Corruption in ancient Manila
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - January 26, 2009 - 12:00am

It appears we’ve been at it for a long time. Bribes. Turning a blind eye. Bending the law. Unexplained wealth. Only we didn’t call it “corruption.”

The Spaniards blamed it on bureaucracy, “cosas de palacio,” (stuff in the palace). The Americans gave us a new word for it, “graft.” During the early years of our independence, it was labeled “anomalies.” The new global word is “corruption.”

In the second half of the 17th century in Manila, things were pretty much what they are today. Smuggling, illegal trade, secret agenda, false labels flourished. The rulers were the worst offenders and foreign governments and traders made the most of greed in high places. Identities remained hidden and religion kept both eyes on heaven. The poor were never considered except as sources of hard, often forced, labor, the taxes and servility they provided.

History gives us the gory details. A treatise on English trade in Manila and Mindanao (1672-1699) by Dr. Serafin Quiason draws the horrifying but familiar picture of corruption in our country then. 

Because of the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, we had silver coming out of our ears and whole kingdoms, ships, merchants and scoundrels and all the shysters of the known world were racing towards Manila to get their handful.

The Spanish kings, being Hapsburgs, were not inclined to share the treasure with former enemies like the English pirates, the Dutch merchant mariners or the ambitious French. The Chinese had a stranglehold near-monopoly because they had been in residence centuries before Magellan and Legaspi, doing all the work.

The Spaniards in Manila suffered from a “recurring fear of European aggressiveness,” writes Dr. Quiason. “Manila was off-limits to the English, under pain of sequestration of vessels and merchandise as well as the imprisonment of English captains and supercargo. Those who were exempted were the Portuguese and the Asians.”

How to get around those Spanish courts?

The task of gaining access to the exclusive Manila market had to be done “in the stealthy manner of circumspect schemes,” of British officials using their Hindu and Portuguese connections. We guess these methods were very much like those employed nowadays by Filipino customs agents and smugglers in Manila’s port area.

English ships flying Portuguese or Armenian flags, English captains disguised as interpreters carried huge cargoes of textiles, long cloth, cotton, zinc, pewter, saltpeter and iron and made a “hefty profit,” about 40 percent on their investment, during several trips during the trading season, between February and July each year.

“To beguile the religious sensitivity of the Spanish officials and ecclesiastics, the names of the ships of the East India Company were changed to the names of saints, “Sto. Tomas, Santa Cruz, or Nuestra Señora del Rosario.”

Such wily tactics were actually quite unnecessary. Gifts to the officials including the occupants of the Palacio put the illegal traders on the good side of the Manila authorities. As any self-respecting businessman today knows only too well. The authorities, civil and religious, knew exactly what was going on and played dumb for a price. And, remember, the media were still not around.

“The bureaucracy was so plagued with corruption,” writes Serafin Quiason, “that bribery was a deeply ingrained part of the game at the Manila Customs House. The Hindu aides or the English sea captains, under a carefully contrived cloak of secrecy, were granted an audience at the Palace or the Town Hall, bearing suitable gifts and fictitious names, conducting trading operation during many years.”

Another historian, Clarence H. Haring, chimes in: “The illicit trade was welcomed by the authorities for it supplied their needs, giving them an opportunity of enriching themselves and adding to the comforts and luxuries of living.” The lifestyle checks on the rich and infamous repose in the archives in our National Library, and never saw the offices of today’s tabloids.

Another side to the corruption in 17th- century Manila and the damage it inflicted on our ancestors sheds light on our lives today. The illegality flourished because there was a deep and wide market for imported goods. What we now call “the colonial mentality” of the Filipino consumer.

That weakness in the national character is described by Dr. Quiason thus: “The indios Filipinos developed a special preference for the imported fabrics of bright colors (hand-woven chintz, muslin, calico, gingham, taffeta, especially the wovenfolk who made them into exquisite saya and tapis worn by the affluent indio women. The importing craze whetted the appetite for diamonds and precious stones brought by Armenian merchants.” Now we know where and when the taste for flamboyant clothes and accessories displayed by our generals’ wives and cabinet-members’ mistresses comes from.

An interesting sidebar to this glimpse of illegality in 17th-century Spanish Manila is the little-known participation of at least one great man of American academe. A Welshman born and raised in America, he left for London at the age of 21 where he worked in various offices, then spent the rest of his life at Fort St. George on the Indian coast, finally becoming its governor, but also one of the richest merchants trading in diamonds, slaves, money-lending, spices shipping and other contraband enterprises in Manila and Maguindanao.

It was from the great fortune he made in the “Indies,” specially “Manilha” and the Spanish Moluccas” as this country was called then, that he made mammoth donations to an obscure college in “Conecticot” which became one of the pillars of the US Ivy League and bore his name: Elihu Yale. Many of the most successful and learned Filipinos have been Yale men, graduates of Yale University like Dr. Serafin Quiason.

By bringing up corruption in high places in 17th-century Philippines, am I saying that nothing has changed? That, in that famous Gallic cynicism, the more things change, the more they remain the same? Or that corruption is endemic to our country, like malaria or dengue fever because there’s nothing we can do about the behavior of mosquitoes?

Rizal said that “even our defects are those of our colonizers.” During those long oppressive centuries, we Filipinos were carefully taught by example, from Spain, sloth and braggadocio; from America, materialism and hypocrisy; and from both, that corruption was a tool for survival.

Westerners call this argument “flogging a dead horse.” But the stench of a dead horse, like colonization, poisons the air for a long time if it’s left unburied. It enters the bloodstream, the racial memory, the national DNA.

And thus do we continue to lie, cheat, steal, deceive others and our own selves as if it were our second nature.

Until we determine to bury the dead horse of colonization, with its deadly effects on our subconscious and expunge the poisonous boot habits that its carcass infected us with, we shall remain on the shame list of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Look at it this way: clean hands and pure hearts are the best proof that we are at last truly free of our colonizers. For, it was not always like this. The Chinese chronicles of the 11th century praised us for the innocent honesty with which our forefathers left the exact equivalent of the goods for barter which they had left on our beaches, at the appointed time, without benefit or need for pledges and records. Our real heritage is the honor system.

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