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Book Review


John D. Blanco, Frontier Constitutions: Christianity and Colonial Empire in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. xviii + 372. $49.95 (cloth)


     Although they should, the Philippine Islands seldom appear in world history textbooks. Only experts might teach about Magellan's landing in 1521, the turnover from Spain to the U.S.A. after the 1898 Spanish-American War or the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. John Blanco corrects the oversight at the University of California Press blog, writing "that for the past four centuries the Philippines has also been a crossroads of globalization, where competing visions of world hegemony have been played out in dramatic fashion."1 Blanco's Frontier Constitutions: Christianity and Colonial Empire in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines places the Philippines within the wider nineteenth-century context of European imperialism, national identities and technological change. In today's world, document collections of world history typically include excerpts from Noli Me Tangere, the famous book written by the Filipino author, Jose Rizal (1861–1896).2 Blanco's study addresses Rizal's contribution to the story of the Philippines, while fruitfully adding a wider context of other nineteenth-century authors and texts from the Philippines. Rizal was not the only Filipino author, nor were his books the only literature in late-nineteenth century Manila. Besides the emphasis on colonialism and modernity, Blanco's study also reminds us that the Philippines has had a part to play in Spanish history, while highlighting Latin American parallels, omens of USA empire and current events in the Philippines today.3

     Good books should lead to more good books and Blanco's book fits the bill. He builds on previous studies published about Filipino history. The conversation that the author has in Frontier Constitutions connects us to many other studies about the Philippines.4 In English alone there are many worthwhile histories to read. Adding Spanish or Tagalog titles would inspire any expert in Philippine studies. In addition to these books about the Philippines, Blanco's study engages with a larger comparative analysis of contemporary theory.5 From here, the teacher of world history can easily incorporate more of the seemingly small history of the Philippines into their world history curriculum.

     As for a brief summary, the book begins and ends with two significant paintings. In the first image, José Honorato Lozano's Francisco de Yriarte (Letras y Figuras) (ca. 1851), the artist has spelled out the name of Yriarte, but the letters are composed of people living their daily lives in Manila.6 At closer inspection, for example, Lozano shaped the letter "Y" by the angled roof of a small hut with a tree branching behind, while in the foreground of the house a woman sits tending a fire. Blanco cleverly demonstrates how the "two incommensurable orders of representation—"the symbolic and the signifying "—emerge in Lozano's canvas. Juan Luna's Pacto de Sangre (1884), the second canvas, shows the Spanish governor Legazpi and Rajah Sikatuna signing the paper that began the colonization of the Philippines.7 Legazpi is shown in full candlelight, but the Rajah is half-obscured in shadow with his right hand holding a drawn kris. The Spanish soldiers and priests dominate the right side of the canvas. An early reaction to the Luna painting was that it was a disparate, nonsense. Art historians consider the Luna painting the first "historical painting" of a Philippine subject, but it is an invented past, emerging in the nineteenth century, not the sixteenth century.8 The Lozano and Luna images highlight the nineteenth-century history of the Philippines, with echoes of its earlier past and the daily life of its forgotten people.

     The book contains seven chapters organized into three parts with an introduction and an epilogue. The three parts are named Shibboleths, Projects and Concatenations. Readers must define for themselves why the parts are so-named. Chapters one, two and three address the development of distinctiveness and separation between the indigenous inhabitants and the Spanish, hence the shibboleths. The native born villager, city dweller, indio and mestizo discovered their commonality apart from the Spanish colony. Part Two concerns the mostly nineteenth-century projects, with chapters four, five and six focused on the creation of a public sphere, the imagination and emergence of a original sense of perception or aesthetics and the values and norms created by writers reflecting a debate about the Philippines within the Spanish Empire. The final Part Three, Concatenations, with a Chapter Seven entitled Gothic, is even less defined but draws from the idea of a chain of history and the literature of gothic novels from the 1800s.

     Blanco draws the reader into the local works of writers in the Philippines. Government reports, fiscal audits, economic plans, theatrical romances, newspaper illustrations, poetical forms, seminal novellas and early novels all become primary sources for Blanco's examination of how the Philippines was constituted on the frontier edge of Spanish Empire. Tagalog authors like Francisco Balagtas in 1838 published Florante at Laura.9 The creation of a new cultural commodity, drawing from European forms like Petrarchan sonnets, chivalrous tales of Charlemagne, and legends of the Seven Princes of Lara, nevertheless represented some of the earliest professional Tagalog writers, not Spanish missionaries, developing their written product for a Manila audience. The Balagtas poem became so well-known, that while exiled in Guam in 1899 by the new American colonizers, Apolinario Mabini, Prime Minister of the revolutionary government, transcribed from memory the entire play.

     In this close source analysis, Blanco reveals a keen mind, making connections between multiple languages and ideas. This is most visible in the sections about Federico Casademunt's novella "Agapito Macapingan" from the 1875 fortnightly newspaper, Revista de Filipinas. Agapito is a servant in Manila whose father had been a village leader, a cabeza de barangay. Told from Agapito's perspective, we learn about his father's imprisonment and a false accusation of maladministration because Ñor Titong and a scribe named Calahati—literally divided half—betray their leader. Agapito works for a priest in Manila and in return expects to learn Spanish and Latin, but the priest fails to teach Agapito, not even paying him. Agapito learns that an incomplete education leads him wayward. Even when he tries to learn by copying letters, he does not even know Spanish. Agapito's name derives from the Greek agape, Platonic love, and his surname, Macapingan, comes from the Tagalog pingan, a pole used to balance pails of water, balancing two burdens. Casademunt asks with his main character "am I a suitable reflection for your own divided self?"

