Raffles’ Letters

“Examining the accounts of the Spanish settlement of Manilla. I was surprised to find that the trade of that long established possession, having a population of two million and a half and a large European establishment and native army, severely exceeds that already enjoyed by Singapore I may here mention that late accounts from Manilla report the detection of a very formidable conspiracy to overthrow the present government — its officers of rank had been arrested with the principal magistrate of the city, and the independent spirit of the South Americans would appear to found its way to this quarter.”

An excerpt from a letter written by Stramford Raffles dated 20 January, 1823. The “very formidable conspiracy” must be the brewing military uprising of Andres Novales and his men. The Spanish creole who led his followers and captured Manila (Intramuros). Novales then murdered Foguera (the former governor that ordered creoles replaced with Spanish born officers).

The coup d’ etat didn’t last long. The following day, it was crushed by thousands of local and Spanish soldiers. The shortest “rebellion” in history. But it’s the most daring challenge ever flung down to Spanish rule by a local.

There were only four occasions Manila was taken from the Spanish. The pirate Limahong, during the infancy of the Spanish rule where the Chinese went on a killing spree in Manila. The British in 1700’s and the Americans in 1899. Then there’s the Novales’ uprising of 1823.

Fascinating is that Raffles wrote his observation in January. Novales armed uprising took place June. Was it possible that the so called “mutiny” had been fermenting since the beginning of that year? Or, that the “very formidable conspiracy” was entirely a different movement?

Or, was the English Governor referring to “Varela and a group of insurgent Creoles” that were deported that same year as subversives?

Raffles must’ve been referring to Varela’s conspiracy movement. It’s the closest to the date of his letter. But it is without a doubt that Novales’ action was inspired by Varela. Although it could not be proven if Novales was part of earlier plots to overthrow the Spanish government.

“Yeah, Baby, yeah!”. Ruffles looks like Austin Powers, without the funky 70’s specs.

The National Library of Singapore’s “Raffles’ Letters: Intrigues behind the founding of Singapore”, I must say was an absolute delight. The exhibit features 13 letters (including the one where I took the excerpt above) from the “founder of modern Singapore”, Stramford Ruffles, from 1819 onwards.

It’s just amazing seeing letters that dates back a couple of century ago. And that these are letters that decided the fate of this island makes it even more fascinating. The letters had turned almost to the color of rust and the paper to a pale brown tinge. Back in the day, they used to include iron oxide in making inks. So literally, what we see in old letters are real rust.

In Cebu, I saw the original letters of Legazpi to the Kind of Spain. I was awed and in disbelief that I was standing in the presence of letters that changed the course of my people’s history. While it is considered among the oldest modern correspondence (these are the first letters between the islands to Europe) in the world, it had a lukewarm reception among the public – there were no long queues, no buzz over it.

And there’s a reason why.

Spanish Philippine history, in general, has been badly demoted to the point that nothing, not even these documents that speaks of our founding, gets attention anymore.

In contrast, the Raffles letter’s exhibit, was very informative and well organized. There was genuine interest on the subject of Raffles and the English colonization. The English Raffles’ regarded as “founder of modern Singapore” while the Spaniards, the Magellans, the Legazpis, the Orders –  blips in the course of Filipino historiography.

I’m not proposing glorification of European influence here but rather the amplification of interest and appreciation of Philippine history as a whole. We have yet to scratch the surface of Filipino historiography. Obviously, we can’t attain a higher historical understanding if we’re stuck debating if Rizal was Hitler’s son or if Bonifacio should be national hero.

I wonder if we have been as economically successful as Singapore, if we’d have a totally different take on history. Would we see the the Spanish as pioneers as do these Singaporeans see the English?


3 responses to “Raffles’ Letters

  • Sam O. Alexander

    The letter is from Don Elijio, of the firm of Bosch Brothers, and states that the Havana agent of the New York Trigger has commissioned the merchants to find him a person who is both qualified and willing to undertake the post of newspaper correspondent. The individual must have a thorough knowledge of the Spanish and English languages; he must be conversant with the ways of Cuba and be in a position to collect facts connected with the social and political life of the town in which he resides. His duties will also be to receive communications from the agents of the American newspaper in question, who are dispersed all over the West Indies, and after selecting the chief points of interest contained in these communications, he must dispatch them, in the form of telegrams and news-letters, to head-quarters in Havana. For these services a liberal monthly salary is offered, and Don Elijio presuming that journalism is in some way related to ‘the divine art of Apelles,’ and having moreover every confidence in our versatile powers, offers us the engagement.

  • Doublejay11221989

    A well paid yes to the major points that you’ve raised. Yours is a balanced, nuanced perspective devoid of the war-like undertones of both rabid “lahing kayumanggi” nationalists and ultraconservative hispanistas. Great job. I’m enjoying your thought-provoking ideas:)

    • De AnDA

      Let me share what a friend, Liz, wrote in her book (Sampaguitas in the Andes): “…not to glorify things that should not be glorified. It is to return to us a complex, rich human heritage that we share with so many other peoples but that we have almost lost because a people without memory is a defenseless people. And it has been too long that we have lived in forgetfulness of where we came from, and in ignorance of our family – the Mexicans, The Carribean nations, and the Central and Latin Americans”.

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