Excerpt: Contextualizing Dasmarinas

One of those “bridges” in Readings in Philippine History, which DLC used to connect disparate documents. Sometimes the transition is wonderfully unexpected: this muscular bridge brings us from 16th-century Manila to 9th-century Baghdad.

In 1586, two decades after the beginning of the conquest, the Philippine colonists called a general junta or assembly in Manila to consider the state of their affairs. It appeared to them that although Spanish sovereignty had already been firmly established in the principal islands of the archipelago, and the conversion of the population to Christianity had got off to a good start, they were faced with problems of the greatest urgency. For one thing, there were radicals among them, chiefly missionaries of the Las Casas persuasion, who held that Spain had no right to the Philippines at all, and clamored for the total abandonment of the enterprise. But even if they disregarded this vocal minority and decided to stay, their penury — their almost total lack of the most essential equipment and supplies — made it more than doubtful whether they could do so. They lacked a regular military establishment to repel external attack and a regular administrative structure to maintain internal order. They lacked a policy to regulate their trade with Spanish America and their relations with the rest of Asia. What, for instance, were they to do about their powerful, potentially dangerous, yet fatally fascinating neighbors, China and Japan? Send missionaries to convert them? Or soldiers to conquer them?

They decided that they could not decided these things themselves; they had to refer them to the King. Accordingly, they elected a Jesuit, Alonso Sanchez, their accredited agent, armed him with a formidable sheaf of memorials, and sent him to Madrid to obtain from Philip II answers to their questions and assistance in their necessities. It was thoroughly characteristic of Philip, that painfully conscientious king, that in the very year of the armada against England he found the time to study the petitions of his Philippine subjects and marginally annotate them in his own hand. He made the policy decisions they asked for: the Philippines must be retained; there must be no adventuring in China or anywhere else; the trade with America must come under government regulation. He found the funds to start a hostel for orphan girls. But perhaps the most inspired thing he did for the Philippines was to tell Father Sanchez to look around for a good man to send as governor; for Father Sanchez found Gomez Perez Dasmarinas.

During his brief term of office (1590-1593) Dasmarinas organized a small but effective fighting force to defend the Islands, surrounded Manila with a wall and moat, suppressed banditry in Zambales, and found an acceptable solution to the vexed question of tribute. His government was autocratic but just, practical yet imaginative, even whimsical. It was the government of a caliph of Baghdad, the kind of government around which legends gather.

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