Rizal and Catanduanes (First of two parts)

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In two days, on June 19, it will be the 159th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal. Surely, Catandunganons know of the national hero. But it should warm their hearts to be informed that Rizal also knew of Catanduanes, and in glowing terms. This can be gleaned from Rizal’s “Annotation of Morga’s ‘Sucesos de las Islas Filipina’”, published in 1889.

The “Annotation” was Rizal’s next important work after Noli Me Tangere. Having heard that there were a few copies at the British Museum of the book “Sucesos del las Islas Filipinas” (History of the Philippine Islands) by Antonio de Morga, he found time to be in London and copied the said book, word for word, with the intention of republishing it with his own commentaries (annotations). The book was originally published in 1609 just about 50 years after the conquest of the Philippines by Spaniards. It was therefore a history of the early years of Spanish occupation. Antonio de Morga was a former governor general of the colony.

Rizal’s aim in making available an annotated version of the book was to demonstrate that the Philippines already had a thriving civilization before the coming of the Spaniards. Specifically, he tried to prove two things: 1) the Spaniards did not civilize the natives as was widely claimed, and 2) that the conquest in fact resulted to the suppression, indeed the loss of the glorious pre-colonial culture of the Filipinos. While the Noli called attention to the grim social circumstances of the Filipinos under the Spaniards, the “Annotation” reminded of the vitality and dignity of the natives as a people before the conquest. The contrasting pictures of past and present could be useful in plotting out the future. Publishing the “Annotation” therefore was part of Rizal’s grand consciousness-raising program in order to stir the Filipinos to work for their emancipation.

Typically, colonizers were biased in writing about their colonized people. They would try to either erase the history of the people they subjugate or else rewrite it to their favor: in order to say that these people were leading primitive lives until they rescued them from their savagery. But then, these biased writings may contain some kernels of information that reveal the truth. In the case of the Philippines, this was true especially of the so-called “chronicles” or writings of the pioneering Spaniards at the point of their initial contact with the natives, such as that of Pigafetta who accompanied Magellan in his circumnavigation of the world.

Rizal knew of the potential of these chronicles in getting a good glimpse of how the Filipinos lived before the coming of the Spaniards, despite their derisive opinions of the natives. Desirous to know more about his own people, Rizal studied all materials available during his time. He singled out Morga’s work because of 1) its broad scope of coverage as a “history” of the islands, including the customs and traditions of the people, and 2) its somewhat balanced treatment, even as it sported the point-of-view of Spanish superiority.

In his annotated version, Rizal made copious commentaries on specific entries, putting them into context as evidences of the Filipinos’ thriving pre-colonial civilization. For example, he called attention to the fact that the natives knew how to manufacture cannons of superior quality as exemplified by the work of Panday Pira, master cannon-maker of the pre-Spanish kingdom of Manila. In other cases, he enriched the narrative by providing additional details, or else corrected what he believed were outright falsehoods. In many cases, he cross-referenced them with other chroniclers such as Francisco Colin and the Jesuit Pedro Chirino. Every now and then, Rizal would call attention to what he thought was Morga’s remarkable objectivity such as when he wrote that the Spaniards “brought war to the gates of the Filipinos” rather than  call the conquest as “pacification” as was done by latter writers.

So how did Catanduanes figured out in all these?

In the “Sucesos” Morga wrote of Catanduanes as being “densely populated with natives of good disposition” who “cultivate the soil but some are engaged in gold-washing, and in trading with various islands, and with the mainland of Luzon very near those islands” (from Blair and Robertson, Vol. 15 p. 106). To this passage, Rizal made a footnote commentary. He wrote:

           The men of these islands were excellent carpenters and shipbuilders. “They make many very light vessels, which they take through the vicinity for sale in a very curious manner. They build a very large vessel, undecked, without iron nail or any fastening. The, according to the measure of its hull, they make another vessel that fit into it. Within that they put a second and a third. Thus a large biroco contains ten or twelve vessels, called biroco, virey, barangay or binitan” (citations were from Colin).

Rizal apparently took care to make the citation in order to call attention to the uncommon ingenuity of the Catandunganon natives, surely imagining how these boat builders-traders must have created a spectacular display as they ply their trade routes. Appearing on the horizon of their would-be buyers, they would launch on to the sea their wares, as if one big boat suddenly gave birth to smaller ones.

But Rizal had more to say of these awesome natives, again generously quoting from Colin:

These natives were “tattooed and were excellent rowers and sailors; and although they were upset often, they never drown.” The women are very masculine. “They do not drink from the rivers, although the water is very clear, because it gives them nausea. .  . The women’s costumes are chaste and pretty, for they wear petticoats in the Bisayan manner, of fine medriñaque, and lamboncillos, resemble close-fitting sayuelos (i.e., woolen shifts worn by certain classes of religious). They wear long robes of the same fine medriñaque. They gather the hair, which is neatly combed, into a knot, on top of the head, and place a rose in it. On their forehead they wear a band of very fine wrought gold, two fingers wide. It is very neatly worked, and on the side encircling the head it is covered with colored taffeta. In each ear they wear three gold earrings, one in the place where the Spanish women wear them, and two higher up. On their feet they wear certain coverings of thin brass, which sound when they walk.”

Such is a sampling of how Rizal worked his case to argue that the Filipinos were carrying through a well-developed way of life long before the coming of the Europeans. For us Catandunganons, it is prideful to note that through our forebears we have contributed our share for Rizal’s noble pursuit.

Piecing together the few snatches of practices and imageries culled from their early customs, one can paint the broad picture of an elaborate Catandungan traditional culture steeped in both technological prowess and industry concerning livelihood (farming, seafaring, boat-building, mining), and finesse in material self-presentation (fine dressing, exquisite jewelries, tasteful hairdos). It was a well-balanced combination: while they amply minded the practical requirements of living, they did not neglect the finer things.

But then Rizal ended the same commentary with a damper. Succinctly he wrote: “These islands have also retrograded.” He was referring to the decline that the native culture suffered from the pressure of three centuries of Spanish domination. Present-day critical analysts would say that ours is a “damaged culture.” How far is the damage? In the latter half of the last century of Spanish occupation (19th century), a Spanish explorer by the name of Juan Alvarez Guerra traveled around the island (made the 360o tour). By the end of his journey, he was only too glad to be able to leave and be back to his comfort zone as he was “tired of body and dejected of spirit to see the backwardness of the island of Catanduanes.” As for the people, all he saw was their utter lack of aspiration and a sense of the world beyond the horizon. That might have been too gross a view, granting his European bias and his failure to adequately communicate with the natives. But then it might as well indicate the deterioration the Catandunganons suffered from colonial rule.

What now of us in the present? Is the pre-colonial Catandungan culture forever lost or irretrievable? Perhaps not. It could be that aspects of the old are still with us. Some remnants, especially the more enduring core features of the Catandunganon spirit, may still be lodged deep in our collective psyche. Think of our strengths handy in dealing with the adversities we face. Consider our virtues such as resilience and abiding faith in God. For all we know, the roots are still there, waiting to be teased out of dormancy, nurtured and made to flower forth into the light of our times.  It is not about going back to the ways of old; it is about making the past relevant and useful to the demands of the present and the future, like the grand program for liberation and progress laid out by Rizal. He is our national hero, anyway, somebody to be honored not so much by building monuments but by heeding his lessons. Seriously.

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