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(By Alfredo J. Morales)
On 16 March 1521 a fleet sent by the Crown of Castile and commanded by Ferdinand Magellan reached Samar, the first Philippine island to be claimed by Spain. The purpose of the expedition, which had set sail from Sanlucar de Barrameda, was to discover a westward sea route between the Atlantic and the South Sea -- the name coined by its discoverer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, which Magellan changed to Pacific -- leading to the Spice Islands. After various calamities and tragedies, including the death of Magellan in Cebu, the expedition finally reached the Moluccas early in November that year. It would have been Juan Sebastian de Elcano, the newly appointed captain of the Victoria, who proposed heading for these islands after continuing westwards and putting in at several islands on the Philippine Archipelago. Having fulfilled his mission and obtained the spices that were the object of the voyage, Elcano decided to return to the Iberian Peninsula via the Cape of Good Hope. It was a difficult return journey and the ever diminishing crew were beset with many misfortunes. On 6 September 1522, the ship finally docked at Sanlucar de Barrameda, the same port from which the great adventurer had started out, having circumnavigated the world and proved it was round.
The commercial success of this undertaking spurred a further voyage and a growing interest in the Moluccas, though Charles V put an end to this when he sold Spain's rights to these islands to the king of Portugal. The expeditions nonetheless continued and Spain increased its presence in the Pacific. New spice-producing islands and knowledge in spice cultivation were sought with a view to adapting these plants to the condition of New Spain. However, the successive expeditions failed to return to the American continent. One, led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, set sail from Mexico on 1 November 1542 and sighted Mindanao the following February after discovering a number of islands. One of this islands, which belonged to the Visayas group, was named "Filipina" after Prince Felipe, the future Philip II, and this name was subsequently extended to the entire archipelago. Despite continued interest in the spice trade, the large number of seafarers and vessels that perished in the Pacific put a damper on projects for some years, as the problem of the return voyage across that ocean remained a major concern.
A man who had no doubts about the route that would allow ships to return successfully to New Spain was Andres de Urdaneta, then as Augustinian monk, who had traveled to the Spice Islands some years previously and spent some time on the Moluccas, where he had become acquainted with the winds and currents of the Pacific. The significance of his knowledge aroused the interest of Philip II, who asked Urdaneta to accompany and guide an expedition being prepared in Mexico. After long, costly preparations and a change of plans that was not announced to the expedition members until they were at sea, a squadron commanded by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi set sail from Mexico on 21 November 1564. His mission was to reach and occupy the Philippine islands and verify the existence of a "return route" by which, according to Andres de Urdaneta, ships could sail back to the American continent. After spending several months at sea, and stopping at various islands, the expedition arrived at Samar on 13 February 1565 and immediate took possession of this island. Seeking alliances with the natives and provisions for the crew, they visited several islands with varying fates. Legazpi eventually decided to head for Cebu and establish his headquarters there -- only managing to do through use of force, as the islanders believed that the Spaniards wished to avenge Magellan's death. After the population had left on the islands was found in the town, the famous Holy Child of Cebu which the Filipino people continued to worship to this day. Andres de Urdaneta departed from Cebu for New Spain on 1 June 1565 and arrived at the port of Acapulco on 8 October from the fulfilled his promise of returning to the American continent from the Philippines.
Having been confirmed and mapped out, this "return route" was to be followed for over two centuries but the galleons that sailed to Mexico from Manila, the archipelago's capital which Legazpi himself founded on 24 June1571. The city's privileged position made it a hub of trade and relations with China, Japan, and Siam, and the point of departure for the colonization of Micronesia and the evangelization of Asia. For centuries the Philippines were the gateway between East and West, the destination of many commercial, circumnavigation and scientific voyages, and a nexus of exchanges whose importance and activity continued even after the establishment of the Royal Philippine Company and the abandonment in the early 19th century of the route that had linked Manila and Acapulco for over two Hundred years.
The purpose of these brief history notes and thoughts is to remind the reader of the reasons and origins of the ties that binds the Philippine and Spain. They also aim to recall some of the prominent figures in those difficult early times and to gauge the significance of their undertakings. In particular they set out to recall Miguel Lopez de Legazpi on the occasion of the fifth century of his birth in the town of Zumarraga. Through peaceful alliances or military confrontation, by founding towns and drawing up bylaws, he was the true architect of the incorporation of the Philippine islands to the Spanish crown. This exhibition springs from a wish to pay tribute to the man and his great colonizing endeavor, though it also examines the significant work performed by many other Spaniards on the countless South Sea islands. It also takes the opportunity to highlight the major task of colonization carried out by the Spanish monarchy in the Pacific, particularly in the Philippines. Lastly, it stresses the decisive role of the archipelago and especially its capital, Manila, in the cultural exchange between East and West.
