Review the past | Investigator’s opinion

When I first taught an investigative course on Philippine history at Ateneo in 1998, a homeroom teacher asked me why I started my course with Philippine prehistory instead of 16th. century.

Didn’t written history begin with the “discovery” of the Philippines by Magellan in 1521, or the capture of the islands for the Spanish crown by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565? When I argued that it was necessary to know what the islands and people looked like before the Spanish contact, I was gently reminded that the Philippines in prehistoric times was not just a world inhabited by dinosaurs and cavemen, it was also the period before recorded or written history. I was advised to be clear about the scope of my course, to focus on the “history” and to leave “prehistory” to the introductory courses in Sociology-Anthropology.

But it did help that a handful of early Chinese accounts became available in English to push the story back several centuries before Pigafetta’s account of the Magellanic expedition. Today, students are familiar with the Laguna copper inscription, a document dated to the 9th century that marks the beginning of our recorded history. That is, until something older happens. Our recorded story begins with a receipt – with the payment of a wage-related debt in gold. I don’t think it is too much to wish our recorded history to begin someday with the discovery of a long lost genealogy, story, or even an epic in verse.

Students raised from Kindergarten to Grade 12 at Araling Panlipunan learn about Filipino history chronologically rather than thematically. Generally, the narrative breaks down into four phases: the prehistoric Philippines, the Spanish colonial period from 1565 to 1898, the American period from 1898 to 1946 (with a brief interlude known as the Japanese Occupation between 1942 and 1945), then after the independence period from 1946 to the present day. The last phase is subdivided into terms of a series of presidents: Quezon, Osmeña, Roxas, Quirino, Magsaysay, Garcia, Macapagal, Marcos, C. Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo, B. Aquino and Duterte. Emilio Aguinaldo is not on the timeline of postwar presidents, but is discussed with the stillborn First Philippine Republic, while Jose P. Laurel remains downgraded as “puppet president” during the Japanese occupation .

According to the teacher, the above timeline can be supplemented with counterfactuals. There was a brief British occupation of Manila between 1762 and 1764; what if they had stayed? What if Andres Bonifacio had been elected president in Tejeros in place of Emilio Aguinaldo? What if the Portuguese had insisted on their rights over the Philippines and driven out the Spaniards? Remember that in the so-called “exploration” era of the 15th to 17th centuries, Spain and Portugal were competitors in expanding trade and knowledge of the world. To keep the peace, Pope Alexander VI published in 1493 the papal bull “Inter caetera”, cutting the known world in two, like an orange, and giving one side of the non-Christian world to Spain and the other half to Portugal.

Because the Pope was Spanish, the parties negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, giving Spain most of the Americas except Brazil, while Portugal claimed the lands and beyond they found in ballast. Then Magellan complicated things when he sailed to the Spice Islands (Moluccas), claimed by the two countries. The line of demarcation was therefore renegotiated, leading to the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529 which gave Spain most of the Pacific Ocean. In addition, Portugal paid Spain 350,000 ducats for the Moluccas, as it was the source of much sought after spices in Europe. Spain remained in the Philippines, even though the country was on the Portuguese side of the demarcation line. It was not a good investment as there were no spices, but later the Filipino colony became the link between the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade.

I have reviewed the chronologies of Philippine history in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Magellanic Expedition next year. Remembrance (not celebration) opens up old wounds and can create new ones needed to give us a fresh start in revising ways of looking at the past. I hope the opportunity updates the way history is taught and understood, and results in a past that is relevant and useful for Filipinos in the 21st century and beyond.

Comments are welcome on [email protected]

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Edward K. Thompson