THE first book printed in the United States was The Whole Booke of Psalmes by Stephen Daye, the first printer in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1640. There are only 11 extant copies of this book; only five of which are complete. In Finland, the first printing press started working in the premises of the Royal Academy of Abo (Turku) in 1642.

The first book was a dissertation in Latin by Michael Wexionius, titled De prudentia turn legislatoria turn politica seu civili (About the wisdom that is necessary for legislators and statesmen), a work that is probably as necessary now as then. Canada did not have a printing press until 1752. It was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the oldest printed item was not a book, but copies of the first newspaper, the Halifax Gazette. In Australia, the oldest printed item is a playbill, advertising a performance at the theater in Sydney. It was printed by convict George Hughes, operator of Australia’s first printing press, in October 1796. This apparently meaningless item is of so much importance for Australians that it was added to the Unesco Australian Memory of the World Register in 2011.

The first thing ever printed in New Zealand was a Maori translation of Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians, translated into Maori by the Rev. William Williams, a member of the Church Missionary Society. That happened in February 1835. In every case, the beginnings were somehow as modest as we could expect: religious books, newspapers, dissertations, circumstantial papers.

What about the Philippines? By 1640, when the United States had only one book, the printing presses of Manila had already produced around 60 books: religious books, grammars, dictionaries, accounts of events, public announcements and even a long chronicle. Books were published in Spanish, in Chinese, in Latin, in Bisaya, in Tagalog and in Ilocano.

The first three books were printed around 1593 using woodblocks, which was the technology used by the Chinese. That’s how the first Doctrina Christiana in Chinese, the first Doctrina Christiana in Tagalog and so-called Shih-Lu were printed. It is my suspicion that the Chinese doctrine was the first one to see light, because the quality of the printing is rather rough. The text was written most probably by two Dominican friars, Juan Cobo and Miguel de Benavides, with the help of some newly converted sangleys, and it was aimed to spread the Gospel among the Chinese community. The only copy of this book is at the Vatican Library.

The Tagalog doctrine is more special, given that it was printed in baybayin, in Tagalog and in Spanish, using two languages and two alphabets. This book constitutes alone a foundational text of the history of the Tagalog language. The only copy of this book is held at the Library of the Congress, in Washington. The author of the Tagalog text was probably Franciscan friar Juan de Plasencia, a missionary who founded several towns in the Laguna area.

Both doctrinas were recently republished in facsimile form by the UST Library and, as far as I know, they still have copies.

The third book was authored by Dominican friar Juan Cobo, it was written in a more literary Chinese and it was probably aimed to be delivered to continental China. Dominican friars had hopes that they could establish missions in the Fokkien area by travelling with the Chinese traders who periodically visited Manila. The only copy of this book was discovered 70 years ago in the National Library of Spain by a Taiwanese researcher, and an outstanding tri-lingual edition in Chinese, English and Spanish — out of stock today — was published by the UST Press in 1986. Juan Cobo’s text was aimed to be read by the Chinese literati, the learned and influential high-ranking people of mainland China. He used Western astronomy and science in an attempt to impress them — as the Jesuit Matteo Ricci would do soon after — and reached the conclusion that, following the teachings of Fray Luis de Granada — a religious best seller at that time in Spain — that such a wonderful thing as the planet and the life in it could be only the creation of God, the Catholic God.

I wish I were mistaken, but I get the impression that many Filipinos look at their history, especially everything before the appearance of the Katipuneros, with some kind of contempt. Even if the printing presses were settled at the initiative of foreign missionary orders, the book production was carried out almost always by Filipino printers, Filipino engravers and Filipino artists, and they did so with remarkable talent. Some of the books are completely outstanding. And Filipino books soon reached America and Europe, as Manila was already at the beginning of the 1600s, a major center of global trade.