Looking Back

The smell of Philippine history


Filipinos often complain about their lot. They blame the government for any real or imagined mess they are in, they blame the past for the present, they blame others for a bad situation instead of initiating change for the better from themselves. When I sense someone’s negative vibes, I just move somewhere more agreeable, hoping that someone will remind the complainer that it is better to describe a glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Over dinner I am often asked for the historical basis for present-day ills: graft, corruption, red tape, and cheating in taxes, gaming, elections, or marriage.

If you look closely at our history, you will wonder why, after enduring years of history instruction from the elementary to university levels, nobody seems to have learned anything except for memorized useless facts. History can be more relevant if our textbooks have more primary sources for classroom discussion and personal reflection.

One of the primary sources I have returned to again and again over the years is a two-volume work by J. Mallat, “Les Philippines Histoire,  Geographie, Moeurs, Agriculture, Industrie Et Commerce Des Colonies Espagnoles Dans L’oceanie,” published in Paris in 1846. This work originally came with a third volume—an atlas that contained maps and charming illustrations—that led unscrupulous book dealers to break up the volume and sell the prints separately for collection or interior decoration. The publication of the work can be seen as proof that Manila in the 19th century was an important trading port in Asia, and a gateway to China for European goods and people.

Mallat’s work not only deals with history, geography, customs, agriculture, industry and commerce, as stated in the title; it also describes the different peoples in this far-off Spanish colony. The book comes with tables showing products and tariffs; a vocabulary with useful phrases in French, Spanish, and Tagalog; even descriptions of people and generalizations of what we are and what we used to be.

Reading Mallat made me realize how much we have changed in the past 167 years. For example, he wrote that:

“All Indio children are born with a more or less large blemish below the spine; as they grow the blemish expands and gets discolored, ending up by blending with the general color of the skin, which remains darker.”

I have been observing the exposed backs of babies and toddlers on the beach and I have not noticed this supposedly characteristic blemish below the spine. One wonders where Mallat picked up his observation. What struck me, though, was this description of how Indios use their feet:

“One of the most singular traits shown by these people is their widespread toes, which make it possible for them to easily grasp and pick up very small objects, like for example  cuarto, a coin worth three centimes; they also use their toes for climbing and grasping a rope. When an Indio drops something, he picks it up with his feet without stooping, and he goes down the stays of a ship with his head below, like a cat. His big toe is often quite separated from the others, considerably extending his fulcrum, at the same time relating them in dexterity to the quadrumanes. If to this conformation is added a great suppleness in all articulations of the toes, one could imagine that an Indio could, if one may say so, give one a footshake, like Europeans give a handshake.”

In the anthropological literature on the Philippines in the early 20th century, there is mention of the splayed toes of some Filipinos. There is even a series of photographs showing the differences in Pinoy feet that National Artist Bencab made into now expensive engravings. This was the time when anthropologists would measure skulls and compare the physical characteristics of people from different parts of the Philippines. One or two researchers did not need to travel to the various islands to take measurements and photographs; they just went to the great Bilibid jail in Manila and set up a studio to capture the prisoners’ physical data. One of the strange picture books I found in a Madrid antiquarian bookstore is “Craneos de Filipinas” (Skulls of the Philippines).

Some of Mallat’s observations seemed dated when I reread the book recently. But there is one thing that has not changed:

“Indios have an extraordinarily fine sense of smell; there are servants who recognize, after returning from the wash, the shirts of their master among those of ten or twelve other persons, only by the odor. It is also claimed that if a man finds himself beside a woman of whom he is enamored, she guesses his sentiments from the odor of his perspiration, and vice-versa. As a sign of tenderness, they ask for a shirt which has been worn by the loved person, and when it has lost its odor they change it with another one; for them it has the effect of a lock of hair in Europe.”

I now remember how my old aunts would “kiss” us by “sniffing” us on both sides of the face. I used to find this weird until I realized that they were remembering our distinct scent. I also remembered people who would travel to distant places carrying an unwashed hanky or article of clothing from a loved one to counter homesickness.

What is the smell of Philippine history? What is the smell of the Filipino?

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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