     Blanco includes many other close readings of primary sources and published literature from the nineteenth-century Philippines. The 1864 novel Urbana at Feliza, written by Modesto de Castro, contains the fictional correspondence of two young women in the instruction of good manners.10 Si Tandang Basio Macunat, by Fray Miguel Lucio y Bustamante, recounts the life of the student Prospero who travels to Manila against the advice of his sister and parish priest.11 Both works become a series of Chinese boxes, where the reader must evaluate the experience of these first-hand accounts, judging the protagonist's reporting. Filipino readers compared their lives with the imagined characters, learning about themselves and the colonial regime. Other writers from the Spanish peninsula drew from costumbrismo, akin to realism, to describe their sense of the Philippines. Francisco Cañamaque visited the islands for about a year and later published Recuerdos de Filipinas, where he found evidence for his preconceptions of European superiority. Francisco de Paula Entrala in Olvidos de Filipinas presented a rebuttal. These works preceded Rizal, showing the reality of a reading public and the creation of a Filipino local identity. Most interestingly, the Spaniards recognized that the language in which they represented themselves and the natives was Spanish. However, the indigenous could represent themselves in either Spanish or an islander language that the colonizer could not understand.

     José Rizal emerges in Blanco's book as part of a historical chain, with predecessors and successors. Rizal asked historical questions in his writing. He wrote about the Philippines in a hundred years or on the indolence of the Filipinos, asking questions of the past. He demonstrated from historical sources that Filipinos had not been lazy before the nineteenth century, and asked, "what caused the transformation?" Rizal even took apart the most famous Spanish seventeenth-century history of the Philippines, Antonio de Morga's Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1609), republishing the text in 1890 with his commentary.12 Where Morga decries the treachery of an indio of the islands who surprises a Captain Figueroa and kills him, Rizal, always aware of historical perspective, asks "Is it the Filipinos' fault that Figueroa didn't see him?" Blanco argues that the turn to history brings together three of Rizal's concerns. First history can document the stagnation of the island's resources. Second, history could highlight the rights and efficacy of Spanish sovereignty. Third, historical narrative can demystify the past, giving inspiration to the people of Rizal's day and clearly into the present day. Blanco clearly explains in his preface that he conceived this book as a counterpoint, proving that "critical reflection did and does effect a change in the unequal relationship of forces, economic and social classes, and politicized groups - even individuals."

     Blanco concludes his study with a delightful anecdote about Fray Manuel Blanco, an Augustinian friar, expert translator into Tagalog and author of Flora de Filipinas (1837).13 Later authors explained that when he died, a book he supposedly wrote, entitled El Indio, was finally opened up and there was not a single word written in it. Wenceslao Retana, Spaniard and friend of Rizal wrote, "Silence, at times, says more than a thousand treatises . . . the Philippine native is an indefinable being, a blank book." The double entendre of the blank book, libro en blanco, authored by Fray Manuel Blanco and now commented on by Professor John Blanco, provides delightful reading and brings hope for tying Filipino history and world history into greater affinity.

James B. Tueller is a Professor of History at Brigham Young University–Hawai'i and author of Good and Faithful Christians: Moriscos and Catholicism in Early Modern Spain. He currently researches and writes on the Spanish Empire in the Pacific Ocean, focusing on conversion to Christianity among the 18th-Century Chamorros of Guam. He can be reached at



1 See

2 The Andrea/Overfield document collection of world history sources, The Human Record (second edition) includes selections from Rizal's best known work in Document 90. The entire novel, in English translation, can be accessed on-line at Many of his works can also be accessed in the original Spanish at

3 I write this as the results from the elections in the Philippines emerge, showing a landslide victory for Benigno Aquino III in voting for president. At the same time, Imelda Marcos, widow of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and their son (Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.) and daughter (Imee) have also won the elections for representative, senator and provincial governor. Popular culture has grabbed on to recent Filipino history with the rock opera "Here Lies Love" by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. See

4 Reynaldo C. Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines 1840-1910 (first published in 1979, sixth printing in 2003, scanned into Google books); Filomeno Aguilar, A Clash of Spirits: The History of Power and Sugar Planter Hegemony on a Visayan Island (1998); Greg Bankoff, Crime, Society and the State in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines (1996); Marciano R. de Borja, Basques in the Philippines (2005), Fennella Cannell Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (1999); Benito Lagarda, After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines (1999); Vicente L. Rafael, The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines (2005); Dennis Roth The Friar Estates of the Philippines (1997); Edgar Wickberg, The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850-1898 (2000, originally published in 1965).

5 He informs his analysis of the local history with the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Benedict Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Homi Bhaba, Pierre Bourdieu, Partha Chatterjee, Paul De Man, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Ranajit Guha, Jürgen Habermas, David Harvey, Eric Hobsbawm, Walter Mignolo, Gyan Prakash, Marshall Sahlins, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gauri Viswanathan and Thongchai Winichakul.

6 More samples of Lozano's art can be found on-line. For example, see

7 More information about Juan Luna and images of his artwork can be found on-line. See, for example,

8 The Pacto de Sangre painting is usually displayed in Malacañang Palace, the seat of government in the Philippines. It even has a wikipedia entry:

9 Justifiably significant, the Balagtas play can be accessed in the original Tagalog on-line at

10 Castro's novel is available on-line at the, a digital library collection;

11 also his Bustamante's novel; tandang.

12 Morga's text, translated into English, is available on-line at

13 Google has digitized this book from the Stanford University Library. See on-line at



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