Briones: The quincentenary

Publio J. Briones III
·2 min read

If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t happened, the quincentennial celebration of Christianity in Catholic-majority Philippines would have hogged the limelight.

The local church had been busy with preparations and had activities lined up when the health crisis struck. For obvious reasons, these had to be moved or scaled down.

Life would have been so different for us if Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who was sailing under the Spanish flag, hadn’t arrived on our shores to plant the seed of a foreign religion that has firmly taken root to dominate many aspects of society.

Imagine if it were the British or the Dutch who showed up in Samar 500 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. We’d still be f---ed.

After all, it was the era that ushered in the age of colonialism. At the end of the 15th century, the Pope, the titular head of the Roman Catholic Church, had divided the globe between the Spanish and the Portuguese in the Treaty of Tordesillas to settle any conflicts.

The people who lived in these “newly discovered” lands were not consulted. There was no referendum. They just woke up one day to find their lives upended, their beliefs questioned and relegated to superstition, their customs replaced. Suddenly, they had no control over their destiny.

Of course, it would be unfair to heap all the blame on the West. Here in the Philippine archipelago, there were accounts of complicity, even collusion with the newcomers.

Some embraced the alliance, hoping they could use it to their advantage like taking down a rival, which was the case here in Cebu. And we all know what happened next.

Because if you look at it, it would have been next to impossible to subjugate all the islands that make up what is now the Philippines without local assistance.

We were, after all, considered a backwater of the vast Spanish empire, too far and not as economically viable as the other colonies in the Americas. We were ruled not from Madrid, the Spanish capital, but from Mexico City, the capital of New Spain, which was charged with governing the “lesser” colonies like Spain’s Caribbean possessions and, yes, the Philippines.

I’m sure no one jumped at the prospect of being sent here, which would explain why, in the more than 300 years of Spanish rule, less than 5,000 Spanish colonists lived in the islands at any given time with most of them concentrated in Manila.

By the way, I read that last bit somewhere.

So where was I? Oh yes, the quincentennial celebration of Christianity in the islands.

The Spanish have long since gone, but there’s no denying the religion they brought is here to stay, providing comfort and solace in these times of uncertainty. Although I’m sure our pre-colonial faith would have served the same purpose.