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Looking Back

Painfully relevant in the 21st century

If anyone says Pinoys are a lazy, thieving, dishonest and unruly people, that remark will probably go viral, with thin-skinned Pinoys bashing the author of a slur on our national character. We have heard this before, especially from historical documents written by Spanish friars and civil and military officials that nationalist historians from Rizal onward claim to be biased and racist. Rizal took pains to explain in his essay “Indolence of the Filipino” that we are not really lazy; rather, what the biased Spanish observers see as sloth is actually people resting or adapting to the tropical heat.

Gathering a set of primary source readings for my undergraduate Philippine history class, I was struck by a letter and report from Miguel Lopez de Legazpi dated July 1569. He complained of limited manpower to run the colony and advised that while the Philippines could have enough gold, other natural resources and products to pay for itself, it was in the red. A lot was required to make the Philippines profitable, he said.

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Some parts of Legazpi’s report struck me in the gut because his frank description of the character of the natives way back in the 16th century seems painfully relevant to us in the 21st century:

“The inhabitants of these islands are not subjected to any law, king, or lord. Although there are large towns in some regions, the people do not act in concert or obey any ruling body; but each man does whatever he pleases, and takes care only of himself and of his slaves. He who owns most slaves, and the strongest, can obtain anything he pleases. No law binds relative to relative, parents to children, or brother to brother. No person favors another, unless it is for his own interest; on the other hand, if a man in some time of need, shelters a relative or a brother in his house, supports him, and provides him with food for a few days, he will consider that relative as his slave from that time on, and is served by him. They recognize neither lord nor rule; and even their slaves are not under great subjection to their masters and lords, serving them only under certain conditions, and when and how they please. Should the master be not satisfied with his slave, he is at liberty to sell him. When these people give or lend anything to one another, the favor must be repaid double, even if between parents and children, or between brothers. At times they sell their own children, when there is little need or necessity of doing so.”

When I was a student, everything bad in our character was blamed on the colonial experience: on Spain, the United States and Japan. Reading Legazpi made me wonder if we had always been the way we are:

“These people declare war among themselves at the slightest provocation, or with none whatever. All those who have not made a treaty of peace with them, or drawn blood with them, are considered as enemies. Privateering and robbery have a natural attraction for them. Whenever the occasion presents itself, they rob one another, even if they be neighbors or relatives; and when they see and meet one another in the open fields at nightfall, they rob and seize one another. Many times it happens that half of a community is at peace with half of a neighboring community, while the other halves are at war. They assault and seize one another; nor do they have any order or arrangement in anything. All their skill is employed in setting ambuscades and laying snares to seize and capture one another, and they always try to attack with safety and advantage to themselves.”

It is unfortunate that Legazpi (1502-1572) is remembered today only for the capital town of Albay and the “village” and street that bear his name in Makati. He founded Spanish Cebu in 1565 and Spanish Manila in 1571, designating it as the capital of the Philippines. Together with his navigator, the Augustinian friar Andres de Urdaneta, the “tornaviaje” or return route to Mexico was found, making it possible for the Manila galleon to connect Manila and Acapulco, bringing Chinese luxury and
exotic goods to Europe and silver back to China until the trade ended in 1815.

Legazpi’s reports provide a mirror to our past so we can understand why we are the way we are and perhaps liberate ourselves from history and move forward.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Amberth R. Ocampo, Filipino culture, Filipino personality, Inquirer Opinion, Looking Back, Miguel lopez de legazpi, Philippine history
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