Two centuries ago, Manila Bay received its first visiting Russian ship

Published January 31, 2021, 10:00 PM

by Roy Mabasa

Exactly 203 years ago this month, Rurik, the first Russian ship to ever visited and repaired in the Philippines, sailed away from Manila Bay to continue her expedition and circumnavigation of the world.

The Rurik was then on a voyage of discovery into the Bering Straits to explore the northeast passage at the expense of the Grand Chancellor of the Russian Empire, Count Romanzof. 

But in December 1817, the badly-damaged Russian brig commanded by Otto von Kotzebue, a Lieutenant in the Russian Imperial Navy, entered the Manila Bay and needed repair.

According to research conducted by former Oxford University scholar Geronimo Suliguin, this was the first opportunity that such a Russian vessel was seen in Manila. 

“It gave the Russian commander the time to experience the city, Cavite and surrounding environs. It also proved that Cavite was an important shipyard, able to service vessels from distant shores,” Suliguin said in an essay sent to the Manila Bulletin. Suliguin is currently a director at the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs. 

When it arrived at the mouth of the Manila Bay, the Russian vessel waited anchored in the waters off Corregidor until midday of December 17th. A 16-oared boat came up carrying two deputies of then Spanish Governor Don Fernando Mariana Fulgeras with his message of welcome. 

Suliguin wrote that when the Spanish colonial administrator was informed of Rurik’s arrival, “the Governor rejoiced to see the Russian flag flying in his harbor” because it was a rare sighting in those days. 

The Russian ship commander together with his deputies went to pay their respect to Fulgeras and to seek his permission to have the Rurik repaired in the shipyard in Cavite.

As a gesture of hospitality, the Governor instructed the port captain to give all possible assistance in the repairs, extended his invitation to Kotzebue to visit the city frequently and even lent his elegant carriage drawn by four horses to return them to the boat.

The Rurik reached Cavite at noon the following day but it took another day before she was warped to the arsenal by two longboats for repair. A certain Captain Tobias, who was in charge of supervising the repairs, quickly ordered the unrigging of the ship and was unloaded to a galleon lying close to it. The galleon also served to quarter the sailors while a house was prepared for Kotzebue.

In Cavite Shipyard

From 20th December 1817, around 100 men were tasked to do quick and extensive work on the Rurik with her sails, tackling, boats, masts, pumps and even water-butts were found to be unserviceable. Her copper-sheathing was also in need of replacement and her bottom gnawed by worms. With permission from the Governor, the Rurik was fitted with a new copper cover. 

Lt. Kotzebue was surprised that on January 14, 1818, or roughly three and a half weeks, Rurik was already rigged and ready to continue her journey. The Russian commander was expecting it would need at least two months to complete the repairs.

On the 26th of January, Kotzebue and his crew made preparations to sail to Manila to procure biscuits and other provisions and was all set to sail after two days. Governor Fulgeras, who visited the ship to bid farewell, was given a 15-gun salute. He called Russia the “deliverer of Europe from Napoleon.”

Impressions of Manila 

On his way to Manila, the Russian military officer took note of the fishermen on the Pasig River, the left bank occupied by a large local village. The Chinese area was encircled with shops and booths, while the ‘Tagalese’ with beautiful gardens. At the time of his arrival, he saw at least eight merchantmen under American and English flags lying at anchor.  

Kotzebue noticed that the walls of Intramuros surrounding the city were well built. However, he found the regular streets of Manila – sandwiched between high stone houses to be “dirty with an oppressive air.”

When the ship repair had started in Cavite, Kotzebue was provided a furnished house for his accommodation located on the bank of the river. Its balcony offered a welcome view and fresh air, with the windows allowing ventilation and its sliders made of mother of pearl panes.

The Russian officer visited the nearby town every day to find amusement and observe the happy disposition of the inhabitants. 
He noted that the illuminated public market was animated after sunset. Hundreds of women sat in long rows on the ground and were busy selling all sorts of vegetables, fruits, and the like. 

“Kotzebue also noted that there was always a big crowd and that the local inhabitants were very musical and kept their guitars. Once supper is over, it was a time of dancing and singing in the open air,” Suliguin wrote in his essay.  

Every time he visits Manila from Cavite, Kotzebue observed the men’s preoccupation with cockfighting. In one of his visits before they prepared the ship’s provisions, he visited the Archbishop of Manila Don Juan Antonio de Zulaybar who exclaimed he had never seen a Russian in his life.

Rurik left the Philippines on 29th January 1818. She was not only the first Russian ship to visit the country but she also brought with her the first Russians to ever experience Christmas in the former Spanish colony.