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Death & taxes

/ 10:56 PM February 28, 2013

Everyone in the world recognizes the face on the US hundred-dollar bill as that of Benjamin Franklin. He is said to have invented many things, including the lighting rod that captured electricity from a thundering sky. He also left us with many wonderful one-liners, the most famous being from a letter he wrote to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789 that goes: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Each year when I review my income tax returns, I remember Ben Franklin. I also remember the taxes in Philippine history that led to important events like the Basi Revolt of 1807 (sometimes referred to as the Ambaristo Revolt), which originated from a tax on the Ilocano’s favorite alcoholic drink. Then we have the residence tax certificate or  cedula  that was torn by Andres Bonifacio and his followers when they uttered the “first cry” that began the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896.

If you want to read more about death and taxes in Philippine history, there is a lot of material in the 55-volume “Philippine Islands” compiled by James Alexander Robertson and Emma Helen Blair at the beginning of the 20th century. Open the index under “Revenue and Exchequer” and you will find 12 pages of references to taxes in the Spanish period. What surprises many is that the data may be old and the actors long dead, but the stories seem painfully contemporary, especially the accounts that concern tax officials wasting or stealing government revenue. Is this another case of history repeating itself, or of our inability to accept the fact that some things in Philippine life have not changed in centuries?


Then as now, there was a system of exemption or remission from taxes similar to tax credits or tax breaks today. Our taxes today are paid in Philippine pesos—in bank notes as cash or with checks drawn from a bank account. In the past, people paid their taxes in gold or silver. Taxes were also referred to as “tribute” and could be paid in kind—such as in personal services like building a road or bridge, or in the form of rice, chickens, pearls, or even tame elephants!

Then as now, revenues collected from taxes, licenses and permits were used for the upkeep and expenses of the government. In the Spanish period, funds from taxes were assigned for the maintenance of troops, the building and upkeep of forts, ships, and government offices, and salaries. What was different was that there was no separation of church and state in the Spanish Philippines (something that some simple-minded bishops today think is still in force); thus, part of government revenues went to the building and maintenance of churches, missions, and missionaries. It also funded the grape wine and wheat wafers used for the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass.

Then as now, government monopolies were set up, the most famous in the Spanish period being the tobacco monopoly, which was the subject of a famous monograph by Edilberto C. de Jesus. What have not been studied further are taxes and monopolies on other commodities like silk or cacao. What would be interesting to read about, in the light of the recent debate on “sin taxes” that are now levied on liquor and tobacco, are the taxes on other vices in the Spanish period: opium, wine, cockfighting, playing cards, and buyo.

Then as now, customs duties were enforced, and if we had some appreciation for old street names in Intramuros, we would have retained “Aduana,” the former name of what used to be the widest street in the Walled City, which referred to the Customs House by the sea. But someone changed Aduana to Andres Soriano, who can and should have been honored somewhere else. Even before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, important waterways, like the Pasig River, were controlled by datus such as Soliman, who charged toll fees for their use. When Magellan turned up in Cebu, Humabon asked him to pay tribute, as was customary for all foreign vessels that docked there. Magellan refused, and his pride was his undoing.

Then as now, there was a travel tax. All Filipinos leaving Naia today have to pay a travel tax of P1,620, often included in the plane fare or collected by the Philippine Tourism Authority at the airport for e-tickets. In the Spanish period, a tax was levied on passengers and freight in royal ships. Everything looks all right but if you read the various references, you will discover that these “donations” and/or “contributions” were described in the index to Blair & Robertson as being “nominally voluntary, but most often forced.”

If you want to look into taxes and revenues during the First Republic under Emilio Aguinaldo from 1898 to 1901, you can go over the five-volume compilation of documents by Capt. J.R.M. Taylor, “The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States,” which contains meticulous lists of expenses and accounts. Many of the Spanish-period taxes remained, and there was some debate on whether to keep or discontinue the cedula—and if the decision was to maintain it, to give it another name so that this symbol of Spanish oppression would not be associated with the Filipino government.

As you can see, an engaging story can always be spun from even something as boring as the history of taxes and taxation because the story of a people always has resonance in any time.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, History, Looking Back, opinion, taxes
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