Sunday, June 26, 2011

Traveling to the Past via “Friars in the Philippines”

In the absence of literal travels, reading materials are my travel alternatives. And last week, such travel came in the form of downloaded books about the Philippines thanks to Project Gutenberg (visit the website here). I was able to download several volumes of “The Philippine Islands” by Blair and Robertson along with “Friars in the Philippines.

Written by Rev. Ambrose Coleman, O.P. and published in 1899, the book elaborates on works of the religious orders in the country from their arrival with Magellan in 1521 up to the time of the “insurrection” in the late nineteenth century. Much of the later chapters deal with the defense of the religious orders against the accusations and the allegedly motivations of the insurrectos. I say that the discussions are subject for debate. But I shall not dwell on it; I was only able to read the book once. A thorough dissection of the contents must be done first before any opinion can be issued about them.

What I would like to discuss is the introduction part, where a short description of the structures built by the Spaniards were made.

“For Nature, bountiful there almost to prodigality, revelling in all the luxuriance of tropical vegetation, has always at hand, as a set-off to her gifts, terrible manifestations of her power. The seventeenth-century navigator, William Dampier, in his own quaint and amusing way, describes how the natives and the Spanish colonists of Manila strove to guard against the double danger of earthquakes and typhoons, and how they both failed ignominiously. THE SPANIARDS BUILT STRONG STONE HOUSES, but the earthquake made light of them, and shook them so violently that the terrified inmates would rush out of doors to save their lives; while THE NATIVES FROM THEIR FRAIL BAMBOO DWELLINGS, which were perched on high poles, placidly contemplated their discomfiture. All that the earthquake meant to them was a gentle swaying from side to side. But the Spaniards had their turn when the fierce typhoon blew, against which their thick walls were proof. Then, from the security of their houses, could they view, with a certain grim satisfaction, the huts of the natives swaying every minute more violently in the wind, till, one by one, they toppled over—each an indescribable HEAP OF POLES, MATS, HOUSEHOLD UTENSILS, AND HUMAN BEINGS."
(page 8; emphasis mine)

Such stone houses have become part of our cultural heritage. Their dwindling numbers have made their preservation more important today. The construction of churches in the same manner may have been done for the same purpose together with the aim of making them imposing to project an image of awe and power.

If the horrors of World War II have not touched the country especially the period of liberation in 1945, much of the structures from the Spanish and American era may have been preserved. Those that survived must be treasured. Seeing them is like travelling to the past, like being in the Spanish and American periods yourself.

The Cathedral, Then and Now

First stop is the Cathedral in Lipa (see my earlier entry about it by clicking here). The eruption of Taal Volcano in 1754 forced the relocation of the Lipa Parish to the church’s present site. The cathedral was built from 1865 to 1894. Shown above is the depiction of the cathedral from Coleman’s book, but it was not indicated when the image was made. A photo is shown next, shot using a relatively cheap cell phone last year. No substantial renovations were made, at least on the exterior. You visit Lipa Cathedral, you are almost back in the past.

But I have misgivings regarding this. For during the return of the American forces in 1945 to drive the Japanese out of the Philippines, the whole of Lipa was literally destroyed by American air and artillery bombardments. I don’t think they have exempted the cathedral. Perhaps the best thing I could do is to revisit the cathedral and make some inquiries.

Retracing the Street

Next is a retracing activity. Shown above is another depiction from Coleman’s book, this time of a Street in Manila. The diminishing radius of the church tower in the background made me suspect that it was Santa Cruz Church. Upon making a Google Map search, the street orientation from the book makes it more likely the present-day Dasmariñas. As I am not a resident of Manila, I cannot fully vouch for this amateur investigation.

Follow the Clue

This last part is more of a future challenge. The caption of the photo found above says “Tagalocs [corrected already as ‘Tagalogs’] planting rice to the sound of music.” The planters and the musicians are definitely natives and they could have been found anywhere in the southern parts of Luzon. But the mountains can be taken as clues to find where this rice field is found. This may seem a bit too childish but I take delight in finding out little details such as this.

I still have a number of downloaded books at hand and I hope I can still find the occasion to read them despite the growing number of self-imposed works and deadlines. Let us celebrate our rich past!


  1. @Pransis - A very good reference material. Its good that you are looking for "alternative" sources. The standard historical text, sadly, are not enough - it does not give justice to most of our relics. In fact, most only succeeded in diminishing its historical value and importance. Because we have been educated not to embrace our cultural heritage, many of us fails to recognize the necessity of saving these buildings. Congratulations Francis!

  2. Thanks for dropping by Kuya.

    I have come to appreciate these alternative sources, as you have termed them. They seem to me like missing chapters in the standard textbooks we used to get in the classroom. They are more exciting, detailed to a certain extent, and force one to rethink and rethink some events or details normally just laid down to students via textbooks. It is my hope that more historical sources not readily available in book stores could be uploaded to the internet.

    Nevertheless, there is the upcoming Manila International Book Fair to look forward to. I bet there will be loads of Philippine history books that we could feast on. Salamat po uli sa pagdaan!