Understanding Philippines-Portugal Relationship
- Jad A. Conde () - July 16, 2006 - 12:00am
Our knowledge of the presence of Portugal in the Philippines is very limited. We only know of the fact that it was Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan who "discovered" the Philippines. But yet, this is not so, as evidenced by what I have learned during the lecture-conference of Professor Carneiro de Sousa at the University of San Carlos entitled Portuguese Maritime Power, Rights, and Enclaves in Asia: The Philippine Connection.

Professor de Sousa is a historian in the Department of History of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Porto whose specialization is History of Portuguese Colonialism. He is the Director of Post-Graduate Studies in Asian Studies and currently, the Director of the Portuguese Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Portugal, which has centers at Porto, Lisboa, and in Laos (southern Portugal).

We know that Ferdinand Magellan landed of Cebu Island on March 16, 1521. We are also certain that his expedition was responsible for the first wave of Christianity in the Philippines. And, of course, we are never oblivious of this Portuguese navigator's death in the unforgettable Battle of Mactan.

There are various details of this remarkable expedition as chronicled by Magellan's official chronicler Antonio Pigafetta that are less known to Filipinos. But, are not those that I have mentioned above the foundation of events in the teaching of Philippine history during the Spanish colonial period? Dr. Resil Mojares, one of the reactors in the lecture-conference, has a better explanation on this:

"Since the late nineteenth-century however, particularly in the past decades, Filipino students and historians have expressed intellectual unease, if not open resistance to a narrative that dates the beginning of our history with the coming of the Europeans. A narrative that privileges what Europeans did instead of what we ourselves did, or had done".

Though this narrative has remained dominant up to the present, historians have been continuously scrutinizing the accuracy of Pigafetta's report. As a matter of fact, its tone and exaggeration were deemed questionable.

Professor de Sousa averred that discovery is a dangerous word. Rather, he believes in the concept of finding and the concept of identification that are two distant topics all together. Dr. Mojares elucidated further that such is the unease or resistance that today it seems we can no longer write or say that Magellan discovered the Philippines without putting the word "discover" in quotation marks. Likewise, without qualifying the discourse of discovery by saying that other peoples (including Portuguese) had in fact been in these islands before 1521. Professor de Sousa, too, acknowledged that the Portuguese and Spanish were not the first to discover Southeast Asia, in general, and the Philippines, in particular.

Professor de Sousa raised some questionable passages in Pigafetta's journal that were written beyond the context of the historical account. He also mentioned about Pigafetta's intention in writing the book. But, this is another topic entirely.

According to Professor de Sousa, "The chronicles, memoirs, documents and maps of the Portuguese presence in Asia also pay particular attention to the travels of Francisco de Castro. Since 1538, de Castro broadened geographical knowledge of the region and intensified political and trade relations with the support of the dynamic governance of the Moluccas."

He also mentioned that, in the case of Southeast Asia, the main peripheral area of Portuguese maritime commercial circulation was the archipelago of the Philippines. The country's southernmost islands around Mindanao were explored, visited and used with economic objectives by the Portuguese commercial navigation on a regular basis during their voyages to the city of Molluca.

Dr. Mojares was impressive when he explained that from Jose Rizal and Pedro Paterno in the nineteenth century to late twentieth century historians like Teodoro Agoncillo and Zeus Salazar, there has been the effort to reconstruct a Philippine history that is much "longer" and more "autonomous" than one that began with Magellan's coming. He added that these efforts at historical revision are a needed corrective to colonial historians, and that we do need to conceive of Philippine history as broader than the one that is framed by the discourse of discovery and colonialism.

The lecture-conference was quite impressive to make better known Portugal's contribution to the early modern history of the Philippines. It was an added information, especially to me. Dr. Mojares, for one, was delighted to learn about the surprising connection between the Philippines and Brazil when, in the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, Portugal gave up claims to the Philippines in exchange for Spanish recognition of Portuguese rights to southern Brazil.

"It may be said that this has very little to do with us since we are talking about treaties and debates about international rights in which we were pawns rather than participants. But to say this is rather impertinent. Such treatise and notions of international rights were not only important to Filipino intellectuals. It became a subject to be interrogated and contested and, in that process, a modern nationalism was formed in the Philippines. Such debates over the rights of nations remain relevant today," Dr. Mojares said.

The lecture-conference culminated with the successful launch of Professor de Sousa's book on the importance of the Philippines to the Portuguese Empire in Asia during XVI and XVII centuries.

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