How Long a History Do We Have?
by Ed Aurelio Reyes
Kampanya para sa Kamalayan sa Kasaysayan
Health Alert, March 1993
A MONG US ORDINARY Filipinos, that is, those people
who do nto belong to the small closed circles of scholars and historians, there is not
much knowledge about the past chapters of our nation's Lifestory. We do not even realize how
long a period of time is covered by written historical records about our people.
This is the reson why when the Kampanya para sa Kamalayan sa Kasaysayan (Kamalaysayan)
was trying to get more and more people involved in projects and activities to commemorate
the founding centennial of Andres Bonifacio's Katipunan, some looked at us as if we were
weirdos. Why, in heaven's name, would anyone bother with events of a hundred years ago?
Considering that many of our friends have apparently forgotten the events and woes of only
ten years ago, the question is to be expected.
But the question of length of time falling with in the coverage of the entire wealth of
written history is an important one. Answering it can give us improtant realizations
about ourselves as a people and aobut the amount of self-knowledge we still do not have in the
minds of the average Filipinos.
The first date that usually comes to mind when we are asked about the Philippines
of very long ago is March 16, 1521. According to our memorization-oriented Social Studies
teachers and a popular Cebuano singer-comedian, it was on that date that "Magellan discovered
This was later declared to be wrong, not only in the profound way due to the point-of-view
question of the Philippines not needing to be discovered by any floundering explorer fleet,
but also wrong in the empirical sense: Pigafetta failed to register their fleet's passage
across what we now know as the International Dateline before reaching our shores. Had not the
chronicler committed this error of omission, or had this error been realized much earlier,
we would have been told to memorize March 17 as the date of that "discovery>"
Counting the years from March 17, 1521, we come up with a total of 472 years, or roughly
half a millenium.
We have also come to know about a period called pre-Spanish era, with its barangays
and datus, and the maharlikas and the alipin, etcetera, etcetera. But
we have no idea how long that period really was.
The earliest record we have traced so far is an entry not exactly in Philippine annals bu in
Specifically, according to scholar Austin Craig, there is an entry on Chinese interaction with
our ancestors in our archipelago, in the written accounts of the Chou Dynasty (722 BC)
and also in the annals of the Han Dynasty (206 BC).
From the earlier one of the two dates, we can compute by simple arithmetic that we have had
no less than 2,715 years being spanned by all presently-known historical records of our
people, or roughley three centuries.
The half-millennium that has passed since we were "discovered" and conquered by foreign
powers (Spanish, American, Japanese) is, therefore, roughly only one-sixth of the entire
period covered byt he annals.
If we are to imagine the period of our written records to cover 12 hours, it appears that
we had already ten hours of recorded life befofe the only two hours since we were "discovered"
This realization should flow into another: we know next to nothing about the lives of
our foreparents in those two millenia and a half.
Our ignorance about our past is caused at least partly by the fact that the Spanish conquistadores
deliberately destroyed our culture held by our foreparents at the time of the conquest. Physical
manifestations of this culture were regarded as voodoo and the "work of the devil" and forcibly
destroyed as a requisite to our subjugation by the Sword and the Cross. The purveyors of the
spoken historical records, our rich oral traditions, were persecuted, even killed, by the
spanish friar and soldier.
Up to this time, we have far from recovered from the loss of our indigenous historical
For example, it is so very gradually coming back to us that our ancestors were favorite trading
partners of our fellow Asians, including Arabs, because of our well-known honesty and zeal as a
people. Our foreparents' honesty was so well known far and wide that the barter system operated
upon the "honor system" where our trading partners would demand neither receipts nor detailed
accounting of the transactions because they trusted the Filipino (although we were not called
by that name then).
Present-day Filipinos may find it difficult to reconcile this honorable image of our ancestors
with the not-so-comfortable self-image we are forming of ourselves.
Not only were we well-known to be honest, we or rather our ancestors here, were very peaceful
and orderly. The people's rights were respected along the lines of ancient tribal or communal
laws. Villagers communicated in general assemblies at the village square or in chats around their
Tradition was a powerful force that commanded the conduct of behavior of the community and also
of those vested with public authority.
For sudden necessities for community action, like the need to defend the village or to prepare
for storms or to rescue some community members from harm or peril, instant mobilization was
affected by the long and loud hooting sound of the tambuli, the bugle carved out of
Elements of Democracy
There were, in fact, elements of democracy, or proto-democracy, to be enjoyed by the villagers.
Nationalist Renato Constantino says in The Philippines: A Past Revisited:
"The village chief was the administrative leader of the community; he was not an absolute
ruler. First, the scope of his authority was limited by a traditional body of customs and
procedures. Second, although his position had become hereditary, it was originally attained
by the exhibition of greater prowess and valor, traits useful to the community's survival ...
Since the original basis for leadership was his superior personal attributes, he could be replaced if,
for some reason weakened. This was a possibility especially in larger communities where
there were several kinship groups, each with its own chief."
For hs part, Dr. Jaime Veneracion, chairman of the University of the Philippines Department of
History, says we should dispel the wide misunderstanding of the word "maharlika" which does not
connote nobility or royalty. The word means vassal, Veneracion says, adding that many young
Filipinos of today tend todegrade the meaning of the word "timawa" to mean idle, when the
word actually refers to "free man."
We still have to study a lot about the past, especially about the thousands upon thousands of
years that our ancestors lived in peace and harmony among themselves and with their neighbors.
we actually need the knowledge to keep us from amplifying the insults heaped upon our race.
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