Category Archives: Readings from De La Costa

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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Excerpt: The Chinese uprising of 1603

De La Costa’s history of the Jesuit missions in the Philippines, from 1581 to 1768, necessarily includes many scenes of pillage and ruin. This one, the beginning of a narrative about how the Spaniards put down a Chinese revolt in Manila that they had themselves provoked, is another of those set-pieces DLC is so good at–it is a rattling good read, but it is a close-up that moves the larger narrative forward.

The morning light revealed the rebel host massed on the Quiapo shore, clearly intending to cross in force. Acuna decided that he was not strong enough to prevent them, but sent patrols to set fire to the parian. At this a shout of rage went up from the rebels and they began to cross. The patrols retired, having done their work, and the parian gate was closed. The rebels ran through the billowing smoke of the burning quarter, killing those who had opposed the uprising and calling on the rest to arm themselves. Stamping out the fire in some of the houses, they climbed to the upper storys and roofs to flaunt their banners and rake the nearest parapets with a steady and pretty accurate fire from their captured arquebuses. The Manilans on the wall returned the fire briskly. Among them was a theological student from San Jose who distinguished himself by calling his shots. “The man with the banneret next,” he would call out coolly; and sure enough, the man with the banneret would suddenly lose interest in the proceedings.

As it became clear that the sangleys were mounting an attack from the parian, the Spanish and native companies swarmed to defend their respective sections of the wall. Even the lay brothers among the friars had formed a company of their own, and were looking very fierce with their habits tucked up under their cinctures and armed to the teeth, some with sword and pike, others with lighted fuse and arquebus. Lopez, accompanied by one of the scholastics who flourished a rusty and obviously useless halberd, moved along the parapet hearing confessions.

When the sangleys finally attacked, it was pell-mell, with no sort of direction or concert. Some ran in ragged groups with scaling ladders which they tried to place against the wall, but concentrated fire from the walls dispersed them with heavy loss before they could achieve their purpose. Others made for the gates as though to force them open, but with nothing but clubs and axes to do it with. They too turned back before the murderous musketry, leaving scores of dead behind. All day until late in the afternoon they kept coming, trusting blindly in whatever gods had told them through their auguries that the city would be theirs; but the gods had lied.

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Excerpt: The capture of Melchor Hurtado

On the Net, there is very little of Horacio de la Costa’s masterly prose.  The best writer in English the Philippines can claim as its own; more’s the pity. It occurred to me: Perhaps we can even the odds a bit by uploading short excerpts from his work? Here’s the first in what will necessarily be an occasional series. It is a couple of paragraphs; nothing out of the ordinary. But mark the almost cinematic quality of the narrative; it is the effect of both the right storytelling stance and vivid, vigorous diction: the exact word (“floundering”), the accurate adverb (“whitely”), the unexpected phrase (“hissed against the beach”). For DLC, just another (quarter-)day at the office.

From The Jesuits in the Philippines (pp. 293-294)

Very early the following morning, just before dawn, a fisherman of the town put out to sea in a canoe to inspect his fish traps, which he had not visited for some time. The eastern sky grew lighter before him as he paddled, and suddenly he could make out against it the dark hulls of a great fleet. It was the Magindanaus, riding lightless and silent just out of sight of land, waiting for daybreak to swoop on a town still half asleep. Even as the fisherman swung his canoe about the signal was given, a great shout went up, a thousand oar blades splashed whitely in the water, and the high sharp prows leaped forward.

The people of Dulag had just enough warning to scramble out of their homes and run to the woods for cover. The fathers and brothers of the mission joined a fleeing group with nothing but their breviaries and the clothes on their backs. Otazo ran out of the church with the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament as the first of Bwisan’s ships hissed against the beach. Fortunately, the older boys of the boarding school kept their heads. They collected the panic-stricken people into small parties  and set out with them to designated hiding places in the hills. They had prepared these earlier under the fathers’ direction and stocked them with emergency rations. But with women and children in the company, they made slow progress through the overgrown trails. Moreover, it had begun to rain. It was easy for the pursuing Magindanaus to follow their tracks and to hear them floundering through the underbrush. The Jesuits  and the people with them stopped for a moment at a bend of the trail to catch their breath. They were about to resume their flight when their silent pursuers were upon them. It was a case of each man for himself. While his companions plunged into the thickets, Hurtado found a hollow in the twisted trunk of a banyan tree and flattened himself within it. A woman with an infant in her arms ran past him. A Magindanau pounded after her and brought her back, weeping. As the warrior swung past the banyan tree, dragging his prey, he saw Hurtado. He leaped at him with raised kampilan, but when he saw it was a Spaniard and a priest, took him alive.


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