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Arts and Culture

The change we need is in the ‘Manila Synod of 1582’

THE DOWNBEAT - DLS Pineda - The Philippine Star

There are very few books which can cast an impression as powerful and as sacred as Paul Dumol’s translation of The Manila Synod of 1582. It has 232 letter-sized craft paper pages which, upon its wide margins, one could write personal annotations. It contains two introductions, one by John Schumacher, S.J. and another by the translator, as well as two drafts of the “handbook for confessors” which the synod produced. Its cover is made out of thick Manila paper, and printed on it is its title in elegant serif, laid out front and center. There is little wonder how it won Karl Castro and the Ateneo de Manila University Press the National Book Award for Design in 2015. In the same year, Dr. Dumol also won the National Book Award for Translation. But in itself, the text he translated from Spanish to English was also quite something. Given a wider readership, The Manila Synod of 1582 is bound to change the way we view our colonized past and ourselves.

A synod is a council assembled by the church wherein they decide matters of doctrine, administration, or application. In the Manila synod of 1582, the first bishop of Manila, Domingo de Salazar, along with his fellow missionaries and some laymen, decided on why they were settling here, how they were supposed to act, how much tribute they should collect, and — surprisingly (though it is the synod’s necessary consequence) — how they were to make amends for all the wrongs their countrymen inflicted upon the natives ever since the day the conquistador, Miguel López de Legazpi, set foot on the islands in 1565.

This information alone is enough to send scholars and history enthusiasts scrambling; it seems that we got something wrong with the way we view the Spanish occupation. Not to say that the Spaniards were all good guys, but it was certainly not 333 years of darkness with guardias civiles lashing out the first Indio they saw, nor were all priests Damasos or Salvis. Dr. Dumol’s work not only sheds light on the early days of Spanish occupation, it also grants us a new perspective with which we could view the deeds of our colonizers — one which is not centered on slavery, greed, or oppression, but a fair, Catholic sense of justice that was ahead of its time.

I visited Dr. Dumol in his room at the University of Asia & the Pacific’s Department of History, a small and quiet chamber in the bustling Ortigas business district, to talk about his recently published translation. “A friend asked me to translate them because he wanted to write a study of Philosophy in the Philippines,” he immediately said. “And his hypothesis was that it began with the Synod of Manila. So, basically, what I did was simply to translate. From the moment I started translating it up to the time that it came out — mga 12 years ‘yun.”

He detailed in our conversation the knots he untangled while translating (like realizing that some abbreviations actually meant different words; like realizing that the scribe from the 1600s had carelessly inserted marginal notes midsentence) as well as his troubles in having the book published (like waiting one year for the Spanish transcription’s original publisher to reply).

“I also had to account for the fact that (the transcription) was all damaged,” he said. “It must have been copied in its damaged state. I think it was copied maybe in the 1640s, which means something like 60 years had passed since the synod. So I put this appendix where I put all the marginalia and explained why I did that. And I thought that that was necessary because this book does not look anything like the transcription which I translated. In the end, mga hula ko ‘yan. Well, some of them talagang siguradong-sigurado ako. Others, kutob—napakalakas na kutob.”

“This is not definitive,” he added. “In fact, after I got my copy, looking at it I said, ‘Uy. Mero’n yatang bago dito.’ If there will ever be a second edition, I might have corrections to make.”

Regardless of — or perhaps, because of — these admissions of fallibility, Dr. Dumol’s work of translation bears great weight. Since it is a work of translation, it does not take an argumentative tone nor does it aim to prove a superior theory. It simply makes a piece of writing more accessible for today’s audience. And by that virtue alone, it serves as a sobering critique on modern-day assumptions of a tyrannous Spanish rule which, for more than three centuries, was supposedly consumed with nothing but hate for the Indio. The translation of the handbooks is unmissable for anyone who wishes to provide greater context in the study of our history.

 “It is a scholarly apparatus,” Dr. Dumol said. “What was in my mind when I wrote that was that it was going to be just for specialists. So, in a sense, I was surprised when I saw this edition. Kasi ibig-sabihin ng book for specialists, konti lamang bibili niyan, konti lang magbabasa. Normally, magtitipid ang mga presses. Pero ito, hindi ‘to tinipid.”

Looking at my copy, I felt like I possessed an artifact from the past, comparable to the ruins of Zeus’ temple — while they are ultimately lost in the past, they remain awe-inspiring zeitgeists of their time. They are not mere historical factoids but embodiments of a bygone worldview.

“If you go through the manuscript itself, you see that the crimes they committed in the first10 years were horrible! Really, really horrible! If there was any way by which they could cheat people — even of little things — gagawin nila ‘yun. So, in that sense the book confirms (the idea that the Spaniards were abusive),” Dr. Dumol said.

“But the reaction of the missionaries under the leadership of the bishop was really something else. It was amazing,” he continued. “And the degree na talagang sinuyod nila ‘yung offense, showed their great concern for justice. Like if they did something wrong, they had to pay the person they did wrong to. Kung namatay na—kung hindi gagawa ng amends sa asawa—dapat sa anak. Tapos kung may mali sila pati sa kusinero, dapat pati ‘yung kusinero bayaran. I realized that this must’ve been the source of a number of policies which persisted through at least the first 200 years of Spain’s stay in the Philippines.” As to how a complete turnaround happened in the 19th century is a complex matter which is beyond the scope of the 1582 synod. (Notably, in his letters to Blumentritt, Jose Rizal also mentioned this shift when he was trying to arrange the first international conference on Philippine studies in Paris. He dated the change at 1810.)

Central to the synod was putting into words their reason for staying in the Philippine islands, a place where the Spanish king had no natural right to establish dominion upon. And unlike the Americans who arrived at the end of the 19th century, the Spaniards recognized that “(the Indians) had very good governance in some things,” and that “they had some good things and that those should not be changed.” There were even objections from the missionaries who pointed out that “perhaps we are more savages in their eyes than they are in ours.”

Indeed, the Manila Synod of 1582 is incorrigible proof that while we rub salt on the wounds brought by the “lost years under colonial rule,” we do disservice not only to the good lot among our colonizers, but also to ourselves.

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