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‘Birds of Prey’

“Aves de Rapiña” (Birds of Prey) was an editorial that appeared in the bilingual Spanish-Tagalog newspaper El Renacimiento/Muling Pagsilang on Oct. 30, 1908; it led to a landmark libel case. Hauled to court aside from the author Fidel Reyes were Martin Ocampo, Teodoro M. Kalaw, Lope K. Santos and Faustino Aguilar, the newspaper’s publishers, editors and writers.

Aguilar is a Tagalog writer remembered for his novel “Pinaglahuan” (Fading Point), published in 1907. Santos published “Banaag at Sikat” (Dawn and Sunrise) serially from 1903 to 1906, and its complete book form is considered by critics the first Filipino socialist novel. Santos is also the Father of Philippine Grammar for his “Balarila ng Wikang Pambansa” (1939), which tormented generations of Filipino students. Kalaw, a historian, politician and National Library director, is honored by a Manila street where the Library is currently located. Reyes and Ocampo (no relation) were famous in their day, but forgotten in ours.

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“Birds of Prey” was required reading in freshman English class, though I found it boring without historical context. The essay that I merely took as an example of how not to write an essay came to mind two decades later, while I was researching “American Pioneers in Philippine Archeology” on a Fulbright fellowship, and the name Dean C. Worcester kept popping up in museums I visited in Washington, New York, Chicago and Michigan.

All I knew was that Worcester was interior secretary and a member of the Philippine Commission who felt alluded to by the “Birds of Prey” editorial, and sued El Renacimiento and its staff for libel. Crippled by fines and legal fees, El Renacimiento was forced to close and its assets sold to cover expenses. Convicted and sentenced to prison, Kalaw and Ocampo evaded jail time as the case dragged on for years on appeal until 1914, when Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison pardoned the two. Worcester may have won the case, but Philippine history has chosen to remember him as the villain, and El Renacimiento commemorated as a nationalist paper that fought for press freedom during the American colonial period.

Worcester’s early work in the Philippines was related to birds. He had been to the Spanish Philippines twice: first as part of the Steere Expedition to the Philippines (August 1887-July 1888) that resulted in a published list and classification in 1890; second in 1891-1893, which resulted in Worcester’s own “Preliminary Notes on the Birds and Mammals Collected by the Menage Scientific Expedition to the Philippine Islands” (1894), coauthored with Frank Bourns. In 1898, Worcester published “A list of (526) birds known to inhabit the Philippine and Palawan Islands.” His field research, publications and linguistic skills resulted in his appointments to the Philippine Commission and later as interior secretary.

As a bird man, Worcester did not take kindly to the insinuation that he was like a rapacious eagle that plundered his fellow men. He was offended by the line that said he had: “the characteristics of the vulture, the owl and the vampire.” Worcester was said to have used his anthropological research on the Igorot as a cover to seek out gold deposits in Benguet for his personal gain; the same, too, for untapped and unknown natural resources in Mindoro and Mindanao. As interior secretary, the city laughterhouses were under him, and Worcester was alleged to have made a profit from the illegal sale of diseased cattle meat. He also allegedly profited from the sale to the city of overpriced land and hotel concessions on city-owned filled-in land.

Worcester retired from government with a tainted reputation and went into business. He figured prominently in the University of Michigan Expedition (1922-1925), advising them on the location of potential burial sites drawn from his connections at the Bureau of Mines and Bureau of Lands. He gave the expedition a base in the Visayan Refining Company in Cebu, and with the use of the company boat, facilitated the excavations in 542 archeological sites that collected over 15,000 objects, mostly Oriental ceramics, that now form the core of the University of Michigan Museum in Ann Arbor.

In retrospect, by deploying his unique insider knowledge of the Philippines for personal and/or professional profit, Worcester, the scholar and bird man, was indeed a bird of prey.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Aves de Rapiña, El Renacimiento, Muling Pagsilang
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