Romancing colonialism and the colonized mind
HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose () - July 13, 2008 - 12:00am

attended the tail-end of the two-day conference on the Augustinian friar Andres de Urdaneta at the Instituto Cervantes recently. Before going into what I said at that last session, let me recount how I came to Manila in 1938 to enroll at the Far Eastern University High School in Azcarraga, now Recto. In the afternoons, after class, I swam in the Pasig or crossed through Escolta, to the Walled City then to the Luneta to swim in the bay behind what is now the Quirino Grandstand. I often idled in Intramuros, to gaze at the ornate altars of its dozen or so churches, notably Santo Domingo during the La Naval festival in October. Shortly after World War II when Intramuros was a desolate wilderness of grass and squatter huts, I sometimes visited the San Agustin church, the proud survivor of that war. It was not yet rehabilitated, the walls scarred, the huge paintings of departed Augustinians torn, and the garden at the back in shambles.

On those occasions that I pilgrimaged to the Ilokos, I marveled at the beauty, the durability of those old churches, particularly those architectural jewels in Santa Maria and in Paoay, and lamented, too, the laziness of their parish priests for not cleaning them up or sprucing up their yards. When I wrote that novel Po-on — the first in the chronology of a five-novel saga spanning a hundred years of our history — I delved deeper into the past of those churches and the friars who built them. A wise and compassionate Augustinian in the novel, Padre Jose Leon, teaches the main character, the peasant Eustaquio Salvador, Spanish and Latin and what he knew of the elementary sciences that the Augustinians took with them in their epic voyage to the New World and to Filipinas.

As Jose Ma. Fons of the Instituto Cervantes later said, “At least, there is one good Spaniard in the novel.”

Much as I appreciate the Augustinians, they are not my favorite Spanish order; the Dominicans are, in spite of the criticisms that have been leveled at them. The reason for this is personal — I spent four happy years in the Dominican-run University of Santo Tomas and had a memorable teacher, the Spanish Dominican Juan Labrador.

Pio Andrade was speaking when I arrived. He said that what Rizal wrote about agrarian discontent in Laguna was not true. I flared up immediately and said he had just called Rizal a liar. Onward in his presentation, as he extolled Spanish contributions to the country, I asked if he was apologizing for Spanish colonialism.

For those who were at the conference who heard my remarks and have wondered why I said them at all, let me elaborate.

The logic or primary purpose of colonialism/imperialism is the domination of a powerful country over a weak nation or people. It is exploitation, the plunder of the resources of a country to send to the mother country. Whether the colonizer is ancient Rome, or Spain, the Dutch in the 15th century or much later, the English, the Europeans, or in more recent times  the United States and Japan, they are all the same.

They colonize often under several dulcet guises, to spread Christianity and Western Civilization, to give law and order to primitive societies, to make the world “safe for democracy.” What for is the United States in Iraq, if not for Iraqi oil?

And to repeat, the logic of colonialism is exploitation. It is immoral. No amount of romanticizing it, or apologizing for it as some Filipinos are now doing with Spanish colonialism, can banish the stain, the indelible stigma of colonialism.

For all his sterling qualities as a writer — and he was such a dear old friend — I fault the late Nick Joaquin for being an apologist of Spanish colonialism. We have had strident arguments when he repeated so often that gross statement that “everything good in this country came from Spain.”

I always reminded him that before Spain came, we had a commercial relationship with China whose civilization is much, much older than that of Europe.

All he had to do was go to the Central Bank to look at the gold collection there, which was found in Surigao; the collection illustrates the scientific and cultural finesse of the earliest Filipinos — although we were not called Filipinos then. At the Newberry Library in Chicago is the Codex, the earliest account of the people of these islands. The upper classes wore fine clothes, jewelry, footwear. We had five indigenous alphabets before the Spaniards came.

I always silenced him thus: “Don’t forget the Spaniards killed Rizal.”

The paper of that brilliant scholar, Fernando Zialcita, is one more apology for Spanish colonialism. In his summary, he states, “Christianity did effect meaningful change. It taught that low-status people had dignity in themselves and could not be sold, or even sacrificed, as chattel. It sought to create a community that was broader than just an individual clan. Though social stratification was not abolished, a more humane stratification, one based on ownership of land rather than on ownership of human beings, was introduced.”

Had he stopped here, he would have been factual, he would have made his case. But then he concluded: “The challenge for us today is how to move up to a higher level of consciousness where every individual is truly cared for. But this level of consciousness could not have been possible without the transformation of consciousness that the missionaries — despite their flaws — effected during the 17th to 19th centuries.”

This is pure speculation. How could he know? Are the Indonesians because they are Muslims, the Vietnamese because they are Buddhists and the Indians because they are Hindus — not colonized by Spanish Catholics — any less imbued with “higher consciousness”?

So why then apologize for Spanish colonialism? Maybe those who do are not just nostalgic about the Spanish past — perhaps they also long for this country to be a Spanish colony again. After all, as a British historian stated, if the Axis powers — Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain — had won in World War II,  Franco would have wanted the Philippines to revert to Spain.

