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Five centuries hence

/ 05:07 AM March 26, 2021

To our knowledge, Enrique de Malacca did not keep a diary, or if he did, it did not survive; the same can be said of Lapulapu, Humabon, Sikatuna, and the long-lived Rajah Matanda.

The first native voice we hear during the colonial encounter is that of Tomas Pinpin, the ladino of Abucay, Bataan, in 1610. This is not to say that the indios then were not literate—both secular and religious sources suggest that baybayin was widespread; only that none of the writings survive, save from a few notarial documents, translations of religious texts, and we have yet to find more examples of the notable circa-900 CE Laguna Copperplate Inscription.

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This is the challenge of the historical record: The fact that it’s been largely one-sided. Our ancestors cannot speak for themselves, and we must trust Antonio Pigafetta in his description of the Battle of Mactan; we must likewise rely on Morga, Chirino, Loarca, and other chroniclers for their descriptions of early Filipinos.

Yet this one-sided history can still be insightful, and historians can learn so much from what William Henry Scott calls “cracks in the parchment.” Indeed, thanks to poring over chronicles, vocabularios, and correlating with folklore studies, population genetics, and the archeological record, 1521 is no longer the event horizon of our history, and we can confidently look past Magellan’s fleet and extend our gaze to the balangays of Butuan; the sultans of Sulu and Maguindanao; the traders of Tondo.

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Even so, and regardless of what we may feel about Nick Joaquin’s famous claim that “Before 1521 we could have been anything and everything not Filipino; after 1565 we can be nothing but Filipino,” we can look at the 16th century as a baseline of sorts as to what has changed, and equally productively, what has remained constant—despite, and because of, the colonial encounter.

The transformations are easier to enumerate because they are manifold and more apparent to anyone, from our very surnames to the very name of our country: Filipinas, after King Felipe II. From a diverse archipelago of different cultures, the colonial encounter forced us to assume, or acknowledge, a hegemonic colonial identity which even today is a cause of conflict and exclusion.

In terms of geopolitics, things seem to have come full circle: More than 600 years after a sultan of Sulu, Paduka Pahala, sailed to China to pay tribute to the Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, we now have a President who is just as eager to kowtow to China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping. On the other hand Spain, once at the helm of the first oceanic empire, is now a crisis-stricken, middling economy in Europe. Royals are still around—our historical range is bookended by two Elizabethan ages—but today they are considered celebrity, not divinity.

But the changes go beyond the social, economic, and political. Our very land has changed over the past five centuries. As the environmental historian Greg Bankoff has pointed out, over 12 million hectares of forest—over twice of what we have left now—were lost from 1565 to 1946; a destruction that only accelerated over the past century, accompanied by the extinction and endangerment of numerous species. Rivers, too, have perished in the name of development, alongside mangroves and marine ecosystems.

Five hundred years is long enough to make a mark even in our very geology: Taal was not a freshwater lake until after a major eruption in 1754, and as we were reminded with its latest eruption last year, volcanoes continue to shape our landscape, from Mt. Pinatubo in Pampanga to Mt. Parker in South Cotabato. With the climate crisis upon us, more changes can happen to our geography—even though I fear that we are more likely to lose islands to China than to the rising sea levels.

Another major—and often overlooked—change concerns the body: When the European chroniclers came, they described indios as being “of average stature.” But today, the average Spaniard is taller than the average Filipino—a reflection not so much of genetics as of divergent health, nutrition, and overall quality of life. They described Filipinos as having various colors—“white,” “tawny,” “like stewed quinces”—before we ended up under not just the racialized category of “brown,” but also with a sense of aesthetic that, like Jose Rizal’s Doña Victorina, sees foreign bodies as standard.

The early Visayans may have seen Magellan and his men as “untattooed,” but today it is their heirs in our sad republic who must contend with the colonial imprint.

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TAGS: colonial encounter, Enrique de Malacca, Humabon, Lapulapu, Rajah Matanda, Sikatuna
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