Bringing history home


Bringing history home

Scholars digitally repatriate manuscripts raided from a 17th-century Spanish-Empire convent

By Yaakov Zinberg

The battle for Manila had already been won, but the British were after the spoils.

Britain’s incursion into the Philippines in 1762 was not the archipelago’s first colonial experience. By then, the Spanish crown had controlled the Philippines — named in honor of Spain’s King Philip II — for nearly two centuries, seeking greater access to the spice trade and to convert Filipinos to Roman Catholicism. Conquering the Philippines would enable Britain to strike a blow against its European rival and seize some of its resources. A 13-ship fleet landed at Manila Bay and disgorged more than 6,000 men, who easily breached the city’s poorly fortified walls and secured a Spanish surrender. With Manila theirs, treasure-hungry soldiers then turned their attention to its churches.

Among the many churches Spanish missionaries had built throughout Manila, none were as old or magnificent as the Church of San Pablo, an Augustinian edifice first built in 1571 whose present structure was completed in 1607. It’s known today as San Agustin Church and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Within its towering stone walls and underneath its vaulted ceilings, San Pablo housed a trove of jewels, paintings, furniture and church organs. The British pillaged as many treasures as they could get their hands on.

But they also seized a far more valuable, albeit unassuming, prize. Tucked away in a quiet corner on the church’s upper level was a library containing some 1,500 rare manuscripts, maps and printed materials relating to the Philippines and other regions of Asia that interested the Spanish.

Alexander Dalrymple, who served as governor general of the Philippines for just two weeks, claimed the collection for himself and brought it to his private library in London. The items eventually went to auction, and today the books and manuscripts are scattered across several continents. Most of the items are now in the possession of the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, while SOAS University of London, King’s College, and the British Library also hold collections. Few of the original materials are in the Philippines.

The project will enable Filipinos to engage with sources from their own history that were taken from the library.

Princeton scholar Christina Lee is part of a team that is digitally reuniting these stolen materials. Lee, professor of Spanish and Portuguese and the acting chair of the department, has partnered with Princeton University Library as well as colleagues at other leading universities including in the Philippines to construct an online archive that will represent what the San Pablo library might have looked like before the British sacking. The completed archive will feature images, transcriptions, English translations, and analyses of the documents, which have never before been systematically organized or studied.

“By looking at the materials in the archive, you can get a very good sense of what’s going on in the Philippines from the 1600s through the first part of the 18th century,” Lee said.

Three people standing in a library.

At the San Agustin Museum and Library in Manila, Christina Lee, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton (center), reviews historical documents with Louella Revilla-Baysic, San Agustin’s Museum and Library collections manager and conservationist (left) and Regalado Trota José, a retired archivist at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTINA LEE

Lee and her collaborators are building the online repository not only for use by academics, but for students in the Philippines and the general Filipino public as well. She describes the project as a “digital repatriation,” because while the original materials will remain in their current locations, their virtual counterparts, made accessible by Lee and her colleagues, will enable Filipinos to engage with sources from their own history that were once taken from them. These previously unexplored sources may challenge some of the prevailing narratives in Philippine history.

A forgotten chapter

The idea for the digital archive was conceived by Cristina Martinez-Juan, a research fellow at SOAS and founder of its Philippine Studies program. While studying Philippine sources in the UK, she began noticing that some of the documents she came across contained a label with an elaborate emblem and the name “Dalrymple.” Intrigued, she consulted other archives and found more of the Dalrymple insignia, soon realizing that the contents of the plundered library of San Pablo, dispersed and neglected among various library and museum collections, were ripe for scholarly analysis. Simultaneously, she had heard about a new grant for digital scholarship initiatives, offered jointly through the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The grant required an American partner, and Martinez-Juan was confident Lee would make for an excellent teammate in digitally restoring the lost archive.

Intricate design

An elaborate bookplate, or label affixed to the inside cover of a book to show ownership, alerted modern-day scholars to rare manuscripts once in the possession of Alexander Dalrymple, who was governor general of the Philippines during the Battle of Manila in 1762. Dalrymple transported the contents of the plundered library of San Pablo to London, where they were later auctioned and dispersed to various library and museum collections. PHOTO BY CRISTINA JUAN

“I knew she was very good with transcriptions,” said Martinez-Juan of Lee, “and has a really good grasp of the spelling conventions and abbreviations that are necessary to be able to decipher the materials.”

