Colonial lottery

/ 01:02 AM October 26, 2015

NO FILM in recent memory has generated as much sense of nationalism and interest in Philippine history as “Heneral Luna.” In addition to those behind the movie, we owe much gratitude to Vivencio R. Jose, who wrote the book “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna,” on which the movie was based. In spite of the biases and misconceptions against Luna that were widely prevailing when he started writing the book, Jose plodded on in his scholarly research.

I first met Jose during my student days at the University of the Philippines because he gave shelter to two of my friends, Harry Roque and Ruben Carranza, who later became public-interest lawyers. I remember that all the wall spaces of Jose’s house were filled with books, lending a patrician air to his professor-scholar demeanor, and causing me to nurse the comical fear that he would ask me some esoteric question out of the blue and he would kick me out of his house if I gave some stupid answer. Many years later, my law office would assist Jose in the negotiation on the grant of film rights on his book to the producers of “Heneral Luna.”


The movie is set at a momentous period in history when the Philippines had just successfully kicked out a colonial master, and a much more powerful one had betrayed its intentions to subjugate the country.

It was a time in the history of the nation when it was the envy of Asian revolutionaries because it was the first to defeat a colonial power in Asia. I remember reading one of the most famous of Indonesia’s literary works, the “Buru Quartet,” a series of four historical fiction novels chronicling Indonesian nationalism. It was written by Indonesia’s celebrated writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In one passage, Pramoedya wrote about how Indonesian and Chinese revolutionaries were inspired by Filipino revolutionaries.


“Heneral Luna” reveals that more than 300 years of colonial rule stripped the Philippines of its native culture because the Spanish religion, traditions, and even curse words permeated all aspects of the Filipino way of life.

Looking at the history of colonialism in Asia, one can note a pattern in the loss and retention of native cultures among the colonies.

All of the Asian kingdoms were colonized by the European powers, with Thailand as an exception. Britain had the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh), plus Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Dutch occupied Indonesia, and Malaysia at some point. France colonized Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Portugal had a neglectful presence in East Timor, and it held Macau as a business outpost. Spain occupied the Philippines (plus brief stints in Palau and the Marianas).

It is interesting to observe that the Philippines lost its native culture, and all aspects of its way of life were altered by its colonizer’s culture.

Contrast this with all the other colonized Asian countries. India retained its Hindu culture; Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, retained their Islamic culture, and Burma its Buddhist culture. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos remained Buddhist in their culture (prior to communism), and Hong Kong and Macau largely retained their Buddhist- and Confucian-based cultures.

The identity of the colonial power was a factor in whether the native culture was altered or not. The British, Dutch, French and Portuguese colonies retained their native cultures, but the lone Spanish colony did not.

The Philippines lost its native culture because its colonizer altered the very heart and essence of culture: religion. Virtually all aspects of culture are manifestations and expressions of religion. Alter a people’s religion, and all aspects of their culture are altered.


Spain colonized and governed our islands through and with the friars who efficiently converted our ancestors to Christianity, causing the loss of our native culture. Hence, we have more affinity to South America, whose native cultures were also replaced by the Spanish culture, than with the Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian cultures of our Asian neighbors.

In contrast, the British, French and Dutch governed their colonies by operating these as business or corporate enterprises. Britain largely ruled through the British East India Company, and the Netherlands governed through the Dutch East India Company. France treated Indochina as its “colony of economic interests.”

There were times when the British and the Dutch tried to wrest control of the Philippines from Spain. The Dutch attacked Manila in 1646, while the British occupied Manila from 1762 to 1764. Had either been successful, our cultural way of life would have been different from what it has turned out to be today.

The present Islamic traditions of Indonesia and Malaysia were forged as early as the 14th century. Visiting Indonesia and Malaysia would show us snippets of the Islamic traditions of our ancestors before the arrival of Spain, and give us a glimpse of what our current culture would have looked like if we had different luck in the colonial lottery.

The current Hindu traditions of the island of Bali had their beginnings in the fifth century. A visit to Bali will afford us a glimpse of an even earlier period of our history. It will show us snippets of our Hindu traditions when we were part of the Majapahit empire, the greatest empire that ruled the entire pre-Islamic Southeast Asian region.

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