Looking Back

Early Philippines in the eyes of foreign scholars

Unlike previous Spanish ambassadors to the Philippines, Jorge Moragas Sanchez has family connections that enabled him to visit the country in his youth. No stranger to Manila, he has deepened his relationship by reading, visiting museums and many conversations. In a long chat capped with crispy fried chicken dinner that I remarked his cook had copied from Jollibee, he asked what to expect of the 2021 Quincentennial of the Magellan-Elcano Expedition.

I told him that, as a historian, I hope to see new research that would give the 21st-century Pinoy a more rounded approach to events we learned about in school. Last December, National Historical Commission chair Rene Escalante, in the shadow of Catriona Gray’s winning  Miss Universe costume, announced that the Philippine Quincentennial Committee will commemorate three historical events: the First Circumnavigation of the World, the Introduction of Christianity, and the Victory in Mactan. Commemoration, not celebration, is the keyword, because not all historical events are neutral. History can be read positively or negatively depending on the interpreter, and an interdisciplinary forum is being planned at the Ateneo to bring out other perspectives and views from those endorsed by the Quincentennial Committee.


We need not reinvent the wheel, because in 1992, for the commemoration of the Columbus expedition, Spain did not glorify “the discovery of America” but made it more palatable with the theme “Encuentro de dos Mundos” (Encounter of Two Worlds).

Concluding today, in the National Library of Portugal in Lisbon, is a two-day symposium, “The Philippines—a Global Contact Zone: Transoceanic Connections, 1521-1898.” It is the first of three conferences in three participating countries to commemorate the First Circumnavigation of the World (1519-1522), began by Ferdinand Magellan and completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano after Magellan’s death in Mactan in 1521. The second conference will be held in Sevilla (2020), and the third in Manila or Cebu (2021).


The Lisbon conference opened with a keynote by Armando Marques Guedes, a Portugese anthropologist who did field work in the Philippines, making him the only, or perhaps the most important, Philippine scholar in Portugal. With Magellan as the starting point, Jose Manuel Garcia shared reflections on Magellan in the Philippines and the Moluccas, while Guillaume Gaudin spoke about “Conquest, information and communication at the Spanish Philippines (1560-1580).”

Aside from the race for spices, the other reason for exploration and conquest by Spain and Portugal in the 16th century was the conversion of other peoples to Christianity, an enterprise that was not always easy. Two papers on empire were presented: Kevin Soares’ “Geographies in dispute: The Philippines and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Spanish Empire in Asia (1579-1668),” and one by Clotilde Jacquelard, who focused on the 17th-century Jesuit chronicler of the Philippines, Pedro Chirino, as a means to study Christianity in the Spanish empire.

Then, of course, there was the China trade, discussed in a paper by Maria Joao Ferreira. Early Macao-Manila relations (1621-1634) was covered by Elsa Penalva; colonial cities, their commerce and fortifications in the 16th-18th centuries was discussed by Juan Marchdena and Navibe Gutierrez; and Marjorie Trusted spoke on “Shipwrecked Ivories: The Confluence of East and West.”

Philippine history, being focused on the late 19th century and the emergence of nation, makes the 16th-18th centuries a big blank, and these explorations by scholars I have not met or heard about is more than welcome. One of the topics not well-covered in the Philippines is the role of the Spanish Inquisition, so Miguel Rodrigues Lourenço’s paper is a good start. Other papers are: Antonio García-Abásolo’s paper on mestizos de sangley, Jean Noelle Sanchez’s on Pampanga and its role in local sustenance and the Spanish enterprise in Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Bernard Lavalle’s on the dream of a direct route from the Philippines to Peru in the 17th century.

Researchers working on primary sources on the Philippines abroad will slowly fill in the gaps in our history, and we are lucky to be connected to the internet, which has made the world a much smaller place than the one Magellan knew in 1521.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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