Wexistential Crises, Wayward Thoughts, Welcome Distractions and Willful Pursuits

An Intramuros Walking Tour is No Substitute for a History Lesson

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I recently went on one of those Intramuros walking tours expecting a Wikipedia-like experience: names and dates, trivia. In the same way that no one with good sense logs on to Wikipedia for a penetrating analysis of anything, I wasn’t expecting our tour guide to give a scholarly treatise on Philippine history. I got more or less what I came for.

On the motives for Spanish colonization, our tour guide said that the Spanish king wanted to abandon the Philippines upon discovering that there was no gold. The king supposedly ordered the colonial government out of the archipelago, but the friars ignored the royal decrees because they didn’t want to give up their power in the Philippines. Uhm, really? I don’t know how they could’ve kept that up for 300 years. You’d think the king would’ve eventually noticed that none of them were coming home.

It’s true that there were no riches to be found in the Philippines. The colony was of some strategic importance but it was mostly an economic liability. The colonial government could not even support itself; the Spanish Crown had to send an annual subsidy to Manila from Mexico for maintenance of the Philippine administration. From 1572 to 1810 Spain spent about 400,000,000 pesos. Philip II’s ministers advised him to abandon the islands because they were more expensive than they were worth but Philip refused saying that the chief objective of colonization was conversion to Christianity and he was willing to foot the bill for the salvation of our souls.

Our tour guide did correctly note however that there were never many Spaniards in the Philippines and the lack of manpower made teaching Spanish to the natives a logistical impossibility. But he couldn’t seem to appreciate that the lack of manpower also translated to an inability to commit widespread abuses. Not that there weren’t any abuses in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the bulk occurred in the nineteenth century as a consequence of the political strife in Spain and the decline of the empire. It was in the nineteenth century that civil administrators and soldiers from the colonies Spain had lost came flocking to the Philippines and only then did the widespread abuse become possible. I think that it’s extremely important to make that qualification because otherwise our perception of colonization and the impact of friar influence becomes totally skewed.

I also didn’t like how he tried to draw parallelisms between the colonial government and the present day government with regard to Church influence in politics and society. I share my tour guide’s sentiments on Church involvement in politics, but Church influence then and now are in no way analogous. He was throwing around the term “theocracy” a lot without being precise about its meaning. While the Church does wield considerable influence in this country, we are not, nor have we ever been, a theocracy.

Theocracy is a form of government in which a god or deity is recognized as the state’s supreme civil ruler or one that is ruled by officials thought to be divinely guided. Theocracy should not be confused with (1) a secular form of government that has a state religion; (2) a government that is merely influenced by theological or moral concepts; or (3) a monarchy that is premised on the “divine right” of kings.

Spain was a monarchy. The head of the colonial government was the Spanish king or queen, represented in the colonies by the Governor General. The Spanish monarch possessed all three powers of government: executive, legislative and judicial. In addition, he or she also possessed religious power by virtue of royal patronage. Royal patronage was special right granted by the Pope to all Spanish monarchs, allowing them to exercise control over priests and church officials. It was a reward for Spain’s championship of Catholicism in Europe and Spanish colonies.

Back in those days, there was no separation of church and state. The kings of Spain helped much to propagate and defend the Catholic faith and were closely identified with the Church. The officials appointed by the king and by his representatives in the colony were also defenders of the Catholic faith. Priests were not only clergymen but also agents of the Spanish king. The governor general had a strong influence in the appointment of priests to parishes. The friars were active in the government and had strong political power. The clergy became members of some agencies of the central government and the friar-curate was the virtual ruler of each town.

We take for granted that the concept of “separation of church and state” is a relatively new invention. Its beginnings are usually ascribed to seventeenth century philosopher John Locke’s social contract theory. Modern usage can be traced back to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States constitution, whose Establishment Clause reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The exact phrase “separation of church and state” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson who used it in reference to the First Amendment in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists.

“The separation of church and state” is a commonly misunderstood concept. It exists in the constitutions of democratic states to prevent the government from creating a state religion (e.g. Church of England). It does not prevent the Catholic Church or any other religion from pushing for its own agenda. Religious institutions are just like any other interest group in society. They are entitled to free speech and are thus entitled to voice their opinions on issues. They are entitled to lobby the government for policies that reflect their interests. “Separation of church and state” does not in any way exclude the Church from democratic political processes.

I did like that our tour guide presented a dynamic view of culture and that he had no issues with Filipinos embracing their various foreign influences. He likened Filipino culture to a jeepney: an amalgam of cultures and yet distinctly Filipino. This, for me, was the highlight of the tour. I am so tired of people bemoaning the “loss” or “corruption” of the Filipino identity under colonization. If we rejected any and all foreign influences for the sake of maintaining the “purity” of our culture, we’d still be tribal people living in huts. People who want to live that way are welcome to put on their bahags and retreat to the mountains.

Notwithstanding my issues with some of the content, I thought the overall effect of the tour was good. Our tour guide did impart a lot of information about Manila and Philippine history that is not commonly known, and he did offer some insightful tidbits about what makes Filipinos who they are. All in all I would recommend the tour, but I would caution people to take it with a grain of salt and remind them that it is no substitute for a scholarly reading of history.


Written by Aissa

December 31, 2008 at 5:28 pm

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