In Malacañan Palace: The Official Illustrated History, the origins of the name of the presidential palace was systematically tackled.
Place names often provide a valuable and sometimes colorful window on the past, preserving how earlier generations perceived a locality as distinct and noteworthy as a point of reference.
Filipino geography is especially rich and evocative with such names as – to take one common form found around Manila – Meycauayan (“there is bamboo,” a town in Bulacan province), Maysantol (“there are santol fruit trees,” a part of the city of Pasig), Maybunga (“there is fruit,” also part of Pasig) and the origin of Manila itself: Maynilad (“there are nilad plants”). There are also places such as Pulanglupa (“red earth,” a part of the city of Las Piñas) and the now defunct Malapad-na-bato (“broad rock,” at Guadalupe in the city of Makati). Further examples abound.
If scholars are to be believed, “Malacañan” – a small area by the Pasig River – is also just such a name, but with a less obvious origin that has prompted different etymological explanations since the 19th century. There are four possibilities, all evoking something different.
Malacañan as a Place of Work
The earliest explanation was given by the Spanish historian Felipe de Govantes in his 1877 Compendio de la Historia de Filipinas, and gives an echo of occupational life. Govantes wrote that “…Malacañan quiere decir en castellano, sitio del pescador” (Malacañan in Spanish means place of the fisherman). This was repeated in the 1895 Historia general de Filipinas by José Montero y Vidal and the Historia de Filipinas by Manuel Artigas y Cuerva in 1916. In 1972, Ileana Maramag in her work on Malacañan history supplied the Tagalog word: mamalakáya, or fisherman. On this view then, the name was originally something like Mamalakáya-han – with the addition of the Tagalog suffix for “place of,” and must have been later simplified and Hispanized as “Malacañan”.
Malacañan as a Site of Worship
In the mid-1930s, the Assistant Director of the National Library, Eulogio Rodriguez wrote an undated letter to William Teahan, who was an advisor (as well as brother-in-law) to the then American Governor General, Frank Murphy. Drawing from unfortunately unknown sources, Rodriguez stated that “Malacañan” had two possible derivations: the Tagalog ma lakán iyán, meaning “a place of many great ones,” or the Spanish mala caña, or “evil bamboo” or “evil cane”.
These two alternative explanations are actually related in their general basis. The thick groves of bamboo that were most likely abundant at Malacañan in earlier times would have been typically regarded by pre-evangelized Filipinos (and by more than a few even to this day) as the dwelling place of powerful spirits, or nuno. Other dwelling places would have been the streams and large Calumpang trees also profuse in the area. The “great ones” referred to were almost certainly these spirits, rather than actual living people, and therefore “Malacañan” by this version truly evokes a central element of early Filipino civilization: the often delicate relationship between people and the environment around them, populated as it was with forces that could undo a man’s labors and fortune. The appeasement of such “great ones” was an important part of Filipino religiosity, and the evangelizing missionaries were much concerned with stamping out these and other “pagan” practices.
While ma lakán iyán, or a similar oft-proposed variant may lakán diyán, meaning “there are great ones there” in its acknowledgement of powerful spirits among the dense bamboo, prompts respect and then perhaps fear, the other possibility that Rodriguez proposed suggests something wholly negative. Mala caña may reasonably have been coined by proselytizing friars as part of their efforts to have parishioners look more to the gospels and the one true faith rather than to such a malacañang lugar or “place of evil bamboo.”
Malacañan as the Home of a ‘Big Man’
The Rocha family cherish a legend that would have the word “Malacañan” as directly attributable to Luis Rocha himself. In a 1972 interview conducted by Ileana Maramag, Antonio Rocha related that his illustrious ancestor would take siesta in the house that he had built and that the Sikh watchman would hush noisy passers-by. Malakí iyán or “he is a big man” he would say, gesturing towards the house at the sleeping tycoon who would not be amused at being prematurely roused. In this way, the house and its immediate area came to be named.
Malacañan as a Reference from the Waterway
A glance at a map is suggestive of a fourth possibility. Malacañan is on the right bank of the Pasig River, and there is a Tagalog word referring to “of the right,” which is malakánan. But so what? The river is somewhat long and meandering, with a correspondingly lengthy right bank. However, the river at Malacañan divides around the Isla de Convalecencia as it does nowhere else along its course. Hence, the need to make a distinction between left and right would seem to be most relevant at this very place. Perhaps then, Malacañan’s origin is as a point of reference in the lively and ancient traffic on the water of the Pasig river.
In the end, there is no conclusive evidence that points one way or another to the true origin of the name of Malacañan. The area was swampy, insalubrious, and hence uninhabited. But it could have been a good fishing spot (if not actually the home of a fishermen) and almost certainly was perceived – precisely because of its marshy, unhealthy, bamboo-teeming riverbank, as an abode of many nuno. The Rocha derivation sounds whimsical, but even treating it as a serious possibility, personality-conscious Filipinos would surely have remembered in their local traditions the formidable caballero who had lived so largely in their midst in the second half of the 18th century. And finally, Malacañan as a landmark for riverine life, while intuitively appealing, is pure speculation. Given everything, the derivation of Malacañan as “Place of the Fisherman,” has the advantage of being put forward at a much earlier and different time – in the 1870s – when economic development had only just started and oral traditions would have perhaps been more intact.