half the Titanic, gone. Just like that.


A reader recently returned from Iraq emails:

In his book, The Ends of the Earth, Robert Kaplan was traveling through Mexico and made the observation that basic maintenance -- paint, picking up the trash, etc -- is a sign of a belief in the future. I thought about that a lot in Iraq.

Also, I've encountered phrases in two very different contexts now that both have the same flavor: that of divine intervention, or fate, or a negative sort of destiny.

The first is Japanese: "shikata ga nai", sometime abbreviated as "Sho ga nai" means literally, "there's no way of doing it" and actually means "oh, well, what can you do?" Essentially, that's the way the cookie crumbles, though it can refer to things in either the past or the future.

And in Arabic of course, we have "insha'allah". One of my translators would get frustrated with us, noting that when Americans would say this to Arabs, we really meant "we'll see" as a way of brushing them off, or putting off a decision, whereas when they said it to us, they really meant "god willing" or "if god wills it."

It's amazing that two cultures so different should both have expressions that could be used almost interchangeably for this purpose. One of the Staff Sergeants I worked with upon my arrival shocked me when, in conversation with locals, he would twist the phrase and insert his own name: "insha'william". I was worried he would offend. But after several months, I did it a couple of times too, when someone was questioning my own ability to do something.

It's all a way of wringing your hands, isn't it? "insha'allah" or "Sho ga nai." It flies against what I was taught as an infantry officer: no matter what, IMPOSE YOUR F***ING WILL.

I think that's the key difference in cultures of disaster -- for whatever reason there is a lack of a belief in a future, and an abrogation of the responsibility to change.

Philosophers would perhaps claim this to be the key innovation of the West: reason, and its handmaiden science, can improve life such that people inherently believe in progress.

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Blogger Joe said...

culture of disaster sounds a lot like new orleans too, from the acceptance and expectation of the Saints losing every year to the half-hearted evacuation during katrina. It leads to an acceptance of things being half-assed, and reliance on superstition instead of process.

(It's been 15 years since I lived there and I still worry about jinxing things by saying what I want out loud as if saying something can cause an event to happen or not happen.)

6/22/2008 08:30:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

The power of the talisman continues to evoke. People wear talismans with special words. People wear talismans with special phrases they can believe in.

How does one argue against a mantra? How does one argue against a magical phrase uttered by those who think their problems will be solved through its repetition?

What does one do when ideas become suffocated by the dead weight of the chant, when the light of day turns to twilight with its rising howls in the darkness, when the music of civilization is drowned by the call of the wolf pack?

What does one do when a false dawn approaches, as a false sun rises over a wilderness once green?

The power of the talisman continues to evoke. People wear talismans with special words. People wear talismans with special phrases they can believe in.

6/22/2008 09:42:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm reading "The Fate of Africa" by Martin Meredith. It portrays nearly the all of post- colonial Africa as the MV Dona Paz, a run away ship with no one at the helm but tinpots and grifters. And here on the southwest border; it sometimes feels that way too.

6/22/2008 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

I posted this sermon earlier. Its called The Troubled Soul: God's Word and Our Feelings on psalm 42.

"as a deer pants for water so my soul pants for you oh God."

The pastor exhorts the congregation to preach to their own souls as well as pray to God. He also mentions that when your soul is troubled you can't really trust it.

6/22/2008 11:52:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

But because of the absence of cause and effect in much of Filipino culture, the loss of Dona Paz had no effect upon the subsequent safety of Philippine maritime travel.

The loss of the MV Princess of Stars stands as stark testimony to your frank admission, Wretchard.

I know that you have Philippine roots, so please permit me to express my heartfelt condolences over this immense tragedy. I was not aware of the MV Dona Paz disaster, so that is my own personal lesson for the day.

Knowing how closely knit Philippine families are, this new maritime tragedy can only be expected to reverberate throughout the entire country for years, if not a decade or more.

I continue to wonder what sort of progress might have been made had not Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos bled the entire country white during their tenure. The untold BILLIONS stolen could have propelled the Philippines right alongside the other Asian "mini-dragons" as they all were coming uphill.

Instead, a vital influx of foreign investment was stymied by an expanding reputation for corruption and graft that has held the Philippines back much like Mexico has in our own hemisphere.

Much as with the residue of Islamic culture in its lands, the looting mentality of Spanish colonialism has left a legacy of preference and favoritism that continues to thwart any aspirations the Philippine people might have. That Imelda sought and attained public office in the wake of such scandal casts a dim light on Philippine politics.

How tragic it is that one of Asia's best educated, most literate, English speaking and Christian democracies finds itself hamstrung by its own leaders.

However, this is not big news. Here in California—where we have one of the largest ex-pat Philippine populations in the world—there is what is known as the "crab dance". In political contests, people liken these competitions to a barrel of crabs where, if one crab suddenly begins to make it over the top and out of the barrel, all of the other captives grab hold—in the hope of being pulled along out of the cask—and instead drag down the promising candidate back into the barrel.

