Looking Back

‘BR’: incomplete, biased—indispensable

Filipino historians and librarians are familiar with the names “Blair and Robertson” (BR in academic footnotes), the short forms for the kilometric title most people cannot read through in one breath: “The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. Explorations by Early Navigators, Descriptions of the Islands and their Peoples, their History and Records of the Catholic Missions, as related in contemporaneous Books and Manuscripts, showing the Political, Economic, Commercial and Religious Conditions of those Islands from their earliest relations with European Nations to the close of the Nineteenth Century.

Translated from the originals. Edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, with historical introduction and additional notes by Edward Gaylord Bourne. With Maps, portraits and other illustrations.”


My first encounter with BR was in the 1980s, before the Commission on Higher Education was created and way before it required college-level Philippine history to be taught based on primary sources. I thank my undergraduate history teacher, Helen Tubangui, for exposing me to BR early on.

She required us to go to the library and from the two BR indexes draw a research topic beginning with the first letter of surnames. Before I opened the books, my choices were: Olongapo, Orgy, Orangutan. None of these were in the 20 pages of options that ran from “OAS (vill [age]in Camarines): admin[istered by Fran[ciscans]” to “Ozaraza (Oçaraça), Miguel de O[rder of] P[reachers]: life and martyrdom.”


Ocampo was too obvious a choice, with eight options: a wealthy Manila family that helped ransom Manila from the British; a Filipino mapmaker; two Augustinian friars, Andres de and Antonio de Ocampo; Francisco de Ocampo, Manila citizen; Gonzalo de Ocampo, appointed admiral; and Fernandez and Garcia de Ocampo. My classmates were bored witless by the exercise, but it was love at first sight for me. Since then, I have maintained a long and fruitful relationship with BR.

BR consists of 55 volumes of over 10,000 pages of primary source material on the Philippines, published by the Arthur Clarke Company of Cleveland, Ohio from 1903-1909, in a limited edition of 500 that sold at $400. Clarke expected great demand from the US government, but was disappointed by the sluggish sales of individual volumes. To recoup his losses, Clarke first limited the volumes to 55.

Demand would have expanded the set to 100 volumes. Clarke also contemplated destroying half the print run to drive up the price of scarce sets. Hearing this, Blair is said to have suffered contemplating the waste of time and effort she put into it. After all, her and Robertson’s labor of love was undertaken “to cast light on the great problems which confront the American people in the Philippines and of furnishing authentic and trustworthy material for a thorough and scholarly history of the islands.”

With much of the BR first edition out of print and rare, it was reprinted in Taipei in 1962 under the direction of Domingo Abella, and all 300 sets sold within five years. In 1973, Alfredo and Benjamin Ramos of National Bookstore and Cacho Hermanos reprinted a compact set of 55 volumes into 19, but that edition is also out of print. The Bank of the Philippine Islands produced a CD set in 1998 that is probably unreadable by current computers.

BR is available online from the University of Michigan, but cannot be downloaded as a pdf; instead, it has to be opened page by page. Students are warned, however, that BR is incomplete and the selection of documents biased.

Still, after all the ranting, nothing good enough to replace BR has seen print. Gregorio Zaide attempted “to improve, correct, upgrade and complete BR, which contained several defects” with his 12-volume “Documentary Sources of Philippine History” (National Bookstore, 1990). It ends with the 1987 Philippine Constitution and, curiously, draws a large chunk from the “defective” BR.

BR may be biased and defective in parts, but the secret is not in the material but how you use it. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil mined BR for countless historical columns. O.D. Corpuz drew from it for his magisterial two-volume history. Using BR trains the student to research and validate primary sources that are incomplete, contradictory, biased, or what would be called today fake news. Primary sources teach more than history, they develop critical thinking.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: `blair and robertson’, books, Filipino historians, Filipino librarians, History, Philippine Islands 1493-1898
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