Sunday, 17 June 2012

Pirates of the Pacific: colonial history in Cebu

A painting at the Basilica del Santo Nino, showing an idealised view of colonial history
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
From a European perspective, the history of the Philippines began abruptly in 1521 with the arrival of the Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. Like Christopher Columbus before him, Magellan was a mercenary on hire to the King of Spain. His mission was to find a new trade route to the Spice Islands by heading west from Europe via the Spanish colony of Mexico, handily avoiding the Portuguese navy, which controlled the Eastern route around Africa.

Magellan is widely credited as the first man to circumnavigate the globe, even though he was killed on Filipino soil just over half way through the voyage. He is various regarded as a brilliant explorer, ruthless coloniser and defender of the faith. Either way his arrival in the Philippines, after a gruelling 18-month voyage that killed half his crew, kick-started five centuries of Spanish rule and left a cultural, linguistic and religious stamp on the islands that can still be seen to this day.

I was in the Philippines in February, partly to do some work for UNICEF, partly to research a travel book I’m writing about the country. After a work trip to the troubled southern island of Mindanao, I took some time off to visit Cebu, where Magellan met his death at the hands of a rebellious tribe. I wanted to visit the site of the final battle and see the oldest relic of the Spanish era – the Santo Nino, a statue of Jesus as a child, which Magellan gave to the wife of a local chief.

In Manila, my friend and colleague Marge put me in touch with her friend Jay who lived in Cebu City and used to play in a blues rock band with her. “I should warn you he’s a real hippy,” she said, giving me his number. “He even uses the term 'rolling stone' as a verb”. We also tried to get in touch with Father Vizon, a church historian in charge of the museum at the Basilica del Santa Nino, but without any joy. Marge, who these days acts as my unofficial literary agent, sent off a letter to the church requesting an interview and I prepared to wing it when I got there.

Like a rolling stone

Jay during his ‘rolling stone’ days, in a photo taken by Marge
© Marge Francia/Philippines 2009
I arrived on Friday evening and got in touch with Jay. “You should come out tonight,” he said. “We’re drinking tagay then going to a gig.” I caught a taxi to PC Hills, a housing estate for retired policemen, where Jay’s father lives. I recognised Jay immediately by his long hair, and he spotted the foreigner in a taxi with equal ease. We walked back down the hill to a small roadside store, where his friends were drinking beer sat on a circle of stools around a small table.

Jay pulled up an extra stool and explained the rules of tagay: “Those of us in the group who have some money club together to buy a large bottle of Red Horse,” he explained. “It’s cheaper here than in a bar. We get a glass and some ice and take it in turns to drink. We do this with close friends so we don’t mind sharing the glass.” Jay had an unexpected London accent due to a set of half-British cousins. I used to be a bit of a hippy too in my youth, so I immediately felt at home with him.

We spent an hour or so at the stall discussing music, politics and our mutual friendship with Marge. Jay’s friends quizzed me about my work for UNICEF and taught me to swear in Cebuan. They all worked in call centres, as I did after University, so we had a lot in common. Jay’s girlfriend Kat actually worked for BT, the same company as me. They’d moved their customer service centre to the Philippines a few years after I left to save costs. The time difference meant that Jay and his friends had to work nights, and many of them were going to work after the gig.

After tagay we went to a bar called ‘The Outpost’ to watch the local bands, including Jay’s favourite ‘Mr Moustache’. The band played covers of US rock classics and he started dancing energetically when the Black Crows came on. “That’s his favourite song,” his cousin Chicken said, laughing. The whole night was like a return to my student days and I was having such a good time that I completely forgot to keep track of how much Red Horse I’d had. The next day I woke up with a raging hangover and a mission to visit a holy shrine. It was not looking auspicious.

Basilica del Santa Nino

A man prays before the Santa Nino, the oldest Christian relic in the Philippines
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
I arrived at the Basilica del Santa Nino just after midday on Saturday. There were a few visitors and vendors selling candles and sunglasses but no church staff except for a few security guards. The museum was closed and I searched in vain for Father Vizon. I decided to visit the shrine anyway while I was there. There was a long queue that wound around three sides of a large courtyard. It was quiet and peaceful, with a cool breeze and the pleasant sound of a fountain.

