Friday, September 21, 2018
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Looking Back

‘Lepto’ and rats in PH history

Leptospirosis is a puzzling development for many Filipinos with fond childhood memories of wading or swimming in floodwaters in the past, and living to tell the tale. Leptospirosis in the Philippines is not new; a 1927 study found only one rat in a sampling of 250 that carried leptospira icterohemorrhagiae. After counting the deaths due to the 2018 lepto outbreak, has anyone bothered to study how many infected rats we have as a first step in their eradication?

Rats figure in Philippine history as early as the 16th century, when Magellan crossed the Pacific in 1520 toward the island of Mactan, whose inhabitants killed our first insensitive tourists. Magellan sailed for three months and 20 days over the Pacific without provisions, and the chronicler Pigafetta narrated that: “…we ate only old biscuit turned to powder, all full of worms and stinking of the urine which the rats had made on it, having eaten the good … And of the rats, which were sold for half an ecu a piece, some of us could not get enough.”

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Starvation stared the crew in the face, leading them to soak all available leather in rigging, and shoes and belts for four to five days in seawater to soften them for roasting. Then scurvy broke out; its first symptoms were swollen gums, a prelude to death among the weakened crew. After crossing the Pacific, they came across two islands, uninhabited except for birds and trees. They named the islands the Isles of Misfortune.

In 1547, the Villalobos expedition also suffered from a lack of provisions and hostile natives. When it landed in Sarangani in search of food, the chronicler declared that: “a relation of hardships, disease and death would fill a book.” He then described what they ate, including rats: “In that island we found a little rice and sago, a few hens and hogs and three deer. This was eaten in a few days, together with what remained of the ship food … Finally we ate all the dogs, cats and rats we could find …”

In January 1570, Fray Diego de Herrera sent a letter to Felipe II reporting on a Portuguese blockade of Manila that depleted rations so much that “the poor soldiers were in such distress they took to hunting rats, of which there are great numbers in that land, and which are much larger than those of España.”

Antonio de Morga, meanwhile, in describing native houses in his “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” (1609), noted that natives didn’t stay in the lower part of the house because enormous rats abounded, and they ravaged homes and fields. Domingo Fernandez Navarette in “Tratados Historicos” (1676) described the Philippines circa 1650 as a place where rice crops were ruined, eaten by rats.

Another chronicler relating events in 1739-1762 in Cagayan, under the Dominicans, noted that supplies were sent to a garrison where camote was the only edible thing grown, because “so numerous are the rats that consume everything.” Juan de la Concepcion in the fourth of his 14-volume “Historia general de Philippinas” (1788) wrote that Calamianes was so overrun with rats “that no seed plant can live.”

It’s a pity that textbook history has robbed generations of Filipinos of the wonder and discovery that come from reading primary sources. What do we make, for instance, of this strange occurrence in 1617, in the convent of San Agustin, Intramuros, as related in Juan de Medina’s “History of the Augustinian Order in the Philippines” (1630): “…in the fine infirmary of [San Agustin], which looks toward the sea, a white cat was found which was rearing three rats at its breasts, feeding them as if they were its own kind of offspring, and giving a complete truce to the natural antipathy of such animals. But after it had reared and fattened them well, it ate them, ceasing the unwonted truce in natural opposition. Almost all the people of the community of Manila and its environs came to see such a thing, for scarcely would they credit the truth of it, and all affirmed that it must be the presage of some great fatality.”

Rats nursed by a cat were a wondrous sight, indeed, and was seen to be an omen of the death of the Provincial Jeronimo de Salas and the murder of the rector-provincial Vicente de Sepulveda, strangled to death in his bed by three religious who were later hanged in the atrium of the church in front of the well.

There must be enough rat references in Philippine history to fill a dozen doctoral dissertations.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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