For Over 300 Years, the Philippines Was One Day Behind Every Country in Asia
Time, at least as humans perceive it, has not always been constant. Nowadays, if you fly to Singapore, you don’t need to adjust your watch. Both countries fall under the same time zone. But it wasn’t so long ago that the Philippines was actually an entire day behind Singapore, Japan, China, and every other country on the continent.
From 1521 to 1844, if you sailed south from the then-Spanish controlled Philippines to Australia, you’d have to turn your clock hands forward to the next day. Now as we all know, time zones are defined more by longitude instead of latitude, so this no doubt confused many explorers and tradesmen at the time.
We have the Spanish empire to thank for that.
One Day Behind
The reason for the complicated time zones goes back, as most things do, to the colonial era. When Magellan landed in the Philippines and claimed the islands for Spain, the Philippines became one of the major trade routes for the empire, with ships making frequent trips between the Philippines and Mexico, two colonies on opposite sides of the Pacific. Ships that had sailed from Manila or Cebu would land in Acapulco port, and the goods would be transported from one coast of Mexico to another before it was shipped across the Atlantic to Spain.
For the convenience of the Spanish ships sailing between two colonies, it was ruled that the Philippines would share the same day as the Spanish colonies in South America. This led to a curved international dateline, the imaginary line that marks the end of one day and the beginning of the next.
Between 1521 and 1844, the international dateline looked like this:
According to this 1878 terrestrial manual from the Smithsonian Libraries, the international dateline once traversed northwest from the South Pole, snaked around the Philippines, and continued on northeast, crossing the Bering Streit to the North Pole.
Even though the Philippines was an ocean away from Mexico, it shared the same day as its sister colony. Meanwhile, it was an entire day behind the countries and colonies that were only a stone's throw away in Southeast Asia.
Jose de Acosta, a Spanish missionary, once recounted the strange experience of stepping one foot into the future and one foot into the past via the international dateline.
“...They have already met by east and west, making a perfect circle of the universe, the two crowns of Portugal and Castille (Spain), until their discoveries are put together, which is a matter of consideration that by the east they have reached China and Japan, and by the west the others to the Philippines, which are neighboring, and close to China... And it is a wonderful thing that, with such a short distance, they bring a whole day of difference in your account: so that in Macán it is Sunday at the same time as in Manila it is Saturday; And so in the rest, those of Macán and China always have a day ahead, and those of the Philippines takes you behind,” wrote Acosta (in Spanish) in Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590).
In Spanish, he went on to describe the strange occurrence, which he admitted that some explorers initially considered a mistake: “Those who sail from west to east go always gaining day, because the sun is coming out faster; those who sail from the east to west, the other way around, they are always losing days or falling behind, because the sun is rising later.”
Skipping December 31
As the inclusion of the Philippines in South America’s time was tied closely to Spain’s control over its American colonies, it only made sense that the international dateline would adjust to, well, changing times. By the early 1800s, Spain had lost control over its American colonies. So the Philippines turned its attention to the east, where China, Malay Peninsula, Dutch East Indies, and Australia became its new focus for trade.
In order to do just that, governor-general Narciso Claveria issued a proclamation that would shift the Philippines across the international dateline from American time to Asian time. This occurred in 1844, the year that skipped December 31, as Claveria declared that December 30, 1844, would be followed immediately by January 1, 1845.
But it wasn’t until 1884 that the rest of the world caught up with this information. In many maps, like that of the 1878 terrestrial manual from the Smithsonian, the Philippines was still considered on the right side of the international dateline. Eventually, the international dateline was updated in maps, and the Philippines started appearing on the left side.
It eventually looked like this.
Over the years, the international dateline has shifted a handful of times. In 1867, when the U.S.A. purchased Alaska from Russia, the citizens of Alaska jumped one day back in time as the territory shifted from the left side to the right side of the international dateline.
Now the international dateline looks like this.
It’s still not a straight line as it meanders around select territories in the Pacific like Kiribati and the Aleutian Islands, but it’s definitely an improvement from the curveball it was when the Philippines was still under Spain.
Although it would still be cool if we stepped into another time zone after a short flight to Singapore.