"What would have happened had the Spaniards not arrived?"
The Spanish Jesuit missionary Fr. Pedro Chirino was the first to use the term “Filipino”. In his historical account, “Relacion de las Islas Filipinas” written in 1590 and published in Rome in 1604, he employed the term to refer collectively to the native population of the Philippines. In the years that followed, other historians, such as Francisco Colin, Ignacio Francisco Alcina, and Juan Francisco de San Antonio would likewise use the term in their writings.
The celebration of the fifth quincentennial anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines (or as the secular mindset prefers, the 500th anniversary of the circumnavigation of the world) has sparked debate on whether or not the so-called “discovery” of the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan is an event worth celebrating. Many have caricatured the event as “glorifying colonization” and a “betrayal” of our fallen heroes who gave their lives in the fight for our country’s freedom.
The conundrum begins with how the word “colonialization” has been exploited into an ideologically loaded term that seemingly distorts recorded historical truth. Colonization, after all, is but a perennial historical phenomenon. However, every act of “colonialism” on the page of history had its own distinct complexities, whether in the conflicting motives that caused it, and the diverging consequences that ensued from it.
The Roman conquest of the so-called barbarians of Gaul was probably one of the most crucial acts of “colonization” in human history. If it did not happen, then Europe would have not existed as we know it today. Had the Arabs not subjugated the ancient peoples of the Middle East and conquered the Byzantine empire, more than half of it would have remained Christian. If not for Christopher Columbus, today’s Latin America would neither be “Latin” nor “American.” If not for the British settlements in North America, the “New World” would have been overtaken by the Iroquois in the northeast and the Sioux throughout the Great Plains – and the original Thirteen Colonies would not have evolved into the mighty United States.
It is important though to emphasize that while colonization was a historical fact, from today’s standpoint, it is in no way justified. There can be no excuse reasonable enough to support the continual use of brutal violence to acquire land or resources, or to destroy or replace an existing culture or civilization. The tragic deaths and rampage caused by the colonial powers must not be overlooked, nor their historical and moral accountability be in any way diminished.
Why then should we celebrate the quincentenary of the arrival of Christianity in our country? For one simple reason – because this single event altered not only the history of our nation; it gave us the very same identity that made us the people and the nation that we are today.
The truth of the matter is if the Spaniards did not come and “discover” these islands, there would have been no Philippines.
In fact, by assigning the name, “Las Islas Filipinas,” the Spaniards practically unified into a single nation the warring and divided barangays who have settled in these islands.
Some historians believe that the word, “Visayas” was actually a corruption of the word, Srivijaya, the once-powerful Buddhist potentate based in Sumatra, that included much of present-day Southeast Asia, making these islands the northern fringes of the Srivijayan empire. Eventually, the empire succumbed to the arrival of Islamic missionaries and soon, the Malay sultanates eventually gained control of the island.
It was at that point that our islands eventually took a divergent path in history – the Spaniards came. They brought with them a new religion and a different way of life that changed the course of our country’s history. In contrast to the religion embraced by many of our Southeast Asian neighbors, we became the only Christian nation in this part of the world. Our vocabulary was enriched by a generous infusion from the Spanish language, allowing it to gradually evolve into the Filipino language that we have today. Our cuisine was influenced by the Spanish culinary palate, resulting in a curious fusion of Western and Malay tastes.
If the Spaniards delayed their arrival by about 50 years, these islands would have become already converted to Islam, and the Philippines, as we know it, would have not existed. Not that it is wrong to embrace another religion; this is simply to prove a historical fact and state a logical historical consequence. If one replaced all the Hispanic features in our identity and culture with that of Islamic and Arab influences, we would end up no different than our Malaysian and Indonesian neighbors. Filipino - or Tagalog - would have sounded no different from Bahasa.
But not even with all their might or fervor were our Malay neighbors able to resist 16th-century colonial powers. The British eventually came to Malaya, and the Dutch replaced the Portuguese in Indonesia. Unlike the Spaniards who came to our country, they were not motivated by evangelical zeal, but were simply buoyed by profit and power. Had the Philippines been colonized by any of these Western powers, there would have been two likely consequences. First, like Australia and New Zealand, the native population would have been decimated and left to live in the fringes while a Caucasian majority resettled and populated most of the islands. Second, slavery would have been made legal and many of the early Filipinos would have been sold as slaves in other colonies.
In an effort to consolidate their colonial presence in Southeast Asia, the British eventually created the Malayan Confederation. Had we been colonized by the British, we could have been made part of it, and consequently, upon independence, we would have been made part of Malaysia.
These are not flimsy conjectures but are conclusions with the sound historical basis that could have happened to us if the Spaniards did not arrive.
If the Spaniards did not come, we would have none of the cities and towns that they founded, the churches and towers that they built - and there would be no single nation to comprise these islands.
We would have none of the benefits of education, industry, science, culture and religion that the Spaniards brought with them - and there would have been no University of Santo Tomas - none of the oldest universities of Asia.
If not for the Catholic religion brought by the Spaniards, slavery would not have been outlawed in these islands, and none of the Spanish missionaries who resisted the lure of a much profitable slave trade. We would have none of the cuisine, architecture, language, culture and the arts that we have now called as our own.
There is no doubt that there were abuses and injustices and in no way, should the brutal violence that came with colonial conquest be justified. The sad episode of colonization, however, is a historical truth that we cannot erase nor deny its persisting consequences. Thus, it would not be truthful nor fair not to apply our present social and political standards in judging the morality of past historical actions.
Since it came to our shores, we have not just accepted Christianity, eventually, we made it our own by enculturating it with our own distinctive expressions of piety and in annual patterns of fasting and feasting – our filial devotion to the Santo Niño and the Nazareno, the chanting of the Passion during Holy Week, the colorful Flores de Mayo and Santacruzan procession, and the yearly celebration of the Misa de Gallo. Far from being a foreign faith, the Christian religion eventually took firm roots in our Filipino identity.
This is why after we have freed the shackles of Spanish rule, an overwhelming majority of our people have remained fervent in our Catholic faith. This was the same faith, as displayed in the martyrdom of the Filipino priests Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez, and Jacinto Zamora, that inspired the early revolutionaries in their fight for freedom and independence. It was the same faith that fueled in them the desire to defend the rights of the Indios and to put an end to the tyranny of colonial rule.