Review: ‘An Illustrated History of the Philippines’

Why don’t Filipinos speak Spanish? How did the short-lived British occupation cripple Spain’s hold on the archipelago? And what factors contributed to the rise of the ‘trapo’ (traditional politician)?

It’s all in ‘Illustrated History of the Philippines’ written by historian Ray Canoy. What makes this unlike other history books is that it has interesting and informative photos and illustrations that enhance the content.

This book is impressive both in content and appearance. The front cover is a collage of iconic photographs, and almost every inside page is illustrated with carefully selected images. The layout is attractive. Colored sidebars set off information, and a detailed timeline from c. 55,000 B.C. to 2018 provides a valuable chronology of the development of our people and nation.

The text is in simple language, written well in an engaging yet scholarly manner. The book, after all, is a sort of beginner’s guide to the country. It covers the Sundaland subcontinent all the way to the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte and the Nine-Dash Line conflict.

Dr. Canoy’s his choice of topics present the Filipino community as one shaped by cultural influences from several world civilizations.

I particularly appreciated the section about trading nations in Southeast Asia that were influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist culture of India. Canoy refers to the Srivijaya and Majapahit as ‘thalassocracies’ (states with predominantly maritime dominions) rather than ‘empires’, as those of us of a certain age were taught to call them.

We associate the word ‘empire’ with a realm on land and “power over territory,” but the seaborne states exerted “systems of influence over people and labor”, which is a more apt description of how they functioned.

Canoy adds that scholars refer to the early political entities in Southeast Asia as a ‘mandala polity,’ from the Sanskrit word for a ritual circle representing the universe. In mandalas, relationships were “hierarchical” with “suzerains and tributaries” but often non-exclusive (a vassal could deal with more than one overlord) and based on the “customary and personal” rather than the “legally codified, feudal.” For me, this information alone is worth the price of the book. And there is much more to learn in here.

A conundrum Dr. Canoy solves for me is why Filipinos never adopted Spanish as a language, as did the people of other Spanish colonies. He explains:

“Even though the monarchy had instructed missionaries to teach Spanish to the natives ever since the earliest years of the colony, there was never a point when more than 10 percent of the non-European population spoke Spanish, or read a basic text comprehensible to the average adult.

“This was largely the result of missionary attitudes that emphasized religious instruction in the different languages of the archipelago.” In other words, there was a disconnect between Spanish colonial policy and the Church’s agenda.

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first is the ‘Introduction: Defining the Philippines,’ and is an overview. Chapter 2, ‘The Community as a Boat’ looks at regional prehistory and early Philippine history to 1500 A.D. Chapter 3, ‘The State as a Convent,’ deals with the colonial experience under Spain from 1500 to 1800.

Chapter 4, ‘Imagining a Nation’ is about the Philippine Revolution, the first Philippine Republic, and its defeat by the U.S., 1800 to 1910. Chapter 5, ‘The Trials of ‘Benevolent Assimilation’,’ tells of the country under American rule, 1901 to 1950.

Chapter 6, ‘Showplace of Democracy in Asia,’ deals with events from 1946 to 1972, while Chapter 7, ‘The New Society and its Aftermath,’ examines the Marcos era up to the Aquinos, from 1970 to 1992. Chapter 8, ‘New Forms and Challenges,’ relates developments from 1986 to the present.

The book ends on a note of warning about systemic ills and our weaknesses as a people, but also points to our country’s resilience, “resource base, a skilled and cooperative workforce, and a beautiful natural environment” along with “plenty of social capital,” assets that will help us find “new forms for old challenges.”

Born in Cebu, Canoy obtained his BA Mass Communication degree from the University of the Philippines-Cebu and his MA History from the University of Cincinnati. His PhD History is from Indiana University. He taught European History as an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma until 2013.   

An Illustrated History of the Philippines by Jose Raymund Canoy (John Beaufoy Publishing, 2018) is available at National Bookstore. Call (02) 8888-627 or buy online at / FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Jenny Ortuoste , Review: Illustrated History of the Philippines , Spain , Spanish , trapo , traditional politician , Ray Canoy
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