Tomas Cloma, the Modern Magellan of the Philippines, Conquered Kalayaan Islands
ILLUSTRATOR Roland Mae Tanglao
Tomas Cloma is not a name you hear too often these days, but it is one whose importance cannot be understated. He wasn’t a heroic general who died for the glory of the Revolution. He wasn’t a scientist who gave a gift to the world. He wasn’t a world-renowned sports hero. He was something more.
Cloma conquered the Kalayaan Group of Islands and established his own nation.
Humble Beginnings and High Hopes
Cloma was born on September 18, 1904 to Ciriaco Cloma y Arbotante, a Spanish immigrant, and Irenea Arbolente y Bongay, a native of Panglao, Bohol. Like other kids in coastal Panglao, his life was tied to the sea. He looked at it with a mixture of awe and fear. The sea was both caring mother and raging father; nurturing and vindictive, fickle and almost impossible to understand.
But unlike other kids, he looked to the sea and saw something more. Cloma looked beyond Bohol and beyond the shores of Panglao for adventure. He brought this longing with him to his studies in Manila, where he eventually became a lawyer in 1941.
The call of the sea was stronger than the call of the courts, however, so Cloma ventured into inter-island trading, putting up the Commercial Information Service. In 1948, he founded the country’s largest school for seamen, The Philippine Maritime Institute (now PMI Colleges).
Married to the Sea
After the war, Cloma combined his love for the sea with his business acumen, and purchased multiple fishing vessels. He also trained more seamen at the Philippime Maritime Institute for commercial and international shipping.
It was in 1947 when he first discovered a group of islands in the vast expanse of the West Philippine Sea, now known as the Spratly Islands. The islands were, and still are, up for grabs ever since Japan renounced its claims after the war. Cloma decided to continue his fishing expeditions and training sorties toward the West Philippine Sea.
Things escalated in 1956, when Cloma set sail aboard the PMI-IV for another expedition. With him were his brother Filemon and 40 men. Their voyage to a destination some 612 kilometers west of Palawan lasted 39 days, and was not met with any incident.
This was not a mere fishing voyage, however. The islands he found had no strong claimants apart from a few Taiwanese flags. Cloma was there, not just to make his own claim, but to create a permanent, indelible mark on the islands.
Cloma set sail to conquer the islands west of Palawan.
Why do people engage in conquest? The answer is always the same. The Spanish colonized the Philippines because of our proximity to Chinese trade routes. The Americans colonized and continue to exert control on the Philippines to ensure that they have an open market their export surplus. Vladimir Lenin called imperialism “the highest stage of capitalism.”
The same was true of Cloma. He had dreams of opening a cannery business in Freedomland, hopefully making good use of the natural guano deposits on the island. Its position in the West Philippine Sea would also be strategic for his fishing vessels.
Cloma landed on Pag-Asa Island on May 11, 1956 and claimed it as his own. He sent letters to Vice President Carlos P. Garcia to inform him of the success of the expedition. He also sent letters to international papers to proclaim the new micronation of the Free Territory of Freedomland.
International response varied. South Vietnam, China, and Taiwan all expressed concern about the newly founded mini-state, asserting that they had prior claims to it. The Philippine government asserted its stance that the territory was no man’s land, that anybody could economically exploit it, and that it was beneficial for the Philippines to assist Cloma’s aims.
No party seemed to ever seriously consider Freedomland to be a sovereign nation.
From Freedom to Kalayaan
Events since the 1956 landing were filled with tension. Chinese and Taiwanese forces both harassed residents of Freedomland, prompting Cloma to declare a state of emergency in 1959 and set up a government-in-exile in Manila. In 1961, Taiwan established a base on Ramon Island.
Things were relatively quiet in Freedomland after that. Cloma, a lawyer by profession, took the matter to the International Court in 1972, hoping to strengthen his own claim against the Taiwanese and Chinese. It was also around this time that the Marcos dictatorship jailed Cloma for “impersonating a military officer;” his exploits had garnered him the nickname “Admiral.” He was in jail for four months.
1974 saw the final days of the Free Territory of Freedomland. Cloma redefined the micronation as a Principality, before changing it again as the Kingdom of Colonia St. John. He then stepped down on August 1974, giving the reins of succession to Colonia’s first King, John I.
Freedomland (or Colonia) effectively ended in 1978 when Ferdinand Marcos released a decree formally incorporating a large section of the micronation’s claimed territory as part of Palawan. The municipality of Kalayaan was established.
Today, the Kalayaan Group of Islands still stands. It is home to less than 500 people, and its current mayor is Roberto Del Mundo. A few years ago, the Philippines won the arbitration case against China, asserting the rights of the Philippines to the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and invalidating China’s “nine-dash line” claim, although recent efforts by both the Chinese government and the Duterte administration seek to invalidate this victory.
The legacy of Cloma, a patriot who was willing to stand up and assert our claims, lives on. The recent events in the West Philippine Sea harken back to his words: “We have done our part and duty. The rest now lies in your hands to bring about the realization of this beautiful dream of a greater Philippines.”
It seems we still have some ways to go.