Staking territory

There is a painting with an incisively powerful message depicting Spanish conquistdores and missionaries celebrating Holy Mass in an isolated mountainous area of this archipelago.  The label — “Staking territory” — made me gasp; it was almost blasphemous to someone who had studied in a Catholic school where we learned that the Spaniards came not to conquer but to convert the natives and save their souls. This disquieting work of art is part of the Quadricula (HOCUS II) exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts. As the Quincentennial approaches, expect a lot of volcanic debates about the conquest and Christianization of these islands.

Since the weekend, I have been totally immersed in Conquista de las Islas Filipinas, 1565-1615, the bilingual (Spanish-English) 20th-century edition of  Fray Gaspar de San Agustin’s formidable compilation. I had left this gigantic tome untouched for a few years now as I was interested in other periods of our history. More than 40 years had elapsed after Magellan was killed in Mactan so when a new wave of conquistadores arrived, they were looking for the Santo Niño that Magellan had given to a queen of one of the islands. The search bore fruit, they found the Holy Child on 28 April, the feast of St. Vidal, and considered this a miracle; it was also called the apparition of the Santo Niño.

What really struck me was that during the first decade when they were conquering and Christianizing what we now call the Visayas, the Spaniards were always looking for supplies and food. Not finding enough in Cebu, they would sail to other islands like Panay in their frigates and patches braving shipwrecks and hostile natives in their search for food. The rank and file complained about meagre rations of rice, chicken and pork most of which they looted from the homes of natives who fled to the mountains at the sight of those white bearded strangers with fire power. Hunger led them to mutiny, there were a few attempts to commandeer vessels and sail back to Spain or to Mexico (Nueva España). Didn’t they know how to fish? No, they did not, a Spanish expat told me; they were probably from Extremadura where people did not fish.  Couldn’t they have sown some edibles on the fertile land? Most of those hardy men who crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific were not of the agricultural sort; they were titled but destitute aristocrats, hardened soldiers- of- fortune, ex-prisoners, all of whom wanted to get rich. The early missionaries were a different breed all together, they knew they had to learn the native languages before they could effectively evangelize and Christianize.

Even if you are not that interested in history, it is fascinating to read works like San Agustin’s Conquista because it gives you an idea of how Europeans in those days looked at the natives, our ancestors. There are detailed descriptions of how the natives kept themselves clean by bathing in rivers and streams several times a day. Their teeth were always clean, some used black dye, the chiefs encrusted bits of gold in their teeth. Women had distended earlobes because of their jewelry. They used sesame oil and fragrant herbs after bathing.

The Spaniards looked for rules of succession, forms of government and written laws common in Europe and finding none, they concluded that our ancestors were mere congregations of savage deceitful pagans. They sort of noticed that the natives believed in an afterlife, in something like their Heaven and in an Almighty, but they did not give that any importance. The babaylan class of mostly women and the local healers were threats that had to be destroyed; their oracles were replaced with the belief in Christian miracles.

No, I have not finished reading Conquista, I am barely halfway through. Rajahs Matanda and Sulaiman have been subdued, the Battle of Bangkusay lost, the sudden death of Adelantado Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was devastating,   but his grandson blazed on, conquering the extreme north of the archipelago up to Cabo Bojeador. Even if these islands were on the Portuguese side of the demarcation, Spain relentlessly staked territory each time a wooden cross struck ground and the Holy Mass celebrated with pomp and canon fire.