History is built on written records | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

History is built on written records

While most libraries are repositories of the past, the more innovative ones aim for the future of history. I often tell my students, who marvel at Rizal’s 25 volumes of compiled writings, that if Rizal had a smartphone, Ambeth Ocampo would have no career. Without Rizal’s correspondence, diaries, drawings, novels, essays, poetry, etc., I would have nothing to write about. Without his detailed Madrid diary of 1884, how would I know how much he spent for alcohol, beer, and chestnuts? History is built on written records, and as the late Teodoro Agoncillo would remind me repeatedly: “No document, no history!”

The Filipinas Heritage Library is currently collecting documents of our lives on the past one hundred days, much of it under enhanced quarantine, as a record of how we coped with the pandemic and the fear of an invisible enemy we had never encountered before. What was it like to be restricted indoors for three months and cautiously go out into a world that is not quite the same? What are the stories we will tell our children, and children’s children, about what we just went through?


Living in the 21st century has its rewards, as smartphones and the internet have enabled many people to connect online, generating thousands of photos, video and audio recordings, documents in written or digital form, newspapers (print and online), website links, etc. All these information ordinary to us are primary sources for future histories and historians. Collated and curated, they form part of the “Philippine COVID Archive” that will go into a global pandemic archive known as “A Journal of the Plague Year.”

As I write this, I am making a list of what to contribute to the Philippine COVID Archive, at the same time looking back at how Filipinos dealt with earlier pandemics like the 1918 influenza pandemic, written by historian Francis Gealogo, or the scourge of cholera in 19th-century Philippines, heralded by a comet, whose deaths are described in many letters from home received by Rizal when he was a medical student in Europe.


Much more is to be written about smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, leprosy, malaria, yellow and scarlet fever, etc. that we often dismiss as diseases of the forgotten past, different from current “dreaded diseases” such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and now COVID-19 that should be in your health insurance plan.

How I coped with the past 100 days is only the introduction to the story of the next 100 days, when I teach a new course to freshmen online for the first time. Rizal was in a different time and situation; not quarantined or imprisoned, he was banished to Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte, for almost four years. To a well-traveled 19th-century Filipino who knew Madrid, London, Paris, Heidelberg, and Berlin like the back of his hand, sleepy Dapitan must have felt like the end of the universe. Rizal traveled to Dapitan by steamer, a long trip compared to flying to Dipolog, then further by land, which takes about 30 minutes today.

Rizal’s first letter to his mother from Dapitan, dated July 25, 1892, begins cheerfully: “In these days of lack of communication, travel, and deportation, I’m greatly distressed thinking of you, and for this reason I hasten to write you to tell you that I am well here as if I were on vacation, in this politico-military district. I don’t miss anything except the family and freedom.”

Two days later, he updated the rest of the family, reporting: “I am in good health. The governor in whose house I stay treats me well and is a very complaisant and courteous person. I take a bath in the sea and in a small cascade that is a kilometer and a half from here… This town is sad, truly sad… however sad it may be, I do not miss anything but my books and a pair of good strong shoes; but do not send any of these, because they might get lost on the way.”

Exile would have broken a lesser man, but Rizal was not one to wallow in self-pity and regret. Instead, he spent his time and energy being useful. He improved the town plaza with landscaping, built a water system, practiced social medicine, opened a school, and did many other things, leaving Dapitan much better off than when he first arrived. We can spend our days cursing COVID-19 and the government’s pandemic response, or go on with life in the new normal.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, documenting history, Looking Back, Philippine COVID Archive, written historical records
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