I had such high hopes for Harvard educated economist, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to turn things around. Instead, she and her corrupt First Husband have only proven to be more of the same. I am still obliged to think that even this current mare’s nest of political sewage was preferable to whatever mayhem that the election of FPJ (Fernando Poe Junior) might have brought about. Do you agree?

In light of your own observation about cause and effect, I'm hoping that you, Wretchard, might comment upon the seemingly intractable issue of how to go about breaking up the Philippine oligarchy that, due to early Catholic Church land grants, has left so much of the country’s arable property in the hands of such a tiny minority.

That there seems to be no way of breaking the stranglehold which these few percent have upon the overall Philippine economy bodes terribly ill for the nation's future. Especially so, as the southern Muslim insurgents continue to erode all appearances of civil and economic stability for a country that is increasingly dependent upon tourism instead of its once promising industrial base.

Gloria Arroyo, as a member of the elite, was probably inordinately constrained—if not outright unwilling—in terms of advocating any substantial redistribution of land among the Philippine’s poorer classes.

Please tell me, are these observations valid? While I had the privilege of spending an evening discussing politics with Manila’s chief of police, Evaristo Carino, that was many years ago and my own observations are—to an extent—subject to that time lag. I try to keep up with what is going on in the Philippines—as in the breakup of the Pentagon gang and the continuing pernicious influence of Jueteng—but I do not have all the inside contacts needed to parse such a Byzantine political situation.

If it is not out of place in this thread, I’d deeply appreciate your insights, Wretchard. If it is, I’ll just go off and light a candle for all of those whose lives were cut so terribly short in the wake of Fengshen. Something I'll probably do no matter what.

Again, please accept my personal condolences regarding this horrible tragedy.

6/23/2008 12:20:00 AM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

I probably don't actually know anybody on the ship that sank. But I have vivid memories of traveling by floating coffin back in the old days. Dumas once said that when you get old enough, all your tears will become sweet memories. But somehow I don't think Dumas ever traveled Philippine Interisland.

In the old days you climbed aboard, the way a hobo might scamper on a boxcar. Then at some point the inspector would come and ask if you had a ticket. If you didn't you handed him a handful of money. And you got your ticket.

The next stop was the camarero or cabin boy, from whom your ticket entitled you to a berth. In practice they were always out of "beddings". But if you shelled out the beddings would miraculously appear.

Then seeing as you were a nautical straphanger they'd lay out an army canvas cot on the deck. Under an awning if you were lucky -- under the stars if you weren't, with the cots packed so tight you couldn't jam a pencil between them.

The principal problem of the interisland traveler was theft. You took everything you owned everywhere you went, including the head. If you had a companion, you'd go by turns. He'd watch while you went. For some reason it was obligatory to buy a souvenir can of "assorted cookies", which were only assorted on top. Underneath the fraudulent layer of assortment was nothing but crackers. Why anyone should buy these crackers, God only knew. But everyone but me it seemed had these.

The passengers were fed by turns, rather like pigs at a trough. The messman rang a bell or a klaxon which occasioned a rush to the dining hall. The food normally consisted of burned rice, some species of bean soup and a fragment of fish or meat indifferently cooked. The food was so bad because it was cooked in drums, stirred by shovels. That often meant the stew or rice ended up in varying states of done-ness, from raw to charred. The savvier travelers could take in at a glance which plates had what you would called cooked food and sit there. As for the rest, it was bahala na.

I remember being at sea during a typhoon. It wasn't particularly fierce, as those things went, but their standard of ferocity was very high. The historically inclined will recall that the Pacific Fleet took more ship losses in the Typhoon of 1944 than were inflicted by the Imperial Japanese Navy. That incident was memorialized in the Caine Mutiny.

Anyway, in that particular typhoon at sea, my berthing space was in a common cabin, into which everyone had been stuffed. The portholes were under a green water nearly the whole time. I remember it well because it was the only voyage in which I ate well. Everyone was totally seasick and when the klaxon sounded, a total of six people showed up at the mess hall, of which I was one. We had about fifty plates to choose from, so you could have seconds, thirds, fourths or fifths. And we could stay for the next feeding session if wanted. Why anyone would want more of that swill escapes me now. But the food seemed appetizing at the time.

About the only thing that sea travel had to recommend it was the romance of the waves itself. There's something about the slow progress of a ship, the thumping of the diesel, about sitting on a coil of rope at the bow or leaning over the stern and watching the wake boil away that is first class, however rotten the rustbucket.

But my memories are most of all about the passengers. Poor matronly ladies trying to maintain a degree of cleanliness in abysmal circumstances. Men playing cards in the gloom or getting drunk along the rail. Everyone reading those wretched illustrated magazines with titles like Lagtim, Tiktik and Liwayway. They were simple people, with such pathetic dreams; and for that reason in my mind, little deserving of death.

“We therefore commit their bodies to the deep, looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”

6/23/2008 01:11:00 AM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...


Gloria Arroyo, as a member of the elite, was probably inordinately constrained—if not outright unwilling—in terms of advocating any substantial redistribution of land among the Philippine’s poorer classes.

