A History After Legaspi

Viewing the Exhibit Early Explorations From Legaspi to Malaspina (By Reinerio Alba)

For a full month and a half (March 3 to April 18) this year, about 200 pieces of original paintings, chinaware, furniture and other artifacts dating as far as the 16th century were exhibited at the Museum of the Filipino in Kalaw, with help from the State Corporation for Spanish Cultural Action Abroad (SEACEX) and Instituto Cervantes of Manila. All of which were brought in from Spain where they were also exhibited in November 2003, with many representative items coming from the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade between 16th to 18th century.

One could easily mistake the exhibit title "The Philippines: Gateway to the Orient from Legazpi to Malaspina" as an unabashed tribute to the country. But it is not. Philippines, Legazpi, and Malaspina are obviously mentioned in the same breath and the title seemed to actually have been two fused titles: "The Philippines: Gateway to the Orient" and "From Legazpi to Malaspina."

From the brief history notes made by exhibition curator Alfredo Morales, one is likely to realize that the title is a plain statement and an acknowledgment of a fact: "For centuries, the Philippines was a gateway between East and West, the destination of many commercial, circumnavigation and scientific voyages and a nexus of exchanges whose importance and activity continued even after the establishment of the Royal Philippine Company and the abandonment in the early 19th century of the route that had linked Manila and Acapulco for over two hundred years."

This subject of the Manila-Acapulco route necessarily brings us to Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, its explorer, and whose 500th birth anniversary the Spanish government is celebrating this year, with the explorations he inspired and the material heritage of that period becoming the obvious springboard for the exhibit.

Legazpi's connection with the Philippine islands dates back to 1564, the year he departed from Mexico in command of an expedition armed with a mission of establishing a return route by which, according to Andres de Urdaneta, ships could sail back from the Philippines to the American continent. It was said that Legazpi wanted neither gold nor glory but was merely on that mission for his God. For over two centuries then, with the establishment of the Manila-Acapulco route, galleons after galleons had since plied it sailing from New Spain to Manila, the archipelago's capital which Legazpi himself founded in 1571.

The exhibit likewise is a tribute to the Italian Alejandro Malaspina who worked his way up to the rank of Captain in the Spanish Navy, and the political and scientific voyages he led from 1789 to 1794. Malaspina, after examining the political situation of the Spanish colonies in the Pacific, boldly recommended to the Spanish government that instead of plundering the Spanish colonies in the Pacific economically, Spain should instead develop a confederation of states whose members would conduct international trade. Malaspina further suggested that Spain should abandon the military domination of far-off lands and establish a Pacific Rim trading bloc, managed by the Spaniards from Acapulco. For such ideas, he found himself imprisoned for seven years, only to be released through the intercession of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. It is, in a way, ironic then that an exhibit organized by Spanish institutions now carry his name.

The redwood colored panels added to the overall somber mood of the exhibit and one approaches the articles on display with a kind of solemnity akin to entering churches or even funeral houses. These are all articles from the past after all--all the historical articles coming from Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Italy, Ecuador, and the Philippines-and one indeed seemed braver when one walked towards it, "confronting the past on foot,"as writer Kerima Polotan would put it.

All the articles are spread evenly throughout three sections: "Courses, Navigators and Scientific Expeditions," "Govern, Administer, Evangelize," and "An Archipelago of Exchanges"(obviously, the titles disabuse any further notion that the exhibit is all about the Philippines). The first section, as the guide notes state, is supposed to show "the enormous task performed by the many discoverers, seafarers and intellectuals who sailed the Pacific for centuries, discovering, reconnoitering, colonizing and studying the physical and human landscapes of its countless islands."We find in this section a Philippine map, specifically tracing the old and the new Manila-Acapulco route, the plan of the bay of Manila, the course of the actual voyage taken by Legazpi to the Philippines, and several navigational implements like the planispheric astrolabe (1625), a quadrant including a ship's binnacle for magnetic needle (both 18th c). Also included in this section were the late 18th century eight-piece sketches by Juan Ravenet, an artist who joined Malaspina in his explorations. The sketches captured samplings of the people of the island: "Mestizos of Manila," "Young Ladies of Manila," "Chinaman Selling Tea," with Ravenet's ink catching them in a much relaxed state as opposed to the very studied poses in the tipos del pais that prevailed in the Philippines much later. These, alongside the obligatory drawings of the islands" fish, fruits, and plants. But what caught my attention was the sketch of a child with round eyes wearing a veil who could have been a local resident. Much more disturbing than the sketch though was the English title that was given to the sketch: "Mulatto Woman of Manila." Ravenet's original title for it was "Mulata de Manila," so then it becomes a question as to how the woman noun was carelessly added to the English translation when the sketch was obviously that of a child. On that issue, Ravenet was blameless but he could readily be faulted as being racist for using the term "mulata," a largely derogatory term used to refer to a person born of white and black parents, which is altogether an unlikely term for a woman coming from Manila. Ravenet could instead have used "kayumanggi" or "brown-skinned," which is the correct color term to use in reference to the Filipino skin color.

The second section "examines the colonization carried out by Spain on the archipelago by founding towns and cities and establishing the institutions of government as well as through religious orders and architectural and artistic endeavors." On one wall, one is easily overwhelmed by the larger than life portraits of Jose Ignacio de Arzadum y Rebolledo and Carlos Bermudez de Castro. On another, one finds the paintings depicting the conversions accomplished by St. Francis Xavier in Africa and Asia and the martyrdom of several Christians in Japan. On glass cases, one gasps at the gem-studded and silver gilded mitre and crosier of St. Fermin, the cross of Jerusalem with its wood inlaid and faced with engraved and stained mother-of-pearl, the embroidery-rich liturgical vestments. The visitor is also made to gaze at the plan for the city of Manila, the architectural plans made for the Cathedral Church of Manila or the religious hospitals founded by the Order of St. John of God, each of the items on exhibit seemingly intent on impressing upon the exhibit viewer the great accomplishments of the Spanish Empire--an almost deliberate act, which climaxes outrightly in the painting "The Ship of Mystic Contemplation (The Triumph of the Church),"positioned so strategically at the center of the exhibit room. The painting, even to the uninitiated, overwhelms as it vividly shows a shipload of men in cassocks with spears pointing down at the men on boats who are joined by long-tailed devils. The painting, in truth, captures a period of great moment for the Spanish Monarchy and its church, as it depicts the crushing of the Ottomans by Christians led by John of Austria during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Historically, one will know that the battle ended with the destruction of the Ottoman navy by an allied fleet composed of about 200 galleys, Spanish, Venetian, and papal ships and vessels sent by a number of Italian states. The Battle of Lepanto was obviously a gem of a victory in the crown of the Spanish Monarchy, with the painting glinting off that royal might, and the exhibit viewer can only widen their eyes at the spectacle before them. One finally comes upon a large pen and ink map at one end of the exhibit wall portraying the whole of Spanish Empire as a woman in robes. And it is amusing to find the Philippine islands located at one of the woman's foot, which says much of how that particular age viewed the country at that time. One could only hope that such a view had since changed.

The third and last section "highlights the Philippines" role as nexus of relations between East and West."The notes further say that these exchanges were not limited to trade but also extended to the many facets of cultural and spiritual life. Here, in this final section are the vases, bowls, cisterns, small canons, armors, ivory pieces, a Maranao armour, a and Bagobo, and most interestingly, an old 4.5 ft.-long Philippine chest or "baul" of polychromatic wood decorated with metal sheets and forged iron and made in Manila circa 1650-1660. The bigger treat for the exhibit viewer was the interior of the chest cover, which had an oil painting of Manila and is believed to be the oldest preserved map of the city. The painting captured the public and religious buildings of the period like the Royal Chapel of the Incarnation, founded in 1636 by Don Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera, and the wall-fortress surrounding the city, which was begun by Governor-General Go;mez Perez DasmariƱas in 1592 and completed towards 1600 under the mandate of Governor-General Francisco Tello. The painting was so detailed one could even see the people walking along Manila's streets. The "baul" was said to be a gift to the Mexican bishop Manuel Osorio de Escobar y Llamas by the ecclesiastical dignitaries of Manila who were graduates of the Palafoxian Seminary in Puebla. The chest will be returned back to the Art Museum of Jose Luis Bello y Gonzalez in Puebla City. Reading up on the history of the chest, I could not help but compare it with the other artifacts and articles from the Philippines that have found their homes in various parts of the world: the first book printed in the Philippines, the Doctrina Christiana en Lengua Espanola y Tagala found in Italy and purchased in 1946 by American millionaire-bibliophile Lessing J. Rosenwald who then donated it to the U.S. Library of Congress; the original copy of the works of the first internationally famous Filipino poetess, Leona F. Florentino (1849-1884) now kept in a library in Madrid; the only copy of the 1936 film Zamboanga, which had found its way from the Philippines to Finland and then to the U.S. Library of Congress. I wonder if our own government could really protect these treasures in much the same way that they have been taken care of in other countries.

Having finished touring all three sections of the exhibit, I almost half expected to be greeted by a gleeful Spanish monarch at the exit ready to ask me how greatly I thought of the things he had just bothered to display for me. But except for the old "baul," which was so reminiscent of one aspect of Filipino culture I grew up in, I could not think of anything else in the said exhibit that connects to myself. I went back to the exhibit room one last time to find myself standing in front of Malaspina's portrait. Did he become a bitter man after his imprisonment? Was Legazpi being true to himself when he left the port of Mexico and claimed that he was sailing out for God? Would we have prospered just the same if Legazpi had not set foot on our islands? And as to the title of the exhibit, should we really be flattered to have been the "gateway" to the Orient? I left the exhibit with these thoughts in my mind as outside, Manila was slowly taking in the light of a setting sun.