Friars as Filipino Historians

The Jesuit Fr. Jose Arcilla is one of my favorite historians to read. A Premio Zobel awardee, his body of work is directed at reinforcing the Filipinos consciousness of their Spanish past. For this, he’s labelled by the likes of F. Sionil Jose, as hispanista.

There’s a long list of historians that wore the cassock in Philippine history.

The first ethnologist in the islands were of course friars. Padre Chirino’s descriptions of the natives way of life were among the most significant work in the field. Both Spanish and English historians would later draw from his writings. Padre Chirino’s work in the early 17th century was so important that it continued to be reprinted up until the late 19th century in Manila.

A curious book by Antonio Morga, “sucesos de las islas Filipinas” would be annotated by Rizal in 1890. The Filipino could have chosen Padre Chirino’s more scholastic “relacion de las islas Filipinas” which was published five years earlier than that of Morga but he did not. He intentionally eluded religious historians, favoring a secular history book for his book project. This manner endures to this day – historians and students would run to English text by American sources than putting the work in and examining older Spanish texts in our libraries and archives. Ironically, most of these English history books relied heavily on the works of the Spanish friars.

In the late 17th century, another great book was printed in Madrid by Padre Gaspar de San Agustin, “conquista de las islas Filipinas”. Another Jesuit, Padre Francisco Colin, penned “labor evangelica,” in mid-17th century. Then there was Padre Murillo’s book about the history of the Jesuit mission inthe islands. A historian from the early 1900’s writes, “no other religious order do we owe so much historical information as to the Jesuits. The scholarship and literary ability of the company have always been high.”

The list continues. Many early facts about Mindanao we would not have known without Padre Combes’ “historia de Mindanao y jolo”. The Jesuits labored to keep Mindanao Catholic, averting its complete conversion to the Mohamedan religion. One could make the argument that without the Jesuits that part of our state would ceased to be Filipino a long, long time ago.

Other important books are: Domican Padre Diego Aduarte’s “historia de la Provincia del Sancto Rosario de la Orden de Predicadores en Filipinas, Japon y Chine”, Padre Navarette’s “Tratados historicos, politicos, ethnicos y religiosos de la monarchia de china,” and Recollect Padre Juan de la Concepcion’s voluminous work “historia general de Filipinas.”

In early 19th Padre Joaquin Martinez de Zuniga finished “historia de las islas Filipinas”. A book collection packed with historical data, it’s close to a thousand pages! Padre Zuniga is highly regarded for his impartial writing.

There are so many works that came from the religious order that obviously were not mentioned here. I would have to spend days to put them all here! Most of the titles I named here are obtainable on line. My intention is for young researchers to have some form of a list to use. You would have to go to the archives before to see these works, now it’s available to be read anytime!

In order for us to comprehend Philippine history we have to delve deep into the memory of those who wrote about it after observing it. And there’s no better source than the chronicles of those intrepid friars who walked and lived with our ancestors during their time.


5 responses to “Friars as Filipino Historians

  • De AnDA

    “We should be grateful to all those who took the trouble to record what they saw or experienced but we must never forget that any interpretation of their writing has to take into account the conditions and attitudes of the times. We should read the works of the Friars just as much as we should read the writings of American authors – but all of that would be to no avail if students are not encouraged to apply their own powers of critical analysis, form their own conclusions and have greater intellectual confidence.”

    — I’m in agreement with you here. Unlike the UK, which have a wealth of available historical data in English, this condition does not exist here. We have more than 300 years of written history in Spanish. History written in English from the late 19th century on wards are mostly based in the works of the friars. Most are interpretations to fit their perspective and agendas. The only way to get a good picture of our past really is to also read the original source.

    • John Earle

      I completely agree. However, I would omit the word ‘also’ from your final sentence so that it reads “The only way to get a good picture of our past really is to read the original source.”
      Reading original sources and forming your own opinion is always the ideal.

  • John Earle

    There is no such thing as objectivity in historical writing. All writers on history have a perspective which is formed from their own cultural context, background and social or political viewpoint. Many history textbooks in many countries attempt to promote a particular viewpoint which is that of the dominant class and the books are used as authoritative sources by some teachers who accept the contents as ‘right’.

    We have recently had a prime example of something very similar to that in the UK where the Education Secretary (who has now been moved on) removed certain American literary texts from the school curriculum on the grounds that they were not British. The fact that these were some of the highest quality writings in the English Language was not accepted as sufficient justification for studying them.

    We should be grateful to all those who took the trouble to record what they saw or experienced but we must never forget that any interpretation of their writing has to take into account the conditions and attitudes of the times. We should read the works of the Friars just as much as we should read the writings of American authors – but all of that would be to no avail if students are not encouraged to apply their own powers of critical analysis, form their own conclusions and have greater intellectual confidence.

    Labelling writers as ‘hispanista’ or anything else is deeply unhelpful as it sets the reader from the start assuming that the writer has certain fixed attitudes. Given that no two people see things in the same way, it is to be hoped that any search for understanding will try to produce a synthesis of the most likely scenario after a study of many different sources.

    Having spent the last year in the Philippines and seen quite a lot of what goes on in schools and universities, I can only say that the future of the country lies in much more encouragement of greater critical thinking on the part of individual students and a greater acceptance of creative thought on the part of teachers. Filipino students are just as intelligent as students anywhere else in the world but they seem to live under a huge pressure of cultural conformity and are afraid to stand by different propositions – both of which hold them back in the international arena.

    • De AnDA

      by the way John, I’m enjoying watching this fella by the name of Tony Robinson. His historical documentaries about the UK is quite fascinating I should say. Do you know him?

      • John Earle

        Tony Robinson is well known in the UK – and possibly further afield. He spent many years as a serious actor, including Shakespearian roles, but also played comedy as well. He was never what we call a stand-up comic but his contribution in supportive roles to comedy plays and similar theatrical and film performances was always well regarded. He became very well known for his performances in several series of a hugely successful television programme called ‘Blackadder’ whose lead star actor, Rowan Atkinson, was best known previously for playing Mr Bean.

        Since the end of Blackadder some years ago, Tony Robinson became the presenter of many series of a programme called Time Team, showing archaeologists at work, and he also displayed a considerable degree of historical knowledge himself although he has no formal academic qualifications.

        He is a much loved character on stage, film and television and he has been awarded numerous academic honours by various universities for promoting and popularising history and heritage. He has received a knighthood from the Queen which is the highest honour for an ordinary citizen. That means that his name now is Sir Anthony Robinson – although as a socialist he continues to call himself just simply Tony Robinson.

        To find out how many honours or to read more about him, try looking at the Wikipedia page about him http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Robinson. I have checked it out and it seems to be free from some of the major errors that you can find on some Wikipedia pages.

        John

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