26 October 2008

Blair & Robertson Deconstructed

During the 2008 Manila International Book Fair, Gus Vibal, founder of Filipiniana.net, gave a lecture on James Alexander Robertson, the Robertson of “Blair and Robertson,” the 53-volume standard reference work entitled The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898.

The work of Blair and Robertson has been cited thousands of times by scholars, who have always assumed that it is accurate and comprehensive. Vibal proved, in an extended treatise, that we should not trust the work.

Vibal’s thesis was simple but provocative: “Far from being a neutral and scientific enterprise, Robertson’s acquisition policies were strongly guided by American colonialist considerations, overriding the B&R’s claims to historical objectivity. What seemed to be a monumental scholarly undertaking also masked an imperialist ideological bias which has been picked up unwittingly by nationalist historians and passed on today as orthodoxy and accepted as textbook truth.”

Painstakingly tracing the career of Robertson as first director of the National Library, Vibal showed how the American librarian was part of a grand conspiracy “to stitch together a cohesive imperialist narrative to justify white rule over the Philippines.” Unlike Wenceslao Retana, who collected even anti-Spanish texts, Robertson saw to it that only pro-American and anti-Filipino texts were included in his collection. In fact, Robertson even included hoaxes such as the Code of Kalantiao.

Vibal concluded his lecture with these words: “In the guise of ‘tutelary democracy’ the ‘savage people’ of the Philippine islands would be shaped into a democratic nation by white people who would act as their moral and political superiors. Not satisfied with political victory, the new American masters were determined to achieve cultural hegemony and in so doing unleashed an insidious war against hispanismo, the last dying trace of Spain in the Philippines. Its methods were the supplanting of the very language in which the nationalist aspirations were framed, as well as the gradual erosion of Hispanic elements in Philipine society as the Americans sought to renovate the national culture after their image.”

“The proof of this,” said Vibal, “is today’s lecture where I stand before you, a Filipino speaking in English, and still interpreting my Hispanic Philippine past through readings of the highly selective and skewed Blair and Robertson translations. I find it difficult to read the works, all in Spanish, of Isabelo de los Reyes, Wenceslao Retana, Epifanio de los Santos, Pedro Paterno, Jaime de Veyra, or Teodoro Kalaw. It is a laborious effort to read the classic seditious novels of early Tagalog writers such as Lope K. Santos, Faustino Aguilar, and IƱigo Ed. Regalado.”
Renato Constantino called this “the miseducation of the Filipino.” Unfortunately, until today, that miseducation still continues.

Very few Filipinos know enough Spanish to read at least the two novels of Jose Rizal, not to mention the other masterpieces of 19th century and even early 20th century Filipino writers. The vast majority of Filipinos can read modern Tagalog, but even Tagalogs find it hard to understand the old Tagalog of the early 20th century.

It is time to return Spanish to the curriculum. Unless we know where we have been, we will never get to where we want to go. In fact, we will not even know where we should go.

It is also time for our scholars to translate all our historical and cultural documents in Spanish into languages young Filipinos easily understand. Even the old Tagalog novels have to be translated into Filipino, if we want the next generation to continue reading them.

(First published in The Philippine Star, 16 October 2008.)

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