Young Sonsorolese wearing traditional attire posed with a foreigner during the Olchotel Belau Fair 2018. (Photo by Rhealyn C. Pojas)
The story of Palauans’ first contact with the Europeans is often begun with the re-telling of English Captain Henry Wilson’s accidental discovery of Palau in 1783 when the boat named Antelope that was under his command was shipwrecked on a reef near Ulong, a rock island situated between Koror and Peleliu.
But contrary to popular belief, there is actually a prologue to the story that was almost buried into oblivion if not for some efforts to shed light to it.
As early as the late 17th Century, Palauans were already in contact with a European when natives of the island of Sonsorol, one of Palau’s islands, were blown off course to Samar, Philippines in one of their supposed domestic travels.
While stranded in the Philippines, which by that time was under the Spanish colony, the group of Palauans had been in contact with a Czech Jesuit Priest by the name of Paul Klein, who was called Pablo Clain in Spanish, who happened to be in Samar.
While in Guiuan, Samar, Paul Klein learned about the incident and had the chance to meet the stranded Palauans. In his attempts to start a conversation with the people from Sonsorol, he learned about the islands of Palau. Through the aid of the Sonsorolese who demonstrated to him how Palau looked like by using pebbles, Paul Klein draw what was believed to be the first map of Palau, thereby placing the country on the globe. With this discovery, Paul Klein wrote a letter to his superior in Rome, Italy narrating the incident.
The story of Palauans landing on the shores of the Philippines, however, was not considered unusual and isolated as it was found later that many islanders navigating the seas often found themselves being swept away to the Philippine region.
The letter, according to Czech Ambassador to Palau Jaroslav Olša Jr. during an interview with Island Times, referred to Palau as the “the unknown Philippine Islands named Palaos.” The knowledge of the unknown islands sparked interests among the Jesuits which led to several attempts to find Palau that finally succeeded in 1710, 12 years after the letter was written by Paul Klein.
The mark of Palau-Czech relationship
According to Ambassador Olša, although Paul Klein had never set foot in Palau’s lands, the incidence marked the beginning of Palau and Czech’s relationships.
Delving further into the history of Palau’s relationship with the Czech Republic, Ambassador Olša also shared about the story of a famous Czech writer and traveler named Miloslav Stingl who had an extensive travel in the Pacific, including the Micronesian region, during the 1960s and 1970s. In one of his travels, Stingl was able to visit Palau – the account of which had been exclusively documented and had occupied approximately a hundred pages of his published book entitled, “Across Unknown Micronesia” which was written in the Czech language. The book, which was produced in 60,000 copies, was just one of the four books he had written that specifically discussed Micronesia. It shall be noted, however, that Stingl had written a total of 30 books.
In 2015, Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. had issued a letter of recognition to Czech author and traveler Stingl, citing his “dedication and selfless commitment in compiling his travelogues and history of different countries and cultures of the Pacific Islands with a wide coverage of our islands of Palau.”
The book, although originally published in Czech language, had been translated into German, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Lithuanian and Latvian hence earning a wide readership. It was Ambassador Olša himself who handed the letter to the well-known Czech author.
Czech and Palau today
When Palau gained its Independence in 1994, letters of invitation for its Independence celebration were sent out to various state leaders of the world. The Czech Republic was among them.
Olša recalled seeing a fax, which contained the invitation, coincidentally landing at his office and that moment served as a lightbulb moment for him upon the realization that by then the Czech Republic did not have diplomatic relations with any of the Pacific nations. This then led to the work of establishing diplomatic ties with the Pacific nations in the course of the following decade.
The first Czech Ambassador to the Philippines, at the urging of Olša, went to Palau in 1999 and signed the official diplomatic relation with the country.
Since then until the present, four Czech Ambassadors to Palau had already been accredited, the current one being Olša.
Czech Republic has been a partner of Palau in the field of dentistry, demining projects in Peleliu, supporting United Nations initiatives, among others.
Czech’s latest collaboration with Palau is the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two nations’ respective national museums which paves for works for further development of Palau’s Natural History.
The Malaspina Expedition in the 18th Century, named after Italian explorer Alessandro Malaspina, that was dedicated for maritime scientific exploration had been able to collect species of various plants from Micronesia that are now in the Czech National Museum. It ended in the Museum as the man who was in-charge of the collection was a Czech, Olša shared.
“The oldest botanical samples in Micronesia are in Czech that is why we have a collaboration now with the University of Guam,” Olša added.
Little by little, as Palau progresses as an independent nation, untold stories about its past is also starting to unravel little by little.