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Looking Back
Taft and the ‘friar lands’

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:44:00 01/10/2008

Filed Under: history, Places, Human Interest

Taft Avenue in Manila is always in danger of being renamed by enthusiastic lawmakers in the local or national government who have no sense of the history that goes into a street name. So many of Manila?s landmark streets that have ?been sanctified by usage? have been renamed after people who are better forgotten by history. We are fortunate that the renaming of Espańa Avenue has been withheld because of an almost overlooked deed of donation that stipulates that the land cut by this famous avenue will be and remain public provided it is called Espańa Avenue.

I am often seen as an obstacle to progress, and sometimes I am even described as an ostrich who hides his head in the past to evade the issues of the present. Yet when it comes to street names that have been in use for at least 50 or 100 years, we must show some respect or learn proportion. For example, I met someone who proposed that Santa Monica Street, one of the ancient street names in Ermita, Manila, be changed to the name of some relative who was ?illustrious? to the proponent but obscure to me.

I asked her, ?Can you give me one good reason we should change this street name??

She answered, ?Who is Santa Monica? What did she do to merit a street name? She is only the mother of Saint Augustine.?

So I worked on her pious sentiment and said, ?She may only be the mother of Saint Augustine but she is a saint in her own right. Can you say the same thing of your relative?? End of discussion.

There have been attempts to change the famous Manila street names Taft and Harrison on the grounds that the names of former colonial officials have no place in our nationalist times. But then history is a record of all that has happened to us, both good and bad. These two Americans, Taft and Harrison, compared to many colonial careerists in the archipelago from Spanish times, were good to the Philippines and the Filipinos and their names should remain to remind us of their life and deeds.

The New York Times recently featured an exhibit of vintage photographs of an American mission to Asia in 1905 headed by Taft. I hope that this exhibition will be brought to the Philippines if only for us to see what the country looked like a century ago. Taft and his party did not just stay in Manila, they traveled to Iloilo where they were well-received. In 1905, Taft?s mission was to help figure out an end to the ongoing Russo-Japanese War, and also to show legislators and the world the beneficial effects of America?s civilizing mission in the Philippines.

Based on photographs, William Howard Taft (1857-1930) who headed the Philippine Commission to the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century was a big man, literally and figuratively. This man from Ohio was to become the 27th president and 10th chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. There are two famous photographs of Taft, one astride a carabao and another riding a small horse. It is said that he went up to Baguio on horseback to enjoy its cool climate and had himself photographed. Then he sent the photo to the US secretary of state with a note that he had arrived safely in what was to become the Summer Capital of the Philippines. The secretary of state replied to acknowledge the photograph with the question, ?How is horse?? Taft must have weighed over 200 pounds.

What Filipinos also forget is that Taft negotiated the disposition of the so-called ?friar lands? in the Philippines with Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican in the summer of 1902. To prepare for this task, Taft met with the superiors of the various religious congregations in the Philippines and conducted interviews with Filipinos regarding the expulsion of the Spanish friars, and again the ?friar lands.?

Transcripts of these interviews were published for the information of the US Congress. Taft wanted to know about the relationship of the religious orders with the Filipinos and, of course, the extent of their land holdings. (Lands held for Ecclesiastical or Religious Uses in the Philippines Island etc., 56th Congress 2nd Session. US Senate document 190)

If we are to go by the number of pages, the Dominicans had the longest interview at 16 pages of transcribed text, followed by the Franciscans (12), the Augustinians (10), and the Jesuits (a mere three pages). We must remember that the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Philippines and only returned in 1859 when they reopened a school that is now the Ateneo de Manila University. Perhaps if they had stayed on, they would also have merited more pages because they would also have had accumulated significant landholdings.

What is significant is that the Benedictines are also included in this document even if they only arrived in the Philippines at the tail-end of the Spanish period and had very little to speak of, because they started as missionaries in Surigao and were captured by the revolutionists. The small community regrouped in Manila and set up a small school for boys that is now San Beda College. Benedictines were interviewed by Taft and merited all of one page, with Taft doing most of the talking. He even shifted the subject from land to the liqueur I mentioned in my last column called ?Benedictine,? which he wished the monks of Manila would produce for his enjoyment. Hidden in this Senate document is a footnote to food and Taft?s human side.

* * *

(Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.)

More Inquirer columns

Previous columnsf:
The monastic roots of spirits ? 01/08/08
A-list of dinner guests ? 01/03/08
?A very slender and short man? ? 01/01/08
A feast of pork and fish ? 12/28/07
After the feast ? 12/26/07

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