Celebrating the Galleon Trade?
This news item reminds me of an encounter I witnessed about a decade ago at a conference. A group of economists from Spain, whose expertise is on the "economic gains of the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines," encountered historians from the University of the Philippines who spoke of the psychic and epistemic violence of colonialism among Filipinos. What was supposed to be an academic dialogue about the economics of empire-building became a confrontation and call for an accounting and responsibility; it became an emotional exchange. At one point, historian Milagros Guerrero recounted the violence visited upon the natives and to the land itself. I remember her saying that the old growth trees were so huge that it would take half a dozen people holding hands around the trunk -- these were felled to build galleons. She spoke of how the Babaylans were beheaded and fed to crocodiles because the friars were afraid of their powers.
The Spanish economists didn't expect that they would be called upon to respond to this accounting for a historical past that they are were not a part of. They are only economists and shouldn't be held responsible for what their ancestors did, they claimed. (Sounds familiar?) I remember the moderator trying to restore the dialogue to a strict academic discourse, but it was too late.
One moment that stood out for me is to witness the response of Fred Cordova to this encounter. He said that he has never heard historians from the Philippines before and certainly not this version of history. He was visibly affected by the stories he heard. And at that moment it was as if something - a window, a door opened up for him - a more profound appreciation of his historical self: a Filipino with a long history of resistance against colonialism. At that time, Uncle Fred has not been to the Philippines and later that year I heard that he had returned to the Philippines, paid homage to Rizal, was honored at Malacanang, met his relatives, et al. He has come home full circle. The vision of FANHS expanded and would be transformed, I believe, from this encounter.
Thus, when I read news items that focus on wanting to showcase the Philippines and the galleon trade, I feel saddened and conflicted. Sad because I sense that historical amnesia makes us, again and again, not want to revisit the past and critique it. This time in the name of Globalization. Sad because I see the connection between the galleon trade and the impoverishment of the Philippines. The galleon trade is a symbol of the economic success of the empire and now a symbol of the success of corporate globalization. But what has it done to us?
I feel conflicted because I understand the impulse to move on, to forget and forgive. Conflicted because I want the Philippines to shine - as a festival site, as a cultural mecca - whatever it takes to show the world how beautiful and bountiful our cultural capital is. But who benefits most from our human and cultural capital? Is it the majority of Filipinos in the homeland and in the diaspora or is it merely the elites and uppermiddle class folks who also have a hand in the silencing of history so that their privileges are maintained?
In a way this question of whether we should celebrate the galleon trade or not is similar to the question of Indigenous Peoples worldwide: should we really celebrate the genocides visited upon indigenous peoples, the environmental degradation, and thievery of resources that followed the empires wherever they went? If we now live in a post-modern realization of the horrors of this past and we want to live more harmoniously with the peoples of the earth and in balance with the Earth, perhaps we should be asking even harder questions: questions of reparations for example. Reparations for slavery for example (yes, there were Filipino slaves on those galleons!). And so on....
It is clear to me that my reflections always come from a historical perspective that is longer than the view of empires of the modern era. It is my exercise in lucidity and hopefully...in fecundity.