As I moved slowly round the courtyard, I passed a series of paintings depicting Magellan’s arrival in Cebu in idealised form. The Spaniards were shown as pious and noble, in shining armour and accompanied by friars with crosses. The Filipinos, meanwhile, were cowering natives in loincloths. It looked like Spanish colonial propaganda. I checked the dates on the paintings and with some surprise saw that they were all done in 1982, well into the era of Philippines independence and nationalism. Additional text made clear they had been paid for by a local congressman, in a rather shameless form of political advertising.

Eventually, I got to the shrine. It was a small square chamber with the wooden statue of the Santa Nino secured in a glass case. This is the oldest Catholic relic in the Philippines, and it certainly looked more impressive than the Santa Marta I had seen in Pateros. Elsewhere in the church, people touched the feet of statues but here they could only touch the glass. There was a stone tablet though, which one woman kissed. An old man sat in the corner minding the shrine. He coughed loudly and repeatedly, and spat into a bowl by his side.

History lesson 

Father Vizon next to a replica of the Santa Nino in the museum he curates
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
With some regret, I passed up the offer of another night out with Jay so I could return to the Basilica on Sunday with a clear head. It was a very different scene. The shrine was packed and there was an open air mass taking place. Latin syllables boomed through the air from speakers, and the scorching midday sun reflected harshly off the paving stones. A dense crowd of people congregated in the few patches of shade to watch the ceremony. “No photos,” a guard warned me as I got out my camera.

Instead, I made my way round the back of the shrine to the museum, which had been closed on Saturday. Today it was open, and I found my contact among the displays and relics. Father Vizon was a youthful-looking 48-year-old Filipino, dressed casually in jeans and a stripy t-shirt. His manner was serious and he checked my letter from Marge carefully before agreeing to do the interview. We went upstairs to a room backstage from the mass. Young boys rushed around in long white robes carrying heavy gold sceptres and the sounds of the service echoed in the background.

Father Vizon comes from Panpanga in Luzon, the tenth of eleven children. His father was a farmer with only a basic education but his mother was educated at a Catholic private school. Many of his siblings struggled to find work at home and instead joined the widespread Filipino diaspora. He now has one sister in the US, another in Israel and a brother in Saudi Arabia. Father Vizon himself went to Rome and Spain to study church history, before returning home to take up his post in Cebu.

I began by asking Father Vizon about the history of the Santa Nino statue. “When Magellan landed in Cebu in 1521, he converted the King and Queen to Christianity and baptised the natives,” he said. “He gave the Santa Nino image to the Queen. Unfortunately, Magellan met his death a few days later. The Spanish left with the priest and there was no follow up. The people went back to their old pagan ways and worshipped their idols.

The Spanish were not gone long. In 1565 Miguel López de Legazpi arrived with another friar. “When they landed, they met resistance but Legazpi pacified the natives with cannons,” Father Vizon continued. “The houses were made of bamboo so they caught fire easily. As the Spanish approached the village, they found a wooden box inside a burning house. Inside was the image of the child Jesus. They believed it was a sign from God and took it as a ‘go’ signal to settle the islands.”

The finding of the Santa Nino, as depicted in a painting at the Basilica
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012

I was struck by how Father Vizon’s narrative echoed the perspective of the paintings upstairs, so I asked him whether there had been any downsides to the Spanish conquest. He seemed uncomfortable but tackled the question directly.

“The Spanish brought good many things,” he said. “They built roads and churches. They improved government and agriculture. But there were abuses. There was forced labour, we cannot get away from that. People were forced to abandon their own culture. If they didn’t agree, there were certain penalties, and some people were killed. However, from the point of view of the Catholic Church we are grateful to the Spanish for bringing Christianity to these islands. Before then, Filipinos were pagans. This is considered evil. So the sacrifices were worth making.”

