Looking Back

Real, ordinary people in history

/ 04:35 AM October 25, 2019

Like many people I enjoy the occasional Netflix binge, such as starting a new series like “Designated Survivor” after dinner and finishing it by the next morning. But what I really spend time on is browsing through online catalogs of libraries and archives abroad in search of books and documents on the Philippines, as well as high-resolution photographs to download. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t just do Rizal or the 19th-century Philippines; sometimes I go into the 17th and 18th centuries, which are a big blank in our textbook history.

Since history is not always about great men and great events like war, pestilence and plague, the available material can be focused on obscure people in complicated situations. For example, there is a file of documents from 1608-1610 regarding Dionisio de Vargas, who was charged with bigamy. Vargas was a Spaniard from Sevilla who settled in the Philippines and married Maria Caterina de Mercado. He traveled to Mexico five years into his marriage, but lost all his money in failed ventures along the way and did not return.


He resurfaced in Guatemala as a goldsmith hiding from his creditors under the name Juan Bautista de Vargas. It seems he abandoned Maria Caterina, because when he received word that she had died, he returned to Mexico, married Beatriz Marín Cortés, and later realized it was fake news—his first wife was alive and well in Manila. To resolve the problem, he made his way to Rome and confessed his unintended bigamy to the Inquisition, which absolved him with a fine, acts of penitence and the exhortation to return to his first wife Maria Caterina de Mercado in Manila.

What happened to poor Beatriz Marin Cortés in Mexico? She filed suit for compensation. We do not know the outcome, but the documents from her failed husband as well as her husband’s mother surely make for engaging reading, even if their stories do not contribute to the narrative of nation.


If you do not want to bother with difficult 17th-century Spanish penmanship, another source for similar cases can be found in the compiled jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of the Philippines going way back to the early 20th century that are online and easier to read since they are transcribed, and many cases are in English.

Not all documents are about Imperial Manila or national events. Sometimes you find something relevant for local history, like a Franciscan account of the Mayon eruption in February 1814. Fr. Francisco Aragoneses, parish priest of Lagsana [Cagsawa] and Budiao in Albay, detailed the destruction that came in the wake of the volcanic eruption that left 1,200 people dead and 20,000 homeless. Mayon had been dormant since October 1800, and did not rumble or give any warning when it erupted on Feb. 1, 1814, destroying the better part of Camarines. Drawn from eyewitness accounts, the friar described how people sought cover from the fire, ash and stones that spewed from Mayon by hiding under tables, behind chairs, under trees and bushes, in an event that he compared to the biblical Last Judgment. This manuscript account was sent from Manila to Madrid, together with a sample of the red ash that covered the land 95 leagues from the volcano.

Of particular interest are many documents regarding disagreements between religious orders. A document written from Manila circa 1669 narrated the opposition of the Augustinians to Jesuits opening a village in Oton, since Panay was their exclusive mission territory. A Jesuit who was sent to Oton because he could speak the language of the natives reported that despite permission granted to the Jesuits by the governor, the Augustinians did not make them welcome and expressed this by burning a church and a house in the Jesuit mission, resulting in the loss of all his possessions, which included a large number of books worth more than P150. He even reported that an Augustinian, disguised as a Chinese, tried to set fire to the Jesuit college in Iloilo!

Still, despite the opposition of the Augustinians and the local bishop, the Jesuits persevered and were supported by the Audiencia in Manila. The new village was named Nuestra Señora de los Montes (Our Lady of the Mountains), with reference to the converts who inhabited the mountains and forests of Oton.

Fictionists and playwrights in search of material can find in these not a dead past, but real people in real-life situations documented as history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Dionisio de Vargas, Imperial Manila, Maria Caterina de Mercado, ordinary people in history, Rizal
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