When an ageing Victorian culvert collapsed on land owned by the Duke of Northumberland in May 2012, the effects were immediate and serious: landslips and flooding which resulted in the residents of nearby blocks of flats being evacuated and some of the properties demolished.
But nobody could have predicted that the decay of an underground drainage system in a housing estate in the west of Newcastle would result in the unearthing of a crucial piece of evidence in a bitter land dispute between the Philippines and China.
The story, involving a hard-up English aristocrat, a wealthy Filipino businessman and a 281-year-old map, has yet to reach a conclusion but already reads like the script of a Hollywood film. Alnwick Castle, which is owned by the Duke of Northumberland and where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed, could even act as a ready-made backdrop to the drama.
After the culvert collapsed three years ago, the Duke was left facing a repair bill of up to £12 million to fix the damage. To finance the project, he agreed to sell around 80 family heirlooms at an auction in Sotheby’s in London.
Lot #183 was a map drawn up in Manila in 1734 by Pedro Murillo Velarde, a Jesuit priest, which the auction house’s catalogue described as “the first scientific map of the Philippines”.
Specialists at Sotheby’s set a price of between £20,000 and £30,000 for the 44 by 47-inch document, but it eventually sold for £170,500.
The buyer was Filipino businessman Mel Velarde, the president of an IT firm, who lodged the winning bid over the phone from a steakhouse where he was celebrating his 78-year-old mother’s birthday. Although he was initially interested in the map because he shared a name with the cartographer, he said winning the auction became a “personal crusade” when he realised that it may prove his country’s claim to the Scarborough Shoals.
The Shoals, a group of rocks and reefs 120 miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, are labelled as “Panacot” on the map, which also shows them as forming part of Philippines territory. The ownership of the rocky islands has long been disputed, with both China and the Philippines laying claim.
Asked why he was so keen to secure the map, Mr Velarde said: “In a true-to-life movie, there’s a part for everybody. There’s a bully in the neighbourhood. He already took over our land. Then, this map is owned by a Duke in a Harry Potter castle. It’s like you wanting to play your part in the movie.”
The businessman has now given a copy of the map to the Philippine government, where it will be put to use by officials during legal debate at the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. A final judgement on the row is not expected until March next year.
The Philippine government are hopeful that the map may tip the balance in their favour. “China’s claim is about historical title. This old map would certainly present the side of the Philippines when it comes to any historical basis,” said Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for the country’s president Benigno Aquino III.
The Philippines accused China of seizing the Shoal in 2012, when ships of the two nations were involved in a stand-off. When the smaller Philippine force had to withdraw, the Chinese occupied the islands.
In 2013, the Philippines requested international arbitration in the case, and last year submitted a 4,000-page dossier to support its claim of sovereignty. China has so far ignored requests to take part in the legal process.
The “Murillo Map”, as it is now known, also contains a series of 12 engravings, depicting the various different ethnic groups which lived on the islands at the time. A Filipino supreme court judge has described it as the “mother of all Philippine maps”, as it also appears to cast doubt on the so-called “nine-dash-line”, which marks out China’s claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea.
A spokeswoman for the Duke of Northumberland told The Independent that he did not want to comment on the affair. “He’s a very private person and it all happened after the map was sold anyway,” she added.
The “Murillo Map”, as it is now known, was drawn up by the Jesuit priest and cartographer Pedro Murillo Velarde in 1734 and published in Manila. According to some historical accounts, it was removed from the Philippines in 1762 by invading British troops.
The map eventually ended up in the possession of the 12th Duke of Northumberland, Ralph Percy, who sold it off alongside around 80 other heirlooms to pay for the damage caused when a Victorian culvert collapsed on his land, causing flooding and landslips.
As might be expected the sizeable wall map, which measures 112cm by 120cm, it is not in the best condition. Notes accompanying the lot when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in November 2014 warned potential buyers: “linen splitting, one panel detached, light browning”.
However, the auction house also described it as “a landmark in the depiction of the islands” and “the first scientific map of the Philippines”. Two side panels contain 12 engravings, portraying a series of native costumed figures, a map of Guam and three city and harbour maps, including Manila.
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