A History Before 1521

Posted on 23 June 2021
By Rene R. Escalante, Ph.D.

The message was read during the opening ceremony of the month-long international conference titled Contacts and Continuities: 500 Years of Asian-Iberian Encounters, 23 June 2021. Watch the opening program here. Check the conference details here.

On behalf of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the National Quincentennial Committee, allow me to express my sincerest appreciation to the School of Humanities of the Ateneo de Manila University and the Universidade Nova de Lisboa for organizing this gathering of local and international scholars. Thank you as well for offering this endeavor to the 2021 Quincentennial Commemorations in the Philippines.

Aside from the quincentennials commemorations, this 2021, the Filipino people will commemorate as well the birth centenary of eminent Philippine historian William Henry Scott. He was American by birth but Filipino at heart. Ateneo de Manila University Press posthumously published his famous work, Barangay, in 1996. That alone, I can say, is Ateneo’s greatest contribution in popularizing Scott’s advocacy to elevate the discourse on Philippine pre-Hispanic history, which includes the events in 1521 in the Philippines. The book is also the baseline of the National Quincentennial Committee in elevating Filipinos’ awareness of their pre-colonial history, textually and visually. Through that Ateneo book, a number of Filipinos in the past 25 years are educated about how to reconstruct Philippine pre-colonial history through available historical sources, especially the Portuguese archival materials. Before, a lot of Filipinos thought that Philippine history began during the arrival of Magellan, who was Portuguese by heritage, in 1521. Archaeologists, ethnographers, linguists, and anthropologists scientifically proved that this is wrong. The Philippines already had a flowering civilization thousands of years before the arrival of Magellan. You may ask, where are the historians in proving that there was history before 1521? For a long time, history before the Spanish colonization was a domain of the aforesaid professionals. But the likes of Scott asserted the place of a historian in writing the period through the available written sources.

Aside from his Barangay, you will appreciate Scott even more through his equally significant yet almost unknown article in Ateneo de Manila’s Philippine Studies journal titled “The Mediterranean Connection” in 1989. In that article, Scott proved that there was a rich Philippine pre-colonial history before 1521, if only we diligently expand the domain of the historians from the Hispanic period. He gave ample emphasis on the value of Portuguese accounts before 1521. Take for example the works of Tome Pires and Joao de Barros, who recorded that our ancestors from Luzon were already trading in Melaka and Singapore. They even participated in the armada of the Ottoman Empire in retaking Melaka from the Portuguese and in the Muslim campaigns of the Sultanate of Aceh against the Minangkabaus of Sumatra years before the arrival of Magellan to the Philippines.

The National Quincentennial Committee and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines have been championing the kind of quincentennial commemorations that is not Magellan-centric but event-centric. Focusing just on Magellan will complicate things, as the Filipinos have been battered with centuries of cultural timidity due to Eurocentric narrative. But we cannot discount the fact that Magellan’s vision to discover a route beyond the Americas contributed to the destiny and destination of humankind in the last 500 years, especially the Filipino people. But the Filipinos will assert: our ancestors did influence the result and outcome of the first circumnavigation of the world, like how our ancestors saved Magellan and his crew from starvation, undernourishment, and dehydration in Samar in March 1521 yet showed them how they fought for dignity and sovereignty when Magellan interfered already in their social and political life, resulting to the Battle of Mactan in April 1521, killing Magellan. The National Quincentennial Committee and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines decided to join the global commemoration of the first circumnavigation of the world to raise the awareness that our ancestors were not savages, like how Western writers and artists depicted them in books and artworks. A case in point is the 1921 stained glass of the Geographic Society of Lisbon in which our ancestors are drawn like Ethiopians. In fact, as part of the quincentennial commemorations in the Philippines, 2021 has been declared by the Philippine government as the Year of Filipino Pre-Colonial Ancestors.

I hope the papers to be read here be published soon. May the ongoing network of Portuguese and Filipino historians and scholars prosper. Our engagement with Portugal shall be beneficial to us, historically and culturally, but in return, the Philippines contribute as well to Portugal in whatever means we can.

Thank you. Congratulations.

Rene R. Escalante, Ph.D. is the Chairperson of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and concurrently the Executive Director of the National Quicentennial Committee.

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