Looking Back


/ 12:23 AM October 22, 2014

When I entered a monastery in 1993, the only material possession I took with me was the 55-volume set of documents, “The Philippine Islands,” compiled by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson.

I was mistaken to think that I could use the silence and solitude to read the whole set from cover to cover following the example of the late O.D. Corpuz, who had read the whole of Blair and Robertson not once but twice! Then, with his prodigious gift, he could cite or quote whole passages from memory. I am not as gifted and was content to just take down notes from each volume. This project failed miserably because there were other things to do in a monastery aside from praying and reading. Besides, my abbot hoped that I would grow in wisdom and scholarship, leave Philippine history, and make a name for myself and my community by doing erudite commentaries on the works of St. Bernard.


Unfortunately, I never got beyond Volume 7 of Blair and Robertson. I realized that some books are made to be devoured whole, read from cover to cover, while the rest, like Blair and Robertson, are read for specific purposes. My first encounter with these compilers was in undergraduate Philippine history under the late Helen Tubangui, who required us to go to the library and write a one-page research paper on any topic that caught our fancy from the two-volume index. This is a tradition I keep in my own classes: Students dip into Blair and Robertson, struggle with the old-style English, and come up with an engaging paper that will teach me something new or make me smile.

As a student on an allowance, I saved up and bought a set. The first edition published in 1903-1907 was hard to find, a Taiwan reprint made under the direction of Carlos Quirino in the 1960s was available but expensive, and then there was a Cacho Hermanos reprint in the 1980s that compressed the 55-volume set into 18 thick volumes. The enterprising book dealer Mar Sanchez broke up the Cacho Hermanos set, bound it again into 55 volumes, and sold the set to me cheap and on installment.


My students today can read Blair and Robertson online, or they can borrow a CD-ROM from the library. Well, it may be easier to access Blair and Robertson today, but the real hurdle is actually reading the text. Just recently I reread the Chinese account of the pre-Spanish Philippines by Chai Ju-kua in Blair and Robertson because it was a retranslation from that made by Ferdinand Blumentritt, who shared it with Rizal who was in exile in Dapitan. The opening lines go:

“The country Ma-yi [said to be Bai or Luzon] is located north of Poni [Borneo]. About one thousand families inhabit the shores of a river that has many windings [Pasig?]. The natives dress in linen, wearing clothes that look like sheets; or they cover their bodies with sarongs. In the thick woods are scattered copper statues of Buddha, but no one can tell the origin of those statues. Pirates seldom visit those districts.

“When [Chinese] merchantmen arrive at that port they cast anchor at a place [called] the place of Mandarins. That place serves them as a market, or site where the products of their countries are exchanged. When a vessel has entered into the port (its captain) offers presents consisting of white parasols and umbrellas which serve them for daily use. The traders are obliged to observe these civilities in order to be able to count on the favor of those gentlemen.

“In order to trade, the savage traders are assembled, and have the goods carried in baskets, and although the bearers are often unknown, none of the goods are ever lost or stolen. The savage traders transport these goods to other islands, and thus eight or nine months pass until they have obtained other goods of value equivalent to those that have been received [from the Chinese]. This forces the traders of the vessel to delay their departure, and hence it happens that the vessels that maintain trade with Ma-yi are the ones that take the longest to return to their country.”

Those lines are quite significant for the reference not just to the honesty of our ancestors but also to the season of trade that literally depended on the winds. The Chinese junks travelled during the northeast monsoon around March from the Chinese mainland to the Philippines and Indonesia, then around June the traders rode the southwest monsoon back to Guangdong and Fujian in a voyage that took from 15 to 20 days.

The Spanish also used the same winds, as narrated by Governor-General Francisco Sande to Philip II on June 7, 1576: “…There are two general seasons… the dry season, the BRISAS, as they are called, blow from the southeast to the north, finally blowing directly from the north; while in the other or wet season, the VENDAVALES blow from northwest to southwest. Thus, during these two seasons, the winds blow from every point of the compass.”

Sande even mentions two other things: a period of quietness they called “calladas” (silence) and “bonanzas” (gentle winds) that last from mid-March to the end of May as well as part of September and October. Today we hardly think about or notice wind unless it comes with a destructive storm. Why were people more attuned to nature than we are today? Despite its limitations, Blair and Robertson can still be a mirror in which to see ourselves.


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