Five hundred years

"We are a people that endures and prevails."


The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have turned into a flash point for protesters to deface and toppled down statutes of historical figures. These, in their mind, are powerful and hurtful symbols of racism and colonialism.

Even monuments to Christopher Columbus were taken down. Sailing under the patronage of the Spanish Crown, it was the 15th-century navigator who “discovered” America, opening the way for the European exploration and colonization. Columbus, however, is accused of the complete genocide of thousands of indigenous populations. He is also criticized for his alleged acts of brutality, abuse and torture, including for sending the first slaves across the Atlantic.

It was the discovery of the New World that eventually brought Ferdinand Magellan to the Philippines in 1521. Next year would be five hundred years since then.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has been preparing for years now to celebrate the quincentenary of the arrival of Christianity in the country.

The year-long celebration will be highlighted with the commemoration of the first recorded Mass celebrated by Magellan’s chaplain, Father Pedro de Valderrama, on the island of Limasawa. It will also mark the quincentennial anniversary of the presence of the country’s most celebrated icon, the Santo Niño, in Cebu.

However, with his usual nationalistic rhetoric, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has previously downplayed the Catholic significance of the quincentenary, pointing out instead to Lapu-Lapu’s victory over Magellan as the main theme for the event.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the quincentenary will lead us to confront our colonial past. With Spain subjugating the country with “the cross and the sword,” even religious undertones cannot escape historical scrutiny.

For the 300 long years the followed, the Philippines would become Spain’s farthest colonial possession. Spain instituted a fierce Catholic and Hispanic culture in this Southeast Asian nation.

Our historical narrative, of course, is replete with the supposed tyranny of the Spanish regime, and the recorded abuses that the Filipino people had to endure.

That Spain colonized our archipelago is an established historical fact.

But whether or not the Spanish conquest of our islands was not without significance to our nation is a question worth examining.

Spain brought Christianity to the Philippines, with all its piety, pomp and pageantry. That the Philippines is the biggest Catholic country in Asia is perhaps the most lasting evidence of Spanish presence in the country.

But more than that, Spain gave our country a name – “Las Islas Filipinas” – and with it a sense of nationhood, identity and governance.

Spain built our first cities – Cebu, Iloilo and Manila, which later on served as our country’s capital.

Spanish laws were applied to govern Filipino society. Even to this day, they continue to shape our civil and penal codes.

The much-maligned character in the Spanish colonial establishment – the “frailes” – were probably their most effective agents. The friars founded schools and colleges, taught children to read and write, introduced new crops such as corn, cacao, sugar and coffee and built towns, roads and bridges that crisscross the countryside.

It was because of the efforts of an Augustinian friar, Andres de Urdaneta, that slavery, once widespread among the natives, was banned. Slaves were freed, and Spaniards who held Filipino slaves were punished.

The strong efforts of the Spanish friars would persist into our time. The oldest university in the country, the 400-year old University of Santo Tomas, founded in 1611, is much older than Harvard University, which was established only in 1636.

But it cannot be denied that excesses, inequality and abuses did happen during the Spanish rule, and eventually the calls for reform led to a revolutionary struggle.

Spain, in a way, unified the people of these many islands twice in history. First, by the bond of a common religion. Second, by awakening their nationalistic fervor.

With countries around the world re-examining the legacy left by their former colonial masters, it may be worth reviewing the significance of our own colonial past.

The injustices of the past cannot be corrected by simply erasing our historical memory.

Even the concept of a Filipino nation is a Spanish invention. Had Christianity arrived by at least two decades later, Islam would have been the religion of our country’s majority. Its religious, cultural and even political influence would have been irreversible.

Our country would not have even existed as we know it today. The fragmented barangays would have been easily conquered by the Southern sultanates. As a result, we could have instead been part of a pan-Malayan nation.

We would not even be speaking Filipino, with its heavily Hispanized vocabulary, but instead a language much closer to the Bahasa of Indonesia and Malaysia.

The truth is that even the distasteful episodes of colonial past are very much a part of our present.

Sadly, many of the protesters calling for the removal of colonial-era public memorials and statues seem to have overlooked this reality – that everything good, bad and ugly about our history contributed to our story as a nation.

Likewise, it is unfair to impose our contemporary ideals on people who lived in a different time and amid different realities. Colonialism may be unacceptable now, but only a century ago, the fate of weaker nations in Asia and Africa were decided by the dominant foreign powers in Europe.

The idea of subjugating the Philippines “by the cross and by the sword” may be alien to our modern-day views on religious freedom and democracy, but such reflected a particular point of view that dominated a particular time in the past. Historical norms and social values evolve over time, and a fair appraisal of historical figures must take these into consideration. In the practical sense, we cannot subject historical figures to modern standards of moral judgment.

Nevertheless, history will always have a lesson to teach us who live in the present. Inasmuch as we need to look at our past in the eye, it is even more important to thoroughly understand and come to terms with how it relates to our present, especially with the refusal to forget even its painful and difficult lessons.

Historical truthfulness dictates that the quincentenary be celebrated as it should be – the arrival of Christianity of the Philippines, and with it, the birth of our sense of nationhood and the emergence of a uniquely Filipino identity.

Whatever contributions Spain may have made – both the good and the bad, ultimately, shaping our Filipino identity is of our own making. While the last 500 years have seen our islands subjected to centuries of colonial rule, it has also shown our unity in our common aspiration for freedom and justice. In the end, it proves to the world that amidst the shifting sands of history, we are a people that endures and prevails.

Topics: Catholic Church in the Philippines , Spain , Religion , History , colonialism
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