When Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, ex-mayor of Mexico, cast anchor and began to subjugate Cebu in 1565, the food supply of the conquerors became precarious very soon. The inhabitants of Sugbu (Cebu), Pintados the Spaniards called them, seemed incapable of providing for boatloads of Europeans who came with Cross and Sword; They were not interested in taking advantage of the sudden demand for victuals. As a result, the Spaniards thought they were slothful. (In fact, the strategy was to starve the foreigners so they would leave). However, Legazpi’s men were quick to notice that the natives were adorned with gold ornaments, from forehead to ankles, even their teeth had gold decorations; but then again, they mined only what was needed for barter trade and for personal vanity, nothing more. They also knew how to make different karats of gold by mixing it with other metals. They did not always give away the purest gold as gifts, so the Spaniards concluded that the Pintados were deceitful, not to be trusted.
There are a number of accounts written by 16th and 17th century witnesses that relate horrific stories of conquistadores looting houses of natives who had fled to the mountains in fear. Not only did the hardy conquistadores steal chickens, pigs, and goats, even cooked food; they helped themselves with the gold ornaments, silk, porcelain, and other precious objects left behind by those who had taken cover in the impregnable forests and jungles. After they looted, Legazpi’s men burned down native homes.
On 16 May 1565, Adelantado Miguel Lopez de Legazpi called the notary, Don Fernando Riquel, to inform him that “… many Spanish soldiers and sailors have opened many graves and burial places of the Indians in the island [Cebu], wherein a quantity of gold and other jewels have been found and inasmuch as those opening these graves and finding the said gold have not made a report thereof to His Excellency nor to His Majesty’s officials, in order that His Majesty may receive and take His royal fifths and rights…” Legazpi ordered the notary to draft a proclamation, “in due form of law, that all who have opened any grave whence they have abstracted gold, jewels, and other valuables and those who have in their possession gold and jewels of these islands, however they may have been obtained, shall appear and make full declaration to His Majesty’s officials. Those who disobey will lose all the gold and valuables in their possession and shall be punished accordingly.”
In addition, Legazpi ordered that those who do wish to raid graves should ask his permission and, if granted, he will send a government official (most probably Notary Riquel) to witness the digging and take account of everything that is found. Those caught infringing the law will be fined “five hundred pesos de minas” and will have to surrender every item taken from the graves as payment of the fifth part which rightfully belongs to His Majesty’s exchequer or treasury.
Obviously, the Adelantado did not have archaeology in mind. It was not as if he wanted to regulate grave-digging and document the findings properly in order to learn about local culture and beliefs. He himself was interested in getting his share and whatever pertained to the King who was supporting the colonization project. Naively perhaps, I did expect to find some words of admonition in his proclamation that would show (or pretend to show) respect for the dead and for what was sacred to a people they were in the process of subjugating. Even if he had dismissed the natives as savages inferior to Europeans, as a true Christian and Catholic whose avowed mission was to convert heathens to the true faith, Legazpi, or the missionaries with him, should have at least reminded the Spanish soldiers to respect the dead and the sacred burial grounds of the natives.
One wonders if Legazpi’s proclamation was followed strictly in Cebu or anywhere else in the archipelago. On 20 August 1572, when Legazpi was already the governor-general seated in Manila, he woke up early that morning with unbearable chest pains, perhaps due to an altercation with a soldier the day before. On that very day in faraway Cebu, “a miraculous image ” of the Ecce Homo was found by — of all people — a grave raider! When apprehended, Juan de Castilla, a Spanish soldier, swore he was not treasure-hunting in a native burial site, but was building his house and while digging deeply to imbed a foundation post, he “uncovered a casket” of a certain Rajah Carli, rumored to be one of those baptized and converted by Magellan’s entourage. The remains of the rajah held a small cross and “a very devout image of the Ecce Homo was on his chest, sculpted from wood, in an excellent condition despite having been there for so many years. This image caused much admiration in everyone. They carried it with great devotion to the Church of the Holy Child.” (Fray Gaspar de San Agustin, 1565- 1615)
I should stop looking for Christian reminders admonishing Spanish soldiers not to desecrate native burial grounds; ecumenism was unheard of in the 16th and 17th centuries. There is irrefutable archeological evidence that many of the Catholic churches were purposefully constructed on top of the natives’ sacred burial grounds; for example, in 1971, the Santa Ana church in Manila (a Franciscan mission since 1578) made some restoration work in its inner patio. Lo and behold, a pre-colonial burial ground was uncovered, dated 11-14th century by the National Museum. Quickly, it became a must-see destination for both local and foreign visitors. Sadly, after a couple of years, the clergy decided to cover the graves, perhaps out of respect for the long dead, but I suspect it was also to clean up the narrative of the conquest and Christianization.