And the Americans?

The poet Robert Frost, the writer Mark Twain and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie were among those who opposed the American invasion of the Philippines in 1898. When I visited Robert Frost at his cottage in Ripton, Vermont in 1955, he asked how the American occupation turned out. I told him, but for the public schools which the Americans built, on that very day I would probably be an unlettered peasant atop a water buffalo in my village in Luzon. I said, probably.

Indeed, America’s legacy to us is the public school system for which I am grateful. But I will never apologize for American imperialism, for their atrocities during the Philippine American war, their “free” trade, for Parity in 1946 and for the fact that their “benevolent neglect” also left in us a lingering hangover, a crippling dependency that hinders our development.

As for the Japanese, who in my generation will ever forget their bestiality in World War II? But that, too, we must transcend to realize what we can learn from them.

Ambeth Ocampo said something significant the other week when he was decorated by the French government. He said, “Let us not be prisoners of history.”

I would add, “Let us use it instead.”

History has its uses. For us who are colonized, it is important that we are freed from it, to use it not to glorify the colonizer, but to remember he was the enemy and could still be — and that from history, we should be able to extract those aspects of it which could bind us, which could lead us to freedom and justice.

The former colonizers and their acolytes certainly would like to romanticize the past for so many reasons, not so much to rewrite history from their point of view, but out of a sense of guilt, for a desire to re-impose their dominance or, if they are still around, their influence or residual power. This is a normal and understandable exercise.

But the colonized should never be party to this resuscitation of their glory which is our bondage and our shame. On every occasion, that they try to, the colonized should reject it, expose it for the fallacies that lie underneath such glowing reminiscence.

The intractable logic of colonialism demands such rejection. Just ask this simple question: All those profits from the galleon trade, those monopolies, to whom did they go? Certainly not to the Indios.

And more than this, the colonizers laid down the structures of oppression, the institutions of coercion which exist to this very day, for colonialism dies hard—it persists in actual forces of domination, of control, of helplessness and apathy in the colonized. And this is perhaps the most enduring and formidable obstacle in the building of a nation — the colonized mind.

Because colonialism is exploitation and therefore immoral, it is impossible to dignify it. It can, of course, be romanticized, and this only selectively, for certainly, the native did profit from colonialism’s collateral acolytes — the heroic friars, the Thomasites, the missionary doctors — all have deodorized colonialism to a limited extent.

Capitalism, with its logic of profit, is easy to dignify — the Rockefellers, the Fords have done this with their outstanding philanthropies, and certainly Bill Gates most of all. Too, all those businessmen who practice sincerely “corporate social responsibility” do fulfill capitalism’s humanitarian incremental functions.

And most of all, as we have seen in recent times, capitalism has morphed authoritarian regimes into democracies — to wit, South Korea, Taiwan, even Japan. But colonialism? The sooner the colonized writers, intellectuals and leaders recognize its unerring logic, the sooner, too, will they be able to get rid of their colonized minds that have warped their reasoning, their attitudes without their being fully aware these are destroying them and their country as well.

Speculations are worthless just as hindsight is the lowest form of wisdom. It is for this reason that memory is important, why we should always remember so that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

If the Americans remembered their loss in the Philippine-American war, they would never have gone to Vietnam. Or if they remembered Vietnam at all, they would not have gone to Iraq. And we should remember also that our revolution failed primarily because we couldn’t get our act together, we couldn’t unite. If we learned that lesson then, we would not be where we are today.

So, then, if I abhor Spanish colonialism, why do I like visiting Spain and even writing there? Why do I have Spanish mestizo friends and, most of all, why do I go to Instituto Cervantes?

Because I am one of the 90 million citizens called Filipino and Filipinas — how I love that name and all that it evokes, the land and its history, and most of all, the essence of what we are: human beings whose consciousness of nation and that nation’s boundaries were created by a colonial power.

Let me be very clear about this. I pay homage to the heroic Spain which sent those sailors in those puny ships to the New World, to Filipinas,  and with them, those equally heroic priests like Andres Urdaneta, Miguel Benavides and so many more. I admire the noble Spain that nurtured Rizal — not the Spain that martyred him, the Spain of Cervantes, Zurbaran, Lope de Vega, Miguel de Unamuno, and Goya, the Spain of that poor Loyalist who declared: In my hunger I command! The writer Salvador de Madariaga (I invited him some 30 years ago to deliver our Jose Rizal PEN Lecture; he had sought me out in Berlin in 1960 because he, too, had read Rizal) — it was he who told me that a country need not be colonized by a foreign power — it can be a colony of its own leaders — the awful truth which describes us today.

We are destined to be free — but that destiny is not up for grabs, nor does it come easily. Often, it is denied us because we deny ourselves the free mind imprisoned in attitudes of our own making, implanted in us by miseducation, by our misunderstanding of history.

And so, to paraphrase that famous Manifesto: Filipinos, sugod! You have nothing to lose but your chains and a nation to gain.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with