By Marian Pastor Roces
MADRID, SPAIN. The city brings to mind the buzz in Philippine culture, academic, tourism, and diplomatic circles about the forthcoming quincentenario of the arrival of navigator Fernando Magallanes in Samar. Five hundred years seems something: perhaps like a comet returning, lighting up the past in the sky.
But what it means is entirely up to what people see in any given time and place.
Should a Filipino try for a sighting of Fernando Magallanes in Madrid, center of the empire that agreed to send him off to see if the world is round, it will not be a matter-of-fact pastime.
Magallanes is not exactly a big deal here, in Spain, and while of course known, he is quaint and dusty. Even if the 500th anniversary of the circumnavigation of the world is a few months from now, his name belongs to background music, so to speak. The man is not the biggest star in the firmament.
An exhibition on the first circumnavigation of the world has been open at the Museo Naval for a few months now. It is one of Spain’s lesser endowed museums. (Compared to, say, the Prado or the Reina Sofia Contemporary Art Museum.) It is evidently off the high-end design, intellectual, and curatorial circuits. The designers attempted jazzy graphics and video, but it looks passé.
The Museo Naval is the most obvious place to find Magallanes. It holds the faded-grandeur naval memorabilia of a maritime empire that lasted four centuries. It would have been expected to initiate the commemorative exhibit. And in fact Fuimos Los Primeros: Magallanes, Elcano y la Vuelta al Mundo (We Were the First: Magallanes, Elcano, and the Trip Around the World) nests perfectly, if somewhat forlornly, amidst this museum’s miscellany of mastheads, ship models, and ancient navigation equipment.
The museum and the temporary exhibition show Magallanes as part but not the whole of the story that is valuable to Spain: the circumnavigation. It was the same order of business in the 16th century as sending a human to the moon in the 20th century. But the achievement is not a matter of central importance to a Spain that today is more than a century removed from empire and its culture of privilege and entitlements.
Among other dire stuff on its plate, Spain has to deal with being part of a world engulfed in nasty populism. Spain is also committed to the European Union, and this community-building project does not encourage exceptionalist breast-beating. Europe had other empire builders. European identities are being constructed on the basis of qualities of response to apocalyptic times.
On the other hand, in the Philippines the name Magellan remains in the national imagination as the genesis story itself. “The Philippines” in the school books began in 1521. March 16, as wit and singer Yoyoy Villame makes indelible in popular culture. And so it is that the event unfortunately persists as a Filipino origin myth, despite the efforts of academics and a few policy makers to replace the meanings and upend the centrality of this first encounter of locals with a literally other-worldly force.
BM and AM (Before Magellan and After Magellan) is still how Filipinos segment pre-history from history. Magellan stands for the moment prehistory is thought to slip into history — domain of written records — even if today Filipinos ought know better than to believe in such neat divisions.
Besides, prehistory remains a field of outdated (actually, outright wrong) science about the archipelago’s people. The figure of Magellan is hence a curtain drawn against that vagueness, and that therefore highlights colonial experience.
Unhappily, Filipino efforts to rethink Magallanes often consists of replacing him with Lapu-Lapu, the small island chief whose warriors killed the navigator for entangling himself in local rivalries. The aspiration hopes to retroactively produce a nationalistic narrative of early anti-colonial resistance.
Or: Magallanes be damned, to solemnly protest that the Philippines had an a priori civilization that European conquest eclipsed.
Neither desire is liberating for a Philippines that badly needs a postcolonial imagination. Especially not if the desire needs inaccuracies in order to thrive.
Accuracy — to the full extent possible in any given time and place — will animate this imagination. Lapu-Lapu was a village head who did not suffer a meddler in his violent tiffs with Humabon of Cebu. Recasting Lapu-Lapu as anti-colonial firebrand is a stretch, because the context was inter-village warfare.
As for assertions of the colonial theft of the precolonial, well, that is best rectified by updating the scientific content of school books.
Accuracy is a pleasure in the exhibition in Spain, and made up for its shortcomings. Juan Sebastián Elcano gets proper billing for completing the expedition from the Philippines to Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain, proving for good that the world is round. The 16th Century Catholic Church was ready to accept a heliocentric cosmos.
The exhibition title in English — “We were the first” — is, too, the accurate claim. It can be made in the name of science rather than retroactive hubris.
In the run-up to the 500th milestone, Spanish diplomats are encouraging contacts around the world to undertake simultaneous commemorations. The Philippine government and academia have plans. The Spanish exhibition’s focus on an expedition to update knowledge — that is to say, the circumnavigability of the earth — is valuable today, a time of wanton falsehoods and angry ignorance.
It should be a mark of a mature, postcolonial Filipino to commemorate, with the rest of the world, the effort to acquire scientific verity. Such effort has larger import today than merely knocking down icons of conquest.
Marian Pastor Roces is an independent curator and critic whose research interests include international art events, museums, identity politics, cities, and clothing. She is the founder and principal of TAO, Inc., a museum and exhibition development corporation.