Column: Recapture ignorance!

Published on October 21, 2014.

Last week, I had the privilege of taking part in two workshops on the importance of local history, organized by the redoubtable Mozart Pastrano and held in my hometown of Cagayan de Oro. Like the other journalists I joined in a roundtable discussion on the second day—Grace Albasin, Froilan Gallardo, Herbie Gomez and the Inquirer’s own JB Deveza—I was invited on the assumption that writing or editing the so-called first draft of history can shed light on the writing of history’s more permanent drafts.

I highlighted four strategies in writing, and illustrated them using sample texts from Cagayan’s own history. The first of two extended excerpts follows:

The educator and author Filomeno Bautista was about ten years old when the Philippine-American War reached Cagayan. Some thirty years later, in his (early) retirement years, he conducted what we would now call an oral history project, talking to survivors of the year-long insurgency and taking notes. Between 1936 and 1939, he wrote what is now referred to as the Bautista manuscript. This work, as preserved by the Research Institute for Mindanao Culture, may have a problematic provenance but it deserves a wider audience.

Let me read a passage from it (copied directly from Father Francisco Demetrio SJ’s “Local Historical Sources of Northern Mindanao,” Volume 1). Bautista is describing the first battle of Makahambus Hill; the date is June 4, 1900.

“As the American troops were approaching Makahambus Hill, the Filipino guard at Kabula, Apolinario Nacalaban, ran to the fortress to notify the defenders of the hill. Lieut. [Cruz] Taal, the Commander of the fortress, instructed his men not to fire until they hear the cannon at the entrance of the fortress. The Filipinos were entrenched along the side of the hill behind earthworks extending from the entrance of Makahambus Pass to the gate of the fortress. Calmly the Americans entered the pass. From the fortress, not a gun was fired. They climbed the narrow trail leading to the gate of the fortress and as they came close to the gate the first man said, ‘Good Morning.’ In reply the cannon roared and the whole enemy’s line wavered down the narrow trail and to the precipice below the pass. Thrice the Americans stormed the fortress and thrice they were driven back by the deadly fire of the Filipinos who coolly stood behind their trenches. The Americans, exhausted and demoralized, were forced to retreat with heavy losses …”

Perhaps, like me, you were also struck in this account of the Filipino rebels’ only major victory in north Mindanao over the Americans by the use of the greeting, “Good morning,” uttered supposedly by one of the American soldiers. How familiar, and at the same time how strange.

This is the first strategy. It is the use of the unusual detail, the telling detail, that stands out, that turns a dry document into a living thing, or a rote recollection into a memorable account.

* * *

The second excerpt:

Here is a short passage from another Jesuit priest, Francis Madigan’s early history of Cagayan; sometime in 1622 or so, Maguindanao forces had laid siege to the town.

“After several weeks, the enemy became convinced that they could not take the town by storm. They had already lost a large number of men and their provisions were running low. They decided to return to Maguindanao to consult [Sultan] Kudrat and to replenish their supplies.

“Fray Agustin [de San Pedro] had been waiting for this moment. Informed by his scouts that the Muslims were breaking camp, he led a surprise raid against them with most of his men. Bursting in upon the Maguindanaos unexpectedly, he turned their retreat into an utter rout. Few of the enemy escaped. Cagayan had won a complete victory.”

We know that priests can serve on battlefields today, as chaplains or even as medics. But what kind of worldview allows a priest like Padre Agustin not only to go to war, but to lead men into battle?

In other words—and here we come to the crux of the difference between history and journalism—the assumptions (not just of the storyteller but also of the subjects of the story) are an integral part of the story. It is the work of historians to uncover them.

The historian Daniel Boorstin was a consequential thinker. Half a century ago, he coined two concepts that have only grown more relevant over the years. He redefined “celebrity” as someone who is famous for being famous, and he identified a new practice in news and public relations called the “pseudo-event.” But his concept of “recapturing ignorance” is in my view even more powerful, and extends the work of discovering people’s assumptions to new levels.

He writes: “Knowledge survives and accumulates, but ignorance disappears …. The modern globe of the earth is so firmly fixed in our vision we find it hard to imagine the three-continent planet with a surface only one-seventh water, on which Columbus thought he was sailing …. How can we recapture [our subjects’] ignorance? Yet if we do not, we cannot really share their fears and their courage.” [In reading this aloud, I substituted the name of Ferdinand Magellan for that of Christopher Columbus.]

This is the fourth strategy: History must strive to understand not only what men and women knew and did in previous times; it must also seek to understand what men and women in previous times did not know, or did not dare do. The task, in short, is to inhabit previous worldviews. In Boorstin’s provocative phrase, historians must recapture ignorance.

* * *

As for the second and third strategies: I suggested that writers make use of instructive errors (e.g., Wenceslao Retana’s fatal article on Rizal) and compare perspectives (e.g., the capture of Cagayan rebel leader Apolinar Velez). Conflicting sources can make for a rattling read.

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