Let’s celebrate resistance, not empire
Should we be the ones celebrating 500 years of European colonization in Asia? In 1521, as Ferdinand Magellan was laying claim to our islands for the King of Spain, Hernando Cortez and his Spanish soldiers were completing the conquest of the Aztecs through massacres in the Americas, seizing gold, slaves, and land. The Aztecs were destroyed as they were “discovered.” Adam Smith observed in 1776 that “these European discoveries opened up new inexhaustible markets and led to the expansion of revenue and wealth, but to the natives, all the commercial benefits resulting from these events have been lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned… With the superiority of force the Europeans commanded, they committed with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries.” A Spanish Dominican priest, Bartolome de las Casas, who personally witnessed many of these brutalities in the Spanish-Indian encounter, wrote about the unspeakable atrocities for gold and slaves in his book, “The Destruction of the Indies” (1552).
The European conquests in many parts of the world set off the worst social catastrophes in history, leading to the extinction of many indigenous communities. Their integration into the Spanish empire devastated them economically and culturally. These European “discoveries” also led to the largest land-grabbing cases in humanity. Magellan’s expedition invoked the Regalian doctrine, which declared that all lands “discovered” belonged to the King of Spain, effectively dispossessing the peoples of our islands of their territories. This colonial disposition “in the name of God” was based on and reinforced by the Vatican’s 1452 Papal Bull—the Doctrine of Discovery—authorizing Europe’s monarchs “to invade, vanquish, subdue and to take away all the possessions of pagans and non-Christians.”
The colonial narrative is that Magellan’s mission was for commercial objectives, namely a new trade route and spices, and not to colonize. The literature of empire presents them as accidents, not imperialist designs. Eventually, colonization led to subjugation and the transfer of control of Asian traditional trade to European control, and plunder of the colonies for the accumulation of wealth.
Utilizing Europe’s militarily stronger societies, the “encounters” with non-Christian territories paved the way for them to become masters of the world’s trade routes. The result was the exaction of tribute by the empire-builders over dominated territory. Soon, the natives learned too late that colonization meant economic, political, and cultural control by the European powers, where domination was not only through superior firepower but also the added instruments of religious conversion, divide and rule, and the cooptation of traditional elites.
From the perspective of the victims of so-called European achievements of “discovery,” the atrocity of colonialism and empire cannot be forgotten. The quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress ignores those who suffered from these colonial policies. For the conquered, it was a new world of violence, deprivation, exploitation, and abuse. There are those who tend to place so much admiration for Magellan’s navigational skills, “his indomitable will as explorer,” and even his Christian faith in making his way to our islands. Do we not bury the atrocities of the empire by fighting over where the first Christian Mass was held on our shores?
As a nation, we can celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Mactan as a testimony to our ancestors who fought back magnificently against the empire, from Lapulapu to our indigenous peoples who successfully defended our communities against foreign invaders. Ironically, the empire’s devastation of pre-colonial knowledge limits what we know of our first freedom fighter and first national hero. Folklore and legends dominate what we know about this leader who defied and vanquished the Spanish colonizers in our first encounter with them.
But more than this, let us not let go of our standpoint as the colonized victim of an empire. As Albert Camus aptly suggested, “In a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioner.”
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Roland G. Simbulan, a University of the Philippines professor for 38 years, has written extensively on imperial strategy and policy.
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