These are crucial skills in paleography, the process of studying historical manuscripts. Even if a manuscript is legible — not guaranteed given sloppy handwriting and the wear to documents over time — the spelling, punctuation and grammar conventions from an earlier era can make it difficult to render the source into readable English. The materials in the San Pablo collection are also linguistically diverse: the majority are written in Spanish, but Chinese, Japanese, Latin, and Philippine indigenous languages are represented as well.

Lee meticulously studies these challenging sources alongside a team of scholars she’s assembled. A core component of this team, which will transcribe and summarize about 300 of the 1,500 San Pablo materials, consists of students from the University of the Philippines, who’ve been implementing paleography training from Lee to decipher documents on their own. Lee also works closely with assistant professors Nicholas Sy and Ros Costelo, who meet with the students to provide feedback and guidance on their work.

“They’re learning from me, I’m learning from them,” Lee said. “There’s no way I’d be able to do this without them.”

Carlos Joaquin (CJ) Tabalon, a 23-year-old student from Manila who is pursuing a Master of Arts in Philippine history, joined the project to help publicize a forgotten chapter of his country’s past, in addition to gaining experience working with original sources. “It was a great opportunity to be exposed to actual colonial documents from the 18th century, an understudied part of our history,” he said of the project.

Scholars have traditionally believed that Filipino natives submitted to the forced conversions and land seizures of Spanish colonization without much resistance. Together with Lee, Tabalon and other Filipino research assistants have transcribed a document, written partially in Tagalog — which forms the basis of Filipino, the national language of the Philippines — and partially in Old Spanish, that says otherwise.

The source tells of a near-fatal altercation in May 1717 between the native residents of Dongalo, a small village administered by the Parañaque parish to the south of Manila, and Fray Juan Serrano, the Augustinian priest responsible for evangelizing them. According to the documentary account, the dispute centered on the location of a fence that separated indigenous and Augustinian land. Serrano and his servants traveled to the site to investigate what they perceived as an encroachment onto their territory. The Filipinos wouldn’t budge, insisting the contested land was rightfully theirs. Insults traded between the two parties soon gave way to blows, and the brief skirmish ended when Serrano, heavily outnumbered, fled on horseback to safety.

Like any historical document, the Dongalo account bears the bias of its author, which, in this case, is Serrano himself. The official title of Serrano’s first-person narrative, “Account and other materials about the disrespect that the natives of Dongalo, a pueblo of Parañaque, showed against their prior and minister,” betrays his slant. He describes Filipinos as ruthless “sayónes,” an Old Spanish word meaning “executioners,” implying, according to Lee, that the Dongalo natives would commit the supposedly un-Christian act of taking a life. If Serrano’s account is to be believed, he was patiently trying to argue for the Augustinian (and therefore divine) point of view, while his colonial subjects were out for blood.

By portraying Filipinos as the aggressors, Serrano inadvertently highlights their courage and implicitly recognizes their strength. He also quotes native voices, preserving the defiant rejoinder of a Dongalo leader named Captain Pablo: “I know very well what I do, and I know which are our lands and you don’t…you are trying to take away what is ours.”

Tabalon and his colleagues believe this one-sided narrative is evidence for the resistance of native Filipinos to Spanish rule. “As evidenced excellently in the Dongalo document, there were times when the agency of the Filipino natives showed and they asserted their place,” Tabalon said.

For the Filipino research assistants, these newfound historical discoveries are not just about setting the scholarly record straight, but are intimately tied with their sense of Filipino identity. “We Filipinos, we were at the receiving end of colonialism,” Tabalon said. “When the voices and experiences of the colonized are displayed and discussed,” he added, “it’s a really good way to forge a more relevant national history.”

Jan Cherome Sison, a University of the Philippines student who also helped transcribe the Dongalo document, agreed. “It is in our history to resist against abuse no matter where it came from,” she said.

Finding buried treasures

Any archive, physical or digital, is only as good as the infrastructures that allow researchers to find the materials they seek. Esmé Cowles, assistant