With these aims in mind, the exhibition has been divided in three sections. The first, entitled Courses, navigators and scientific expeditions, deals with the huge task performed by the numerous Spanish discoverers, seafarers and intellectuals who sailed the Pacific for centuries, discovering, reconnoitering, colonizing and studying the physical and human landscape of its countless islands. Indeed, innumerable islands were discovered both by the expeditions that set sail from Mexico and by those that departed from Callao in the viceroyalty of Peru. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Pacific become known as the "Spanish Lake," as its waters were plied in all by directions by Spaniards, who discovered most of the major archipelagos, circumnavigated New Guinea and reached the Australian coast. However, some of these exploits were hushed up or concealed during the 18th century and even attributed to navigators of other maritime powers. Genuinely or pretended scientific voyages and explorations of the South Seas were frequent in the second half of that century. A particularly notable Atrevida and Descubierta, explored the Spanish territories in America and the Pacific and provided extremely rich and varied information gathered with rigour and precision of the new technical instruments and in accordance with the new Enlightenment approach to the historical and positive sciences.
The second second section of the exhibition is entitled Govern, administer, evangelize. It examines Spain's efforts to colonise the Philippine archipelago. One of the earliest manifestations of this effort was the establishment of towns. The first, Villa de San Miguel, was founded by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565 on the island of Cebu, though the most significant was Manila, which was founded in 1571. Legazpi himself drew up the bylaws of what was to be the capital of the archipelago and established the city council. Philip II granted it a coat of arms in 1596. It was Philip who decided that the Philippines should be placed under the jurisdiction of the viceroyalty of New Spain, with which the famous Manila Galleon provided to govern the islands and the Audiencia set up to administer justice remained dependent on that of Mexico for only a few years. Local administrative posts of corregidor and alcalde mayor were likewise established for various provinces. Naturally, the presence of the army also played an important role in governing the islands, though it never had as many soldiers as the size and complexity of the island territory required. The main units based at the garrison were the King's Infantry Regiment and the Luzon Dragoon Squadron, though considerable troops were also stationed at the strategic enclaves of Cavite and Zamboanga. Evangelisation was initially carried out by Augustinians, as Legazpi was accompanied by members of this religious order. They were later joined by Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans, who brought to the task of Christianizing the Filipinos their vast experience in the Americas. The fact that they all made an effort to learn the native languages and to use them in their missionary tasks limited the spread of Spanish. Only in Manila and the towns and villages inhabited by Spaniards was it habitually spoken. These were the setting places of the few clergy, who reported to the archbishopric in Manila or the bishopric in Cebu, Nueva Caceres and Nueva Segovia. The rapid Christianization of the archipelago further fuelled the missionary zeal of the Spanish religious orders, who departed from the Philippines to preach the Christian faith to other peoples of Asia. This difficult task failed to enjoy the hoped-for success, and many suffered persecution and martyrdom along with the native converts.
The third and last section of the exhibition, An archipelago of exchanges, highlights the Philippine's role as an important nexus of relations between East and West. From 1565 to 1815 the so-called Nao de Acapulco or Manila Galleon linked the capital of the archipelago with Seville by means of a sea and land route stretching from Manila to Acapulco, across the viceroyalty of New Spain to Veracruz, and from there to the Spanish city. It was primarily a trade route but also an exceptional source of human relations and cultural exchanges. Manila was a bustling port through which trade was conducted with China, Japan, Siam, India and the Pacific islands, and from which a variety of refined, sumptuous and exotic Asian goods were dispatched to Mexico and the mother country. Items made of ivory, lacquer and mother-of-pearl, furniture and screens, silks and chinaware were, together with raw materials and spices, the Manila Galleon's usual cargo. These goods, which were invariably regarded as extraordinary and prestige items, aroused widespread interest and curiosity. As a result they came to adorn royal palaces and the residences of nobility, ecclesiastical dignitaries and high-ranking officials, or enriched churches' liturgical treasures through generous donations. Many of the objects that were clearly profane in origin were given a religious use owing to their rich materials and exceptional nature. For centuries, these precious items with their undeniable charm furthermore exerted an obvious influence on the industrial, luxury and decorative arts produced in the vast territories ruled by the Spanish monarchy. Indeed, the rich and exotic materials, complex and intricate techniques, exquisite designs and forms, and vibrant decorative repertories of Asian origin modified and enriched many Mexican and Spanish artistic creations. In turn, varied religious and profane objects fashioned in Asian workshops progressively merged characteristically European forms and functions with Oriental decorative techniques and symbolic motifs. These hybrid art objects attest to their creators' extraordinary versatility and ability to admire and adapt, and to the existence of a refined, exquisite taste in which surviving types and functions became fused with an interest in the exotic and a desire for novelty.
Broadly speaking, these are the themes that this exceptional exhibitions explores through almost two hundred objects and works of art. This ambitious and complex project is not only intended as a reminder of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, a key person in the history of the Philippines and, accordingly, of Spain, but also sets out to recall the significance of Spain's discoveries and colonizing efforts in the Pacific and the decisive role the archipelago played for centuries as a hub of trade, cultural and spiritual relations between East and West.
*From the brochure of the exhibit of the same title held at the National Museum of the Philippines from March 3 to April 18, 2004