By GEMMA CRUZ ARANETA
JOSE Rizal lamented that he was born and bred without knowing about our pre-colonial past. As a result, he felt that he had neither voice nor authority to talk on what he did not know. You can be sure that most of his contemporaries felt the same way. When he was a student of the Ateneo Municipal, Rizal did write an allegorical anti-colonial play where the Devil was raving about how beautiful this archipelago was before the Spaniards came.
We can only imagine how difficult it must have been to research about our past history in those days. Most of the available sources were written by friars of the religious orders, zealous missionaries determined to obliterate native beliefs which they considered idolatrous and cultural practices which to them were savage. Rizal must have spent hours plowing through early Philippine histories by Fathers Pedro Chirino (1604), Francisco Colin (1663), Gaspar de San Agustin (1698), all of which he mentioned in his annotations of Dr. Antonio Morga’s book, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, published in Mexico (Nueva España) in 1609. It was already out of circulation when Rizal saw it in an obscure corner of the British Library and Museum.
Rizal and his barkada, the “Indios Bravos,” were not entirely ignorant of the ethnic or indigenous communities of the Motherland; in fact, they abhorred the colonial practice of displaying “samples” of these “savages” in European fairs to justify the conquest of the Philippines by Spain. While in Europe, Rizal came across research papers about various ethnic communities in Asia published by eminent European scientists; one of them was Ferdinand Blumentritt, the author of “Versuch einer Etnographie der Philippinen.” Rizal wrote to him and that was how their friendship began.
Chapter 8 is, about how the natives looked like, their clothes and gold jewelry, customs, and governance before the arrival of the Spaniards and after the conquest and other special features. Rizal’s annotations are longer than the chapter itself. He noticed all of Morga’s “mistakes.” The author had misspelled many native names of places, flora and fauna, and social classes, which Rizal corrected; he also clarified geographical locations. For example, Morga said Tendaya island was one of the largest. Fr. Urdaneta said it was close to Maluco but Fr. Colin vouched it was in the vicinity of Leyte. Other sources revealed that Tendaya was a person’s name, the island never existed.
Morga said that cotton was grown extensively in practically all the islands which the natives sold as thread and woven fabrics to Chinese and other foreign merchants. They also spun thread from banana leaves; Rizal clarified, Morga must have meant sinamay, which was woven from abaca thread that comes from the trunk, not the leaves. He then quoted Fr. Chirino who wrote that these cotton fabrics were sought-after in Nueva España and that encomenderos made fortunes on the cotton trade. That was 31 years after the encomiendas were created, but, Rizal pointed out, the industrious natives were so discouraged by extreme exploitation, they abandoned the fields and burned the weaving looms.
Morga was obviously fascinated with the social organization of the natives; he described origins, differences, privileges of social classes, upward and downward mobility, inheritance of possessions and titles. Rizal emphasized that native women, unlike their European counterparts, never lost their noble titles. In marriage, it was the groom who gave the bride’s parents a dowry because they were losing a precious daughter.
As expected, Morga was critical of the system of government, which he said, barely existed because there were no powerful figure that ruled over myriad communities, most of them coastal, each with its own set of leaders. Rizal argued that it was better that way; why should the communities be beholden to one ruler who didn’t even live among them and was not familiar with their needs and problems? How could he have solved disputes, mete justice, implement policies, if he didn’t even live in the community? (Perhaps Rizal was in favor of federalism.)
One of the most laborious footnotes was about the literacy of pre-colonial Filipinos. Morga said that natives of all the islands had their own form of writing with characters that looked like Greek or Arabic. Sadly enough, Rizal said, that was no longer true. Although the colonial government claimed, in word and deed, that it was instructing the Filipinos, in truth, it was fomenting ignorance by putting the friars in charge of education. Not only Filipinos but also Peninsulares and foreigners accused them of wanting to stupefy (embrutecer) the nation and that was evident in their writings and behavior.
With regard to the ancient script, many eminent scholars have written about it. After Chirino, Colin, and De San Agustin came Jacquet of “Journal Asiatique,” Alfred Marche’s “Luçon and Palaouan” which was about the Tagbanuas; T. Pardo de Tavera’s, “Contribucion para el studio de los antiguos alfabetos Filipinos (1884).
Through Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal met the most eminent European ethnologists of those days. They must have been quite impressed by the intellectual curiosity of this young Asian that they invited him to be a member of their prestigious society of ethnologists. Rizal was so enthused, he made plans for an international conference about the Philippines, but unfortunately his audacious idea not pull through.
Had he lived longer, I am sure he would have spent many years studying the past. After all, his third novel, Makamisa, was about the period of transition about which we know so little. He would have gone to the highlands to meet the Ifugaos and Tinggians and live among our ancestors.