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The Philippines under Belgium?

HISTORIANS naturally frown on speculation and imagination in history because they veer away from the facts as presented in the primary sources.

Teodoro Agoncillo once advised me not to waste my time on the what-ifs in Philippine history. “Why,” he growled, “waste your time trying to figure out what did not or what would have happened, when it is already a challenge to ascertain what did happen?”

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Benedict Anderson encouraged me to do otherwise “because,” he smiled, “sometimes what might have happened is more interesting than what really happened!”

History is fuel for conversation and debate as the Facebook thread that resulted from recent columns on the British Occupation of Spanish Manila or the Philippines in 1762-1764. To add yet another what-if to our history, someone should dig up the plan of Leopold II of Belgium to take the Philippines as a colony.

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When I visit Belgium this September to deliver a lecture to mark the 125th anniversary of the publication, in Ghent, of Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo,” I hope to revisit the Chinese Pavilion, near the King’s Palace in Brussels, that houses a small museum of 19th-century Sino-Japanese art. I first saw this museum in the early 1980s and I was told it was built by Leopold II, king of the Belgians, who was so fascinated by Asia that he contemplated buying the Philippines from Spain.

When he ascended the throne in 1865, Leopold II planned to enlarge his country’s influence to the East and wanted to begin with the Philippines, which had very good commercial possibilities because of its strategic location as the gateway to both China and Japan. Unfortunately, his government, especially his Parliament did not share his passion for colonization because it required a well-equipped navy and an army to protect Belgian interests halfway across the globe. Complicating matters was the so-called Belgian Declaration of Neutrality that set them apart from England, France and Germany which were aggressively competing for overseas possessions then.

In 1866, Leopold II instructed his ambassador in Madrid to speak to the queen of Spain about ceding the Philippines to Belgium. The ambassador did not act, knowing fully well that the Belgian Parliament would not approve of such a plan, and the Queen would merely scoff at the proposal. When Leopold II found out about his ambassador’s disobedience, he transferred him to another post and appointed someone sympathetic to his secret plans.

Working without the knowledge and approval of his government, Leopold II set aside 150 million Belgian francs (that was not even enough to cover the operational expenses of the Philippines for a year), and attempted to fill in the balance with loans from English banks. That too failed because after due diligence, the banks refused to bankroll the project, which they saw was anchored on a royal whim, without the guarantee of his government.

In 1868, Spanish Queen Isabel II was deposed. Seeking to take advantage of the situation, Leopold II negotiated with the new government for the outright sale of the Philippines. This did not prosper though because he didn’t have the funds.

Then there was the issue of colonization that Leopold II skirted with a scheme that would have the Philippines independent under a Belgian monarch. The Philippines would be run by an overseas company that would hold rights under a temporary, 90-year concession, with Belgium handling the diplomatic and financial affairs.

Upon expiration of the concession, the company would cede the Philippines to Belgium, which would make colonization or annexation moot and academic. It looked like a complicated solution to a simple problem, which did not work.

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So Leopold II set his sights on Africa where dream turned into reality in 1885, in what was known as the Congo Free State which was deemed Leopold II’s personal colony. Later, an area of Central Africa became known from 1908 to 1960 as the Belgian Congo; it is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This footnote in our history needs more research, which unfortunately is hampered by the fact that Leopold II ordered all papers on the Philippine project destroyed. What little we know comes from a little known monograph, “A La recherché d’un Etat Independent: Leopold II et les Philippines,” that has yet to be translated from the original French into English for wider circulation. First published in 1962, the book contains the papers of Count Jules Greindl, chief negotiator of the Belgian king on this personal colonial project. The papers do not go beyond 1875, the year Greindl was sent to manage the affairs of what was to become the Belgian Congo.

In the archives of the foreign ministry in Madrid, a top secret report, from the Spanish ambassador in Berlin to the minister of state, turned up; this revealed that in 1888, despite Greindl’s resignation and the belief that the Belgian Philippine project had been shelved, Leopold II continued trying to acquire the Philippines. Which makes one ask what Leopold II saw in the Philippines that led to his near obsessive desire to own it. An optimist, Leopold II was quoted to have remarked: “L’affair que je porsuis irrealisable aujourd-hui, peut-etre faisable une autre fois (The project I am pursuing is impossible today, but may be feasible at another time).”

What would the Philippines be had Leopold II, king of the Belgians, succeeded and added the Philippines to his crown?

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Belgium, History, opinion, Philippine history
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