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Looking Back
Philippine-French relations

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:26:00 11/19/2008

Filed Under: history, Foreign affairs & international relations

June 26 is just one of 365 days in a year, a drop in an ocean of dates that constitute Philippine history. It is probably significant to people who were born, married, had children, or have relatives who passed away on this date. For the rest of us, June 26 means nothing without some research that reveals some relevant footnotes: On June 26, 1875 a royal decree was issued authorizing the planning of a railroad in Luzon; on June 26, 1910 Artemio Ricarte, revolutionary general, was released from Bilibid Prison in Manila; on June 26, 1950 the world felt the outbreak of the Korean War; on June 26, 1947, with the stroke of two pens, formal diplomatic relations were established between the Republic of the Philippines and the Republic of France. It is this last date that is being commemorated by a recent book I helped put together, titled ?60 Years and Bon Vivant: Philippine-French Relations? (ArtPost Asia, 2008).

The book grew out of the ?Symposium on Philippine-French Relations? held at the Ateneo de Manila University on June 26, 2007 to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and France. The symposium covered four themes: France in Philippine history, France in Philippine culture, France in Philippine education, and Filipino families of French ancestry.

History tells us that the relations between the Philippines and France go beyond 60 years. A French consulate was established in Manila in the late 19th century, when the Philippines was still a colony of Spain. The short-lived First Philippine Republic had a diplomatic representative in Paris in 1898 when the United States and Spain were negotiating the terms for peace in what has come down in history as the Treaty of Paris. The Filipino representative worked in vain to gain recognition for the Philippines as a free and independent nation, thus the US acquired the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.

We can take the short view that pegs Philippine-French relations to 60 years, or take the long view and trace our relations to the Frenchmen who formed part of the Magellan expedition that came to our shores in 1521. A historian can cast a net narrow or wide, depending on the available documentation and, more importantly, his or her viewpoint.

French Ambassador Gerard Chesnel wondered aloud what happened to the Frenchmen who were part of Magellan?s crew because they were not included in the list of stragglers who made it back to Spain after the Battle of Mactan. He suggested that these French sailors remained in the Philippines and sired Franco-Philippine children, which would truly be the beginning of Philippine-French relations, not the opening of embassies 60 years ago.

While it would be fascinating to trace the descendants of these Filipino-French people in Cebu or Mactan, we can presume that those missing Frenchmen were either killed during the battle or were wounded and taken prisoner. The viceroy of Mexico wrote the king of Mactan, offering payment for Magellan?s corpse and survivors of the battle. The curt reply was that Magellan?s corpse was a war trophy and would not be returned. The prisoners of war were not available, having been nursed back to health and eventually sold off to the Chinese as slaves to generate income.

French travel accounts of the Philippines in the 18th and 19th centuries help Filipino historians recreate the past. These publications are illustrated with charming photographs and engravings that provide a visual link to the Spanish Philippines. More importantly, there are a handful of French eyewitness accounts of the Philippine-American War that provide a different view from the Filipino or American sources (it is always essential to see the same story from another angle). These French accounts are critical of the way Spain administered the colony and sympathetic to Emilio Aguinaldo and the Filipino struggle for freedom.

We do not have to look far for traces of France in Philippine history. Our national anthem has a part that echoes the French national anthem. The red, white and blue that, according to our June 12, 1898 declaration of independence, commemorate the colors of the US flag can be traced all the way back to the French tri-color. As a matter of fact, in the great Malolos banquet of September 1898 to celebrate the ratification of the declaration of independence in Kawit, the elaborate printed menu had a French feast. What better way to remember the battle cry of the French Revolution: Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!

Going back to the intellectual roots of the Philippine Revolution, we see France once again. When Spanish police raided the bodega where Andres Bonifacio worked, they found books that the Supremo of the Katipunan read. Two of the significant titles were: ?Lives of the Presidents of the United States? and, of course, ?The French Revolution.? An obscure bit of information that has yet to be verified is that one of Andres Bonifacio?s brothers worked abroad as a seaman and settled in France.

What would have been boring symposium proceedings was transformed by Tina Colayco and ArtPost Asia into a handsome book that I am quite proud of. My next project will be Philippine-Spanish relations.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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