I noticed Father Vizon’s repeated use of the phrase ‘there were abuses’. It reminded me of the Chinese mantra about Chairman Mao: ‘he was a great man, but he made mistakes’. Mao’s vision of progress also involved other people making sacrifices for the greater good. Personally, I’m much more sympathetic with the views of Nineteenth Century novelist Jose Rizal, who was highly critical of Spanish rule and the role of the friars. I also have issues with some of the current activities of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, including their opposition to birth control. But Father Vizon was polite and made his points clearly, and I respected his opinion.

I asked him about the present day role of the statue. “The Santa Nino is one of the most important images in the Philippines,” he said. “Filipinos have close knit families and value children. We consider them a blessing from God. Many Catholic families have this image in their homes. People come here to be close to the relic. It’s an expression of making a connection with the divine. It helps us feel that God is with us.”

Interestingly, the statue is not without its detractors. “When we take the image out for the fiesta, we have to put it behind bullet proof glass,” said Father Vizon. “One year a man tried to burn it down. He poured gasoline around the chapel but when he tried to light the match, it did not ignite.” I asked what had driven the arsonist to do this. “We don’t know,” Father Vizon replied. “Either he was a non-believer or not in his right mind.”

Battle of Mactan

The statue of Lapu Lapu, now an icon of Filipino nationalism
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
I said goodbye to Father Vizon and took a taxi to Mactan island to see the site of Magellan’s final battle. Unlike the King and Queen of Cebu, Lapu Lapu, the chief of this island, stood up to the invaders. Despite their overwhelming firepower, he defeated them and killed Magellan. He is now revered as an early icon of Filipino nationalism and anti-colonialism.

The site of Magellan’s shrine was on a tiny beach in a mangrove swamp with a narrow inlet. The location was much less dramatic than I’d imagined it when reading the account of the final battle by Magellan’s companion Antonio Pigafetta. I wondered whether this was really the right place. A group of local children raced speedboats off a wooden pier, while teenagers gathered in the shade of palm trees, placing bets on the outcome.

The memorial highlighted the ambivalent attitude of many Filipinos towards their own history. The park and monument to Magellan left by the Spanish had been impeccably maintained, but a new statue had been added to Lapu Lapu. Unlike Magellan, there are no portraits of Lapu Lapu and the muscled action hero on the plinth bore as much relation to reality as the paintings in the Basilica. I was intrigued that people could simultaneously revere Magellan for bring Christianity to the Philippines, and Lapu Lapu for killing him and repelling the invasion.

After visiting Mactan, I made my way to the small seaside village where Jay lives, to meet him for lunch. I used the local transport this time, catching a semi-derelict old jeepney along the coast road to Liloan past stilt houses and wooden fishing boats. The beach was very much a local destination. It was lined with stalls selling precooked food and pumping out loud techno music from rival sound systems. Filipino families crowded in the shade at the top of the beach with picnic hampers, while children and young people played in the surf, fully clothed. “Filipinos are very conservative and don’t like to show too much skin,” my friend Gina explained later. It looked incredibly uncomfortable to sit on a beach in wet jeans, but modesty prevailed.

Over lunch, I asked Jay for his opinion of Magellan and the Spanish conquest. “I think there was both good and bad,” he said. “I’m a Roman Catholic but I also know fishermen who are old school and keep the traditions alive. In my mother’s island they still have witch doctors in the mountains that you go to when you get sick. It’s not such a big deal. To me, the important thing is what you do, how you live your life.”

I thought about the history of my own country. Over the last 2,000 years, the British Isles have also been subject to various waves of invasion and colonisation. Our own indigenous language, religion and culture are all long gone, replaced by a mishmash of Roman, Viking and Norman influences that we now call English. But I don’t feel sore towards the Italians or Danes about it. As Jay said: “It’s history man, time to move on.”

Mr Moustache playing at The Outpost, Cebu City
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012


  1. I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate hearing again my country's history from you. You could be a history teacher, you know (coughlifeafterunicefcough).

  2. Thanks Gina, I never mind hearing it! Will keep the career option in mind, although it'll have to come third after travel writer ;-)