Recovering Our Past-3


Continued from Part 2 published in Filipinos in Hamilton




George Santayana – a 20th century Spanish philosopher and essayist and whose mother Josefina Borrás was the daughter of a Spanish official in the Philippines, once remarked that “history is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”


The nagging problem with Philippine history today is that it still doesn’t have as yet an extensive, comprehensive and complete account written for the purpose of ennobling its people. It has always been written from either the point of view of its colonial conquerors – Spain and the USA, who presented themselves as ‘benevolent masters’, or from the point of view of more radical Left-leaning elements who put blame for all ills suffered on foreign imperialism as a means to advocate their brand of revolution.


Even with that said, Spain’s own historians and enlightened luminaries found it difficult to find a legal and moral basis to establish colonial rule in the Philip pines. The Catholic Church and the King of Spain ruled that it was not right for Spain to conquer a cultured and historically rich people and subjugate them. Absent any further debate, that’s what they did anyway.


When the Spaniards came to the Philippines in the 16th century, the ancestors of the Filipinos had long by then already established lucrative two-way trading relationships with China, India, Japan, Siam, Cambodia, Borneo and the Moluc cas. Manila was one of the major centers of commerce in the East. The goods of that trade also found their way further to the Middle East and the Mediter ranean.


Hearing of the riches of the Kingdom of Maynila after Magellan’s demise on the island of Mactan, the Spaniards returned in 1565 to establish the port settlement of Fuerza de San Pedro in the island of Cebu. The establishment of this fort alongside the port became the first Spanish trading outpost and stronghold for the region.




Soon after, on orders of the King Philip II, 2,100 heavily armed men arrived from Mexico along with a small contingent of friars. Soon after, the ranks of these friars swelled when the five religious orders of the Spanish Catholic Church were assigned to Christianize the inhabitants of the Philippines. These were the Augus tinians, who came with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (1565); the Franciscans (1578), the Jesuits (1581), the Dominican friars (1587); and, the latter Augustinian Re collects (1606).


Of all the structures and mechanisms of governance the Spanish kings had established in the Philippines to keep this prized possession in the Far East firmly in hand, the Catholic Church was the most effective and extensive.


Through the prism of their Christian eyes, the Spanish friars of the different orders who descended upon the colony over the period concluded that the lifestyle of the ‘natives’ was too foreign and disagreed with theirs wholeheartedly. They saw the ‘influence of the devil’ and made it their mission to liberate them from their ‘evil ways’. In reality, it was a pretext to establish their temporal rule over their flocks in the islands of the archipelago.


These five religious orders eventually became secular and temporal powers to contend with. Together, they became the largest land owners in the islands. They enriched themselves through the free hands of labour that came with tenanted land ‘donated’ by pious followers.


Judged even by Spanish standards the ‘men of the cloth’ operating in the islands by the 18th century were all referred sub rosa as ‘wolves in monk’s clothes’. The high officials and clergy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines were consi dered reactionary and bigoted much to the discredit of the faith and the line of kings ruling in Spain, some of whom had good intentions.




Centuries before the Spaniards came; the Filipinos already had their own cultural traditions, folklore, mythologies and epics. There were substantial writings such that in his Relacion de Las Islas Filipinas published in 1604 AD, the Jesuit historian Fr. Pedro Chirino noted: “All of the islanders are much given to reading and writing. And there is hardly a man, much less a woman who did not read and write.”


In their zealous rage against paganism, the Spanish friars instituted a programme focused on erasing the ‘idolatrous’ tendencies of their new-found flocks. They confiscated and nearly destroyed all items they could find – records, as well as all forms of writing and art works, which pointed to any historical links that expressed what they considered the older ‘heathen’ culture’.


Wherever they found them, the keepers of the spoken historical records and our rich oral traditions were decimated down to a handful by the Spanish friar. For tunately, those who survived managed to pass down some of the epic stories and poetry of notable quality and length such as the Kalinga Ullalim; the Sulod Hinilawod; the Maranao Darangan; and, the Bicol Ibalon.


