Looking at us

For us Asians, the 19 th century was pivotal because total and absolute colonization was achieved by the European powers that invaded our region with superior fire power and technology. Our ancestors did not only lose ancestral lands and waterways, they were demolished by the battle for “knowledge production” and the “genealogy of ideas”. Not only did the colonizers destroy the existing network of diplomacy, trade and commerce, interdependence, they were hugely successful at churning out colonial knowledge where Asians were described as “savages” who had to be saved from themselves. They believed that we were inferior, we were “the other.”

Stanford Raffles wrote a history of Java which is reprinted to this day as it is considered a classic, an indisputable source. At the height of Britain’s colonial power many of the functionaries of the East Indian Company wrote about what they saw and experienced in the polities they conquered and exploited. There was an assortment of warrior-merchants and merchant-scholars, travel writers whose works are considered primary sources. Scottish diplomat, John Anderson , published data about a “mining mission” in Sumatra in 1823. John Crawford, appointed British Resident by Stamford Raffles, authored a rather ambitious history of the Indian archipelago and Asian languages. In their cozy colonial “eco chamber” those men reinforced each other’s production of knowledge. How maliciously curious they were about our ancestors.

The United States of America, the Johnny-come-lately of colonialism, drove the original inhabitants to near extermination after which they invaded half of Mexico’s territory all the way to the West, to California, in order to reach the rim of another ocean, the Pacific. The USA did not want to be mistaken for a European power, but it created its own stereotypes of the people they subjugated. They had their own “eco chamber” inhabited by luminaries like Walter Gibson, writer and magician (1850).

Do you know that most of us are still looking into those centuries-old colonial “eco chambers”? Our 21 st century realities still bear vestiges of colonialism. We have not rectified our geopolitical borders, we continue referring to our region as Southeast Asia, a colonial trademark. The way we understand and deal with each other today, the manner in which we perceive our land and sea borders unassailably bear a colonial mark. This should be a reminder that writing is an act of power, so we must not take as gospel truth what former colonial masters have written about Asians. We have to redefine their history books in our own terms because those colonizers were writing for audiences back home and were fully supported by their respective empires and trading companies. Take note of the dedication or acknowledgement pages of their books.

In my generation most of our history, geography and social studies textbooks were rooted in works compiled in those colonial “eco chambers.” However, we were never warned that these were tools for empire-building, for the colonization not only of the land and waterways but more severely, of the mind. Very few of us were encouraged to read colonial writers with a critical eye; we did not notice that these were “confessional texts” projecting their own very personal views as they were looking at us, usually with disdain.

Let us read these books through Southeast Asian lenses, with Filipino glasses. Let us now scrutinize the scrutinizers, redefine their works by examining how those alien eyes were studying us through their colonial microscopes. By evaluating the data, they compiled , we can jumpstart our own personal decolonization.

These were the notes I took while listening to Dr. Farish Noor of the Nanyang University of Singapore who was the keynote speaker at a webinar convened by Dr. Fernando Santiago of SEARCH of the De La Salle University (Manila campus).

While listening to Dr. Noor’s thought-provoking lecture, Jose Rizal came to mind. That was why he spent months at the British Library annotating, by hand, the “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” by Dr. Antonio de Morga. Rizal was decolonizing our history.