I don't think anyone in the Left or the Right in the Philippines is willing to redistribute land or strengthen property rights in general. It's not widely realized by the so-called Land Reform schemes, including those advocated by the Communist Party all stop short of providing actual title. By title I mean being able to take your parcel to the bank and mortgage it.

What the farmers get instead is some kind of restricted certificate which cannot be alienated. The reason for the restriction is that otherwise, the farmer would sell it -- to the Chinese, that eternal bogeyman -- or someone else. The same is true for the uplands. It's widely known, but a vast number of people live on government land. By law the uplands cannot be alienated. That makes most people squatters in perpetuity.

No party, Left or Right will countenance people titling forests. The words "commercial" and "forest" in juxtaposition will give the environmentalists and the politicians apoplexy. The reason for all this, apart from ideology, is that while the government and a few people maintain control over assets vast fortunes can be made. In absence of any capability to turn real assets into financial assets, about the only source of mobile money is overseas worker remittances.

That's how the average poor man gets to buy into a small business. Some passenger vehicle, or some retail store. Those things are purchased by dollar checks sent back by overseas workers. And both Left and Right are eager to find ways to corral that money.

That's why overseas workers are a priority target of Leftist organizers and government monitors. It's all about how to skim off economic rents.

Both the Left and the Right are two wings of the same elitist class. Communist Party leaders and the landed gentry are often cousins. There is nothing peasant or worker about left wing politics in the Philippines.

Gloria Macapagal is another grasping politician who will put one hand on your shoulder and the other in your pocket. A pox on them all.

6/23/2008 02:24:00 AM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

Sadly this is where 'the end of ideology' seems to be leading us. To a place where competing political parties are more like rival Mafia families than anything else. Rivals, but in the same business.

The ideological branding is still there, but it's increasingly just bag full of Kabuki theater props.

6/23/2008 02:57:00 AM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

The Princess of Stars went down at approximately Lat 12.38° and Long 122.502° off Sibuyan Island. (

The hull has beached upside down. USN helicopters are scheduled to begin recovery and possibly rescue operations on Monday.

6/23/2008 03:47:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Insh'allah literally "IF God wills", in practice I found native Arabic speakers use it as brush off as well.

I had a student who was pestering me to review his exam to see if I was able to eek out few points to get him over the fail mark (for the class as well). I knew there was no possibility of that and I kept saying "Sorry Nasser, tough luck, see you in level 1 again next semester" but he kept at me. In exasperation I finally said "I'll see and Inshallah you will pass". He promptly let it go thanked me and left. Quite honestly I did not even bother to fetch his paper from the file.

Inshallah was a way of saying no without having to say "NO". The Lonely Planet guide advises travelers visiting certain regions never to ask "YES/NO" questions as the natives regard NO as impolite and will always answer yes. So instead of "Is that the train to X?" Ask instead "Which is the train to X?" same idea.

6/23/2008 08:01:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

I don't think anyone in the Left or the Right in the Philippines is willing to redistribute land or strengthen property rights in general. It's not widely realized by the so-called Land Reform schemes, including those advocated by the Communist Party all stop short of providing actual title. By title I mean being able to take your parcel to the bank and mortgage it. [emphasis added] Without being able to use the land as collateral land reform is futile.

6/23/2008 08:05:00 AM  
Blogger Zenster said...

Wretchard, thank you very much for both of your valuable insights. As I said: How tragic it is that one of Asia's best educated, most literate, English speaking and Christian democracies finds itself hamstrung by its own leaders.

6/23/2008 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"I'm reading "The Fate of Africa" by Martin Meredith. It portrays nearly the all of post- colonial Africa as the MV Dona Paz, a run away ship with no one at the helm but tinpots and grifters."

I'm from South Africa. Down here the native equivalent sentiment to those referenced in Wretchard's post is "eish" (pronounced: A-sshhh), basically meaning a hopeless "Oh well" or "Oh shit!" depending on context.

Anyone who has lived in Africa for a few years will understand the sentiments throughout this thread. Many people lay the blame for Africa's present-day ills on the legacy of colonialism but this just doesn't gel after so long. There is some kind of internal mentality in the dark continent, the superstitious "life is out of our hands" mentality of apathy and the brutal barbarism of questing personal hedonism and power at all costs.

Couple that with all the former radical marxist groups which rose to prominence and leadership and you've got a great melting pot for low expectations, apathy and no desire for material causation or change.

Welcome to Africa. You're on your own here. It is a dark place.

6/23/2008 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...


Yeah I hear you there. In Arabia it is said the very devoted Muslims almost consider it to be blasphemous to plan, as when planning, one assumes/takes for granted God's will.

Among the less devoted the attitude manifests itself in risk taking or giving one leave to engage in risky behavior.

It all comes down to one's understanding of manageable risk. One can manage the risk of running headlong into another car by not driving in the oncoming lane around blind corners, it is trickier to manage the risk of an earthquakes in earthquake prone zones, or having an aneurysm open up.

6/23/2008 02:22:00 PM  

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