The fascinating and multi-faceted literature of pre-Hispanic Filipinos are still here (they were mostly all handed down orally) giving the new generation an overview of a precious heritage that is an unusual and invaluable source of joy and information about the life style, love and aspirations of early Filipinos. It is from these enigmatic epics where Filipinos today can find his or her cultural identity.


Watch The Video

The story of the discovery of Hinilawod by renowned Philippine anthropologist F. Landa Jocano is a mini-epic encompassing a period of years. It is the Philippines’ longest known epic which has been translated from its original oral form into written language. Then a college student, Jocano discovered the epic in 1955 while travelling along hinterlands of his home province of Iloilo, collecting folk songs, stories, and riddles. He heard portions of the story sung by Ulang Udig, a former ‘babaylan’ or native priest. The portions Udig relayed to Jocano and his colleague was five hours on voice record. But it was incomplete. Over the next two summers, Jocano returned to complete the recording of the entire epic. He was introduced to Hugan-an, a mountain singer and a leader in his community known to intercede between the spirits and the human world. It took Jocano three weeks to complete the recording of the 30-hour epic poem. This 28,340-verse epic, when chanted, took about three days to perform if interrupted only for sleep and meals, but took three weeks to record when done only during evening hours after supper. It is one of the longest epics known in the world, even longer than The Iliad, which only has 15,700 verses.




Even then, in a bid to eradicate the culture the Spanish friars managed to con vince a Spanish Governor General to issue a decree – in guise of promoting a more efficient system of governing the general population. It involved replacing the surnames of all native inhabitants of Las Islas Filipinas.


The original way Filipinos named themselves in pre-Hispanic times was patro nymic, descriptive and concise. This meant that every personal name was taken from the name of a father, a grandfather, or a male ancestor. To that was added a description of their physical appearance, prowess, occupation, ethnicity, habits or events. On 21 November 1849, the then Governor General Narciso Clavería issued a decree ordering the mandatory systematic distribution of family names for all natives to use. The Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos (Catalog of Alpha betical Names) was distributed and only approved Spanish-based names were to be assigned to families in all cities, towns and settlements across the archipelago.


Religious fanaticism provided the justification to ‘save the souls of those noble savages’ but it also strengthened the stranglehold these ‘men of the cloth’ had over the dispersed population who lived in villages where in most cases were the only European resident. This was the darkest side of their legacy.




The Spanish were not alone in finding ways around moral dilemmas. At the close of the 19th century, the American colonial overlords who succeeded the Span iards in the Philippines faced the same problem. They too struggled to justify to their own people the occupation of the Philippines.


In establishing their own country 122-years earlier, their Declaration of Indepen dence made it evidently clear that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Hap piness.”


It was a major statement on human rights, particularly its second sentence which by itself, contained the most potent and consequential words in American history. That passage came to represent the highest moral standard to which the United States strived for. But somewhere along the line, that intrinsic principle was lost mostly in translation the moment America’s Pacific Fleet landed their forces on the shores of the Philippines in May 1898.


Crafty men otherwise do crafty things particularly when hidden agendas are involved. To justify their actions in the Philippines, their governing elite con veniently resurrected and embellished a loosely-held belief called ‘Manifest Destiny’. At the time it had always been regarded as a general notion rather than a specific policy particularly applied when the United States was still expanding across the North American continent.


While it fell into disuse after the mid-19th century, advocates of ‘Manifest Des tiny’ at the close of that century believed that expansion was not only wise but that it was readily apparent (manifest) and inexorable (destiny). After all, they argued, most advanced European nations were already enjoying their “empires” in the sun at a time when America was just beginning to fashion itself as a power on the world stage.


They needed an acceptable argument, so they found it. Henceforth, it would be come America’s solemn responsibility to spread their way of life by exporting their version of democracy to the rest of the ‘unenlightened’ world. It was the convenient escape clause used to assuage the conscience of the many.


| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |


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Filed under Arts and Culture, Filipinos in New Zealand, Filipinos in Wellington, Historical Events, Special Feature

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