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Filipinos and Europeans


by Edgardo J. Angara
Former Senator

Contacts between indigenous Filipinos and early Europeans hark back several centuries ago during the great age of exploration and discovery when European maritime nations fiercely competed to find a route to the “Islands of Spices” in the exotic East.

Our direct link to old Europe, of course, was through Spain, when Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 arrived in the Philippines. But even throughout the nearly three and a half centuries of Spanish rule, Filipinos established and sustained contacts with other European nations. For instance, the Dutch traded with Muslim sultans in Mindanao and the English occupied Manila for over 2 years. In-between, both English and Dutch captains did lucrative captures of treasure-laden Manila galleons.

In 1600, Admiral Olivier van Noort’s expedition reached Manila Bay, marking the first time the Dutch arrived in the Philippines. Two Spanish galleons, with the help of Filipino sailors, managed to sink one of the Van Noort’s ships, but he was able to escape and sail back to the Netherlands.

Despite this initial defeat, the Dutch maintained their presence in Philippine waters upon the orders of the Netherlands’ United East Asia Company (VOC) to disrupt Spain’s monopoly over the lucrative Galleon Trade, blockade Manila Bay, harass incoming ships and direct as many of them to Dutch ports in the East Indies such as Batavia (Jakarta). The strategy was too costly, and hence abandoned.

Eventually, in 1656, the VOC proposed to Spanish authorities that trade be opened between Manila and Batavia. Spain formally declined, due to the Treaty of Münster that barred the Dutch from doing business in Spanish territories in the East Indies. Informally, however, Spanish officials said the Dutch could trade in Manila, as long as they were in “non-Dutch” disguises.

By the mid-1600s, under the liberal policy of Philippine Governor-General Manuel de Leon, Manila traders began sailing directly to Madras (Chennai) and the rest of the southeastern Coromandel Coast for Indian textiles. British traders, on the other hand, still had no formal way of participating in the highly restricted Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade despite its attempts at gaining access through diplomacy.

But by 1668, directors of the British East India Company were able to get in the Galleon Trade by loading up their goods in Armenian and Indo-Portuguese ships. This is why English and Filipino merchants were already trading goods, even before William Dampier — the first Englishman to enter Philippine waters — arrived in Mindanao in 1688.

Relations between Filipinos and Englishmen were conducted mainly through this intermediary trade. But in 1762, British forces, who at the time were at war with Spain, occupied Manila and Cavite. By 1764, they ceded control of these cities back to Spain as part of the peace settlement of the Seven Years War.

Spain’s colonization of the Philippines had both evangelization and commercial purposes. Manila was a perfectly positioned entrepôt for global trade: Chinese silk, Indian cotton, Cambodian finery, and Moluccan spices, for Mexican and Peruvian gold and silver, and exquisite furniture from France and Spain.

The other Europeans came to the Philippines purely for riches and resources. The English and the Dutch organized their pursuit of profit through their mighty joint-stock companies – England’s the British East India Company and the Netherlands’ United East India Company.

Undoubtedly, there was a large measure of exploitation of the colonized. But colonial rule also brought in its wake religion, scientific inquiry, and, belatedly social and political development.

Many of the Filipino advocates of autonomy lived in Madrid or Paris, propagandistas like Graciano Lopez Jaena, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, brothers Antonio and Juan Luna, and the national hero Jose Rizal. Through their studies in European universities and their interaction with European intellectuals, they imbibed ideas of human and civil rights, liberty, and democracy — values that animated the Filipino freedom fighters against Spain.

The liberal Cadiz Constiution of 1812 was made applicable to Manila. And the Malolos Constitution of 1999 embodied the libertarian ideals of the 1812 Cadiz Constitution.

That, I believe, explains the unique fusion of Asian and Western Values in the Filipino. Filipinos follow an Anglo-Continental law framework and are  overwhelmingly imbued with Judeo-Christian values. At the same time, they feel strongly for family and in communal spirit. As Carlos P. Romulo, once eloquently said “The Filipino is a child of East and West.”

Several current issues divide the two peoples over alleged human rights violations, the reintroduction of death penalty, and the lowering of the age of criminal liability. The Filipino’s unique history and political evolution, I believe, may provide scope and space for better and more understanding of one another. And will hopefully create the atmosphere and impetus to do right.

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