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When people talk, about commercial activity in the East, the conversation eventually focuses on Arabs, Indians and Chinese, the shopkeepers of Asia. There is, however, another group in this exotic community that is often overlooked the Filipinos. Commerce has always been a part of Philippine history and today reflects Filipino culture in action.
Filipinos first appear on the stage of history, not as scholars or warriors or priests but as traders. Chinese chronicles of the Sung Dynasty document the Filipino presence in Canton as early as 1982 when traders from Ma-i, a country north of Borneo, now known as the Philippines.
Much earlier, the invention of the outrigger around 4000 B.C., permitted the Malayo-Polynesian speaking people of Southeast Asia, among which were the Filipino, to venture farther out to sea. That this movement of people must have also involved the movement of goods finds support in pottery excavated in Southeast Asia dating back to around 2000 B.C.
Commerce was one of the main occupations of the earliest Filipino settlements, the barangays. By the time of the first Spanish landfall in the Philippines in 1521, there was brisk inter island trade all over the archipelago. Of the historical data, the Sung document is the most interesting because it suggests some characteristics of ancient Filipino traders which still hold true today. Then as now, Filipinos were not content to wait passively at home for economic opportunity. They took the initiative in socking markets overseas. Their commercial reach extended beyond their own archipelago to the South China coast and the crescent of islands curving around Borneo, through the islands of Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula.
To speak of a Philippine foreign trade at this time, however, would be an anachronism. In the absence of an integrating political structure, the next village on the same island could be as foreign as the community in, say, Malacca. But the early Filipinos were prepared to travel long distance; they were adventurous as well as ingenious entrepreneurs.
The Chinese self-image as the Middle Kingdom and the center of all civilization did not permit them to engage in commerce with barbarians. But noblesse obliged the grant of imperial favors on those who brought gifts in acknowledgment of their subordination to the Chinese Emperor. To do business in Canton, early Filipinos must have been willing to accept the political fiction that they brought, nor trade, but tribute. Their interest was business, not politics.
Their willingness to abide regulations was confirmed by later accounts relating to the regular commercial calls Chinese ships began making to the Philippines by the 13th century. Chat Ju-Kua, who compiled the reports of the Chine traders, praised the honesty of pre-colonial Filipino businessmen.
A relationship of mutual trust resulted in a thriving seafaring economy. But the prudent prescription 9,-as still Trader Beware Through much of the pre-colonial and into the colonial periods of Southeast Asia, the seas served as the arena of intrepid voyagers who, traded when they had to and pirated when they could . Pedding was not profitable plundering.
The robust and freewheeling indigenous trading economy ended with the beginning of colonial rule in Southeast Asia. The new colonial governments altered the rules of trade by simply drawing lines on the map to democratic territorial boundaries over which they now claimed supreme power.
Spain also altered the direction of Philippine trade, concentrating on the shipment of Chinese goods along the galleon trade routes from Manila to Mexico and Spain, Later, America too would reinforce this westward, trans-Pacific orientation of Philippine trade. In addition to changing the old trading patterns, Spain also imposed rules and regulations that further constrained overseas commerce. Participation in the galleon trade required, not only financial resources, but also government permits. Set while it was possible to speak of foreign trade, it had become unduly restrictive. What the Filipinos used to do freely before had become subject to licenses, taxes and various kinds of fees, both official and unofficial. Anyone transacting business without a permit, whether in foreign or domestic products, was not a trader but a smuggler. What was once entrepreneurial was now criminal.
Those never completely subjugated by Spain, like the Muslim Filipinos, blithely ignored, if they were even aware of, the colonial government's laws. Territorial lines which were clear on the maps meant nothing in the opens seas, and smuggling was a totally alien concept. Even those brought under the bells and effectively under the control of Church and State complied when compelled to, but always looked for loopholes.
They preferred way of circumventing colonial structures was avoidance: reliance on kin, on the bonds of birthplace, language and school connections rather than on bureaucratic institutions.
Another strategy was connivance. Bureaucracies were not impervious to influence. It was possible to cultivate personal relations with people of power to obtain favored treatment in the enforcement of laws. These seeds of early economic" rebellion have unfortunate namely remained until today. Maintaining faith in the ability of bureaucracies to enforce laws equitably and effectively is a continuing task for the independent republic, particularly as it redefines the role of government in trade and the economy.
Once Again the Southeast Asian economy is undergoing orientation. Colonial rule directed the economies of the region to the west. The resurgence of China and the growth of the ASEAN economies generate a pull to the south and east. These developments, along with the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area, will revive the pre-colonial trade routes, and Filipino entrepreneurs will see in Southeast Asia, as their ancestors did, an economic partner.