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Looking Back

Was PH colonized by the wrong country?

Filipinos who remember their textbook history know that the Philippines was under: Spain (1565-1898) and the United States (1898-1946), with a short interlude under Japan (1942-1945). If the teacher had more time or motivation, reference could be made about Manila under the British from 1762 to 1764.

This chronology came to mind recently listening to friends ranting about the way the pandemic is being handled. Naturally, the need to pinpoint blame led to Malacañang and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, but administration defenders shifted blame to lack of discipline and, from there, the ball was passed back to our colonial history. It’s never our fault, it seems, as there is always an evil Spanish, American, and Japanese occupation at fault. To complicate matters, I asked: What would we have become if the British stayed on?

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The Quincentennial commemoration winding up this week is an opportunity to look beyond the Santo Niño and Lapu-lapu to widen our historical reflections beyond the introduction of Christianity and the resistance to colonial rule. When students ask, was the Philippines colonized by the wrong countries? I direct them to the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

With the notable exception of Thailand, majority of states that make up Asean were born from a colonial experience: Brunei Darrusalam, independent from the UK in 1984; Cambodia, independent from France in 1953; Indonesia, declared independence after the Japanese Occupation in 1945, but the Dutch formally recognized its independence in 1949 ending three centuries of colonial rule; Lao PDR, independent from France in 1953; Malaysia, independent from the UK in 1957; Myanmar, independent from the UK in 1948; the Philippines, independent from Spain in 1898, and from the US in 1946; Singapore, independent from the UK in 1963; and Vietnam, independent from France in 1945.

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Often left out of classroom history are counterfactuals or what-ifs? The American Historical Collection once sponsored an essay writing contest on the question—“What would have happened to the Philippines if Dewey had sailed away in 1898?” After sinking the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, Dewey set up a naval blockade not having land troops to take and occupy Spanish Manila. British, French, Japanese, and German vessels lay in wait at the bay. If Dewey sailed away, the Germans may have taken the Philippines.

Further back, what would have happened if Magellan didn’t accidentally sail into the islands now known as the Philippines? What if the Portuguese or the Dutch succeeded in taking the Philippines from Spain? The Japanese knew Spanish Manila was not well defended and considered taking it, the Chinese pirates Limahong and Koxinga knew this weakness too—what if one of them did?

When the world was divided in half like an orange by the Pope in 1493 to keep the peace between Portugal and Spain during the age of exploration, both parties kept moving the demarcation line such that Spain eventually kept the Philippines but gave away Brazil and the Moluccas. The islands Magellan sailed into in 1521 fell on the Portuguese side and, knowing this, Fray Andrés de Urdaneta refused to navigate for the 1565 expedition headed by Miguel López de Legazpi. Tricked into doing so, Urdaneta found the tornaviaje or return route from the Philippines back to America that became the backbone of the lucrative Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade now considered by some as the first globalization.

Why did Spain stay in the Philippines knowing full well it did not produce the coveted spices to make the effort worthwhile? How did Spanish-Portuguese rivalry over the Philippines play out when the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal were united under the Spanish Habsburg kings: Philip II, Philip III, and Philip IV from 1580 to 1640? It is unfortunate that my generation lucked out on knowing more about Spanish Philippines because it was said that those 333 years were not Philippine history but merely the history of Spain in the Philippines. Those years were allegedly irrelevant to us. The 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition inspires us to look beyond past hurts and appreciate the blanks and nuances in our past. Resistance to colonial rule is not always about oppression and battles but how we have made the foreign our own, how we formed history, and how it formed us.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, PH colonization, Philippine history
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