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In Other Words by Paul Morrow William Henry Scott and the new history

by Paul Morrow

   William Henry Scott at Sagada in 1989
William Henry Scott at Sagada in 1989.
(Wikipedia photo)

Many years ago, when I first became interested in Filipino culture, I was drawn more to the pre-colonial period of Philippine history rather than the Spanish era. This was probably due to my general curiosity about Asia. I wanted to know what the various peoples of these islands were like before Western culture made its indelible mark on them and called them “Filipinos.”

In the days before the Internet, my only sources of information were whatever books I could find in the local library or old school textbooks that some Filipino friends had lent to me. Most of these books were quite disappointing. It seemed that Philippine history began only when white men “discovered” the islands.

Some of the textbooks did have a superficial opening chapter about the pre-colonial Philippines that read like a tourist brochure. Editorial comments were often presented as facts, like the so-called character traits of each ethnic group, which would be scandalous in a Canadian textbook today.

Some things did catch my attention among the vague descriptions of ancient Filipino customs. For instance, Filipinos had their own alphabet, their own written laws and even a written historical saga. Really? I wanted to know more but as I dug for specific details I found that the textbooks didn’t always agree with each other, and when they did, it was often because they were all quoting the same modern-day historian word for word.

The pre-Spanish dates especially intrigued me. For example, according to the textbooks, the Maragtas chronicle was written in 1212 and the laws of Datu Kalantiaw were dated December 8, 1433. These documents, they said, actually bore these dates. Really? But how did the ancient Filipinos know what the date was on our modern calendar before any European had ever been to the Philippines? People did have ways to mark the passage of time but what was their starting point? None of the textbooks mentioned any dates on any ancient native calendar or how these dates were converted to our modern calendar.

Eventually my quest drew me away from school textbooks and toward the books that they all quoted, which are still hard to find even with the Internet. One author in particular served as my guide, the American, William Henry Scott.

In 1965, Scott was puzzled by the same questions I would have decades later. He was a doctoral candidate studying at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. For his thesis he chose to investigate the original source of every single reference to the pre-Spanish history of the Philippines in the four standard college textbooks in use at that time. He examined the original documents that were mentioned in these textbooks and searched archives and museums the world over for supporting documents and artefacts. He questioned the top historians of the day about their sources of information and consulted with many experts in other fields such as language, geology, archaeology and anthropology. He scoured the vast collection of pre-colonial material amassed by his personal friend, Dr. H. Otley Beyer. He interviewed the friends, colleagues and relatives and examined the personal writings of Pedro Monteclaro and Jose E. Marco who were the two men who supposedly discovered the majority of ancient Filipino documents.

What he discovered and proved was that a lot of the pre-Spanish history in Filipino school textbooks was based on outdated theories, wishful thinking and even hoaxes. These devastating revelations should have shaken the historical community to the ground and shocked the general public but, for the most part, Scott was ignored – probably because the dissertation panel that examined his thesis included some of the very same men, such as Teodoro Agoncillo and Gregorio Zaide, who had written the textbooks that Scott had so soundly proved wrong. The panel accepted Scott’s thesis with little or no argument – they had to; the facts were irrefutable. They even awarded him the grade of meritissimus or “excellent,” yet no great effort was made to correct the misinformation that was being taught in Filipino schools.

Some historians quietly removed the errors from their books or simply added the statement that some of the information was “in dispute.” Gregorio Zaide continued to write new history books up until his death in 1986 with information that he knew to be based on hoaxes. Even as late as 1989 the National Historical Institute (NHI) included the fictitious Datu Kalantiaw in their five-volume Filipinos in History.

So it turns out that the Maragtas chronicle was not written in 1212. It was written in 1907 and the author himself, Pedro Monteclaro, wrote in the introduction of the book that it was a collection of legends that he had gathered from storytellers and some written documents from the Spanish era. Yet somehow the esteemed authors of the textbooks missed that candid admission.

And the Code of Kalantiaw was not written on December 8, 1433. Nobody had noticed that the name of Kalantiaw was never mentioned in a single document written before 1913, either in the Philippines or in any neighbouring country, until the amateur historian Jose E. Marco “discovered” Kalantiaw in a book he himself had faked.

Nor did anyone notice that the Kalantiaw Code had a few Spanish words in it, even though it was supposedly written before a single Spaniard had ever set foot in the Philippines. Kalantiaw’s third law condemned a man to swim for three hours (oras) if he could not afford to care for his wives, while his fifth law meted out the punishment of a one-hour lashing. How did pre-colonial Filipinos know what an hour was? They didn’t have clocks!

It is only now, since most of the old guard passed on, that new generations of historians have been able to set the records straight. The NHI finally admitted that Kalantiaw was a hoax in 1998 when Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, who was about to receive the Kalantiaw Award, asked Malacañang to look into the matter. President Joseph Estrada gave him the award anyway.

In 2005, the NHI, under Ambeth Ocampo, made their opinion official when they submitted a resolution to then-President Arroyo to revoke the national shrine status of the Kalantiaw Shrine in Aklan, which, of course, enraged some Aklanons.

But the textbook writers of the past are not entirely to blame for all the controversy about what is true or false in ancient Philippine history. Writing textbooks is not the same as doing original research. They had to rely on information from other historians who should have checked their facts. Why didn’t they? At the root of the controversy are two basic problems.

The first problem was a lack of critical thinking and skeptical enquiry on the part of many educators and researchers that led them to rely too heavily on the authority of supposed experts. Teachers accepted without question what was written in the books of Zaide, Agoncillo, Alip and many others – after all it was their job to teach, not to question. The textbook writers in their time did not question the authority of the historical pioneers, such as James Robertson, Emma Blair and Otley Beyer, who provided much of their source material.

The second problem is a condition that the columnist Michael Tan once called the “Kalantiaw Complex.” (I wish I had thought of that name.) It is a sense of inferiority that many people feel when they see the great monuments and ancients cities in other Asian countries and they wonder, “Why is there nothing like that in the Philippines?” Jose Marco created dozens of hoaxes throughout his life that, for many, compensated for this sense of inferiority and it caused many other hoaxers to embellish them further.

It was the Kalantiaw Complex, too, that made so many historians like Blair, Robertson, Beyer, Agoncillo and Zaide want desperately to believe the hoaxes and ignore their obvious discrepancies.

Henry Scott was not the first person to question the validity of the “old” history; there were others such as Mauro Garcia, who had a great influence on Scott. But it was Scott’s thesis, which was published in book form as Pre-Hispanic Source Materials for the Study of Philippine History, which has become an inspiration and a model of proper critical research for the newer generations of Filipino historians. They will in time uncover more real history that Filipinos can be truly proud of, and the Kalantiaw Complex will be a thing of the past – so to speak.

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