Encuentro: Discovering our humanity (Walking History Manila Times)

by xiaochua

By Michael Charleston “Xiao” Chua

July 11, 2020

ONE American historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, wrote in a 1964 textbook we use in some colleges even today: “Before the coming of the Spaniards, as we have hinted, the Philippines were backward in civilization as compared with most of the rest of the Far East… The Filipinos were still but partly removed from the primitive stages of culture.”

Reading this made Filipinos believe that our ancestors were never great. That when the Europeans came here, they were all-powerful and were able to easily deceive our docile ancestors. But when explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived here, his companion and chronicler Antonio Pigafetta actually described a different story. They had been on the journey to attempt to circumnavigate the world for the very first time for about a year and a half, about 90 days in the open ocean without seeing land. A few days back, they reached the Marianas and even before they could dock, the Chamorros had robbed them. They lacked clean water, they were hungry, tired and believed they could die anytime, when they saw an island in this part of the world later known as The Philippines on March 16, 1521.

They reached and landed on Homonhon Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar the next day. Contrary to our popular image, nobody welcomed them as they docked. They found a spring and finally got clean water, especially for the sick.

But on March 18, some locals from a nearby island spotted the three ships, approached them and saw the weary Europeans. In Europe, a foreigner in your territory can mean war. But our ancestors saw fellow human beings that needed help, even without understanding their language. They immediately gave the visitors food. After four days, the same people returned with two boats-load of food. And with that, the Europeans experienced what is known around the world as Filipino hospitality; we call it pakikipagkapwa and kabutihang-loob. It refueled the journey that became the achievement of science and humanity.

Magellan then reached the island that Pigafetta called “Mazaua.” One of their companions, Enrique of Malacca understood the language of the two brothers who welcomed them, the ruler of Mazaua Raha Siaui, and the ruler of Butuan Calagan Raha Colambu, most probably Malay.

Pigafetta admiringly described our ancestors’ culture, repeatedly mentioning the balangay and, well, the gold: “Pieces of gold, of the size of walnuts and eggs are found by sifting the earth… All the dishes of that king are of gold and also some portion of his house….”

He described Raha Colambu, “According to their customs he was very [tidy] and the finest looking man that we saw among those people. His hair was exceedingly black, and hung to his shoulders. He had a covering of silk on his head, and wore two large golden earrings fastened in his ears. He wore a cotton cloth all embroidered with silk, which covered him from the waist to the knees. At his side hung a dagger, the haft of which was somewhat long and all of gold, and its scabbard of carved wood. He had three spots of gold on every tooth, and his teeth appeared as if bound with gold. …He was tawny and [tattooed] all over.” He was not describing a ruler of a savage people but a fine gentleman, even to Pigafetta’s tastes.

What Pigafetta described was different from how we once imagined our ancestors to be — living in small communities that were independent from each other. The world of the Visayas was a confederacy where the kings had diplomatic relations. The presence of the balangay and of silk clothing, coupled with archaeological evidence of Ming jars only prove that we were once part of the Southeast Asian trade route to China. King Colambu even accompanied Magellan to Cebu so he could trade with its ruler, Raha Humabon. Cebu was an entrepot where products from different parts of Southeast Asia exchanged hands.

There, Magellan underwent a ritual, which was also the basis for the formation of the community. When small villages wanted to form a larger, stronger political unit called the Banua (or the Bayan), their datus would mix drops of their blood in wine and they would all drink it. It was not just a mere contract with blood, but a sandugo — the community becomes one blood, kapatiran — a promise to love everyone in the community as your own brethren. In trade terms, this also meant a commitment to fulfill agreements, or else face the circumstances of going to war — pangangayaw — to correct the wrong that was done.

In a way, in 1521, the Filipinos and Europeans “discovered” one another. We started out respecting each other and had the time of our lives. But Magellan was quickly dragged into our internal conflicts and faced the consequences of arrogance, pride and of failure to understand the culture of others.