Looking Back

The unfortunate future of history

Historians are a funny lot. While most complain about the lack of primary sources available for their work, there are a few who actually whine and grumble about being overwhelmed by too much material.

History is based on written records, while prehistory or the prehistoric is left to archeologists and anthropologists who piece their narrative together from a different data set.


Our prehistory was pushed back with the recent excavation in Kalinga of stone tools and rhinoceros bones that had butcher marks—key evidence of the presence of humans in the Philippines some 709,000 years ago. That’s more than I can count with my toes and fingers.

For written records, we have two significant artifacts in the National Museum: baybayin incised on the shoulder of an earthenware jar, allegedly dug up in Calatagan in 1961; and a Kawi script on a copper plate dated to 900 AD, allegedly found in Laguna, the text a mix of Sanskrit, ancient Javanese and old Malay. Both artifacts were not found in a controlled archeological setting, but were acquired for the museum.


Nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo caused a paradigm shift in the 1960s when he declared that “there is no Philippine history before 1872.” For him, Philippine history truly begins with the execution of Gomburza, which set the stage for the Philippine Revolution against Spain, the establishment of the First Republic in Malolos, followed by the continuing struggle for freedom in the Philippine-American War, and World War II.

Agoncillo did acknowledge historical documentation before 1872 that harks back to Antonio Pigafetta’s journal of the Magellan Expedition and details the explorer’s unfortunate end on the shore of Mactan in 1521. But, Agoncillo argued, despite all this, Pigafetta’s account was not our history—not Philippine history—but the history of Spain in the Philippines.

Unlike prehistoric discoveries, historic ones are mostly “recoveries,” meaning the material was there all along but overlooked. Researching in the National Library in 1974, for example, Buenaventura Medina came across “Orosman at Zafira,” a hitherto unknown play by Francisco Baltazar [Balagtas]; 13 years later, in the National Library Rare Book Section, while working on the unpublished “Borrador” [Drafts] of the “Noli Me Tangere,” I realized that the bound manuscript was mislabeled. It turned out to be the drafts for an unpublished, unfinished third novel, now included in the canon as “Makamisa,” the title Rizal gave to the opening chapter.

Then, of course, the historical find that turned the tide in the 1986 presidential snap election were documents in the US National Archives uncovered by historian Alfred McCoy that cast serious doubt on Ferdinand Marcos’ war record.

After over three decades of research, I can certainly say that: first, not all important historical sources were destroyed by the Spaniards when they arrived to conquer and convert the pagan Pinoys of the 16th century; second, not all documents and books in the National Library were destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945, as was previously believed; and, third, a lot of history lies in wait for the patient and lucky historian.

History has come out of dusty closets and forgotten cupboards recently, all lured by auction results. So far, only manuscripts in the legible hand of Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio have breached the million-peso mark, leaving those by Marcelo H. del Pilar, Gregoria de Jesus and Antonio Luna to sell for less. Nobody has gambled yet on Emilio Aguinaldo’s awful scrawl; he remains the hero everyone loves to hate.

On the block next weekend are two collectibles: a letter Rizal wrote in December 1891, thanking Alejandro Mcleod in Manila for the hospitality extended his sisters Lucia and Trinidad, before they took the steamer to join him in Hong Kong; and a letter dated June 14, 1897, introducing a certain JT Manniex to Emilio Aguinaldo, from none other than Rizal’s common-law wife who boldly signed herself “Josephine Rizal.”


These letters may be insignificant footnotes to a historian, but as physical relics in a digital age, they are warnings and vanguards against the unfortunate future of history—a history that will be based not on traditional written records, but on modern social media spiced by post-truth and plain fake news.

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