"A coming of age, a coming to terms"
In what may well turn out to be a continuation of what modern-day historians call the “reframing of historical events,” President Rodrigo Duterte urged Filipinos to learn from history and to “prevent any tribe from compromising the country’s sovereignty.” He said this in a speech last March 18, launching the quincentennial marker in Guiuan, Eastern Samar and clicking the ceremonial switch for the full electrification of Homonhon Island in the same municipality.
Properly reframing the annual activities every March 16 long held by every administration in recent memory, the Chief Executive referred to this year’s commemorative ceremonies of that encounter between the Europeans led by the Portuguese explorer Fernando Magalhanes (Ferdinand Magellan) and the residents as the “arrival of the Europeans”, not a “discovery of the islands” even as he honored Magellan’s historic landing on March 16, 1521 in what is now known as Homonhon Island.
Reiterating the need to undertake such a review to better appreciate things unclouded by the “fog of years of miseducation,” as well-known historian and pundit Renato Constantino used to say, the President noted that “history should make us reflect on the past and look beyond our future,” referring to the years of colonization which began with that fateful encounter 500 years ago.
Said Duterte: “While the events that we celebrate would lead to the beginning of colonization, the Filipino people can find relief in the knowledge that we’ve gone far in our efforts to correct the mistakes of the past.” He called on our people “to appreciate our rich history and learn from the experience of those that came before us, so that we may never again allow any other tribe to compromise our sovereignty.”
But even as he emphasized this duty, the Chief Executive nonetheless acknowledged that the “..Spanish colonization of the Philippines for over 300 years contributed something good.” Mindful of the presence of the Spanish ambassador and other dignitaries, he proceeded to “thank everybody including the ancestors of the Spaniards who came here” expressing hope that the annual commemorative activities goes further in fortifying our relations with Spain.
Actually, reiterating the need for such fortification may even be considered superfluous. The arrival of the Magellan expedition led to the most enduring legacy of 300 years of Spanish colonization, the introduction of the Catholic faith and the conversion of most of our people into the fold, making the Philippines the biggest Catholic country in Asia and the third biggest in the world after Brazil and Mexico. Which is why days before the commemorative event, on March 14, no less than Pope Francis, together with our very own Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle and a host of Rome-based Filipino priests, celebrated mass at the St. Peter’s Basilica, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.
Indeed, it will be most appropriate if we as a people mark this year’s quincentennial celebrations as a kind of coming of age, a coming to terms with the impact of our 500 years of interactions (relations) with Spain and, by implication, the Western world. It is also a way of appreciating our very own development as a sovereign country, a united nation rising from the tribal differences of the past. It is how to undertake this retelling, in this case the reframing, of the narratives of the past which will continually challenge not just the historians but all of us if we are to responsibly learn our lessons in order to chart the future which we deserve as a people.
As shown by President Duterte’s remarks, the challenge of such a reframing will be quite a workout. After all, 500 years is 500 years and ensuring that our very own narrative marking that day, March 16, 1521, will engender its own counter narrative. Nonetheless, it is time we face up to this challenge and draw up, as best we can, our own construct of such an event and the years after as a sovereign nation. Warts and all we must, as we should, do such a reframing with full regard for the facts and the ebbs and tides of storytelling. As much as possible, that effort should hew closely to the facts, avoiding in the process the urge, as some story tellers are wont to do, the easy norms of “victors over the vanquished.”
One such useful construct was provided two years ago by a rising historian and diplomat, Raisa Mabayo, who is serving as Third Secretary and Vice Consul at the Philippine Embassy in Madrid, overseeing Cultural Diplomacy. In her article dated March 24, 2019, entitled “Considering History and Narratives as Spain and the Philippines Approach 500the Anniversary” which was first published in the Spanish magazine Diplomacia, Mabayo provides what I consider a balanced reframing of that debate “what are we to celebrate” which has always been embedded in any kind of account of our relations with Spain.
We note, for example, that up to now in many history books there has been an unacceptable degree of references to “discovery of the islands” not “arrival of the Europeans” or “naming the islands Las Islas Filipinas in honor of then Spanish King Philip II who commissioned the Magellan expedition” instead of mentioning that there were already settlements, tribal though these maybe, ruled by datus who were themselves “kings in their own right.” In an effort to provide a more enlightened view of that “debate,” I have decided to provide an abridged version of Mabayo’s article as a platform, a starting point, for a retelling, a kind of reframing of our relations, as President Duterte did last March 18. Here goes:
“To the Philippines, that first contact meant an introduction to the Western world, the impetus in the eventual formation of its territorial identity—often a common consequence of empire building—and the beginning of its journey toward nation-building.
“To Spain, whose monarch commissioned the voyage that set sail in 1519, this means a celebration of its role in the technological development of nautical science and the will of its leaders to reach previously unknown lands and recreate world geography. It marked the beginning of one of the most powerful empires in history, defined by its maritime force and Catholicism, and one that was to last four centuries.
“To the rest of the world, this was arguably a key milestone in the history of globalization; thereafter, the exchange of cultures, ideas, and technology was spurred to unprecedented heights.
“Not surprisingly, an eventual disconnect in the narrative surrounding Spanish arrival in the Philippines developed as each country went on to construct their own national identities. In the practice of national myth making, historical events are perused, selected for exclusion or inclusion by storytellers, in this case the states, and then told and retold—proselytized, really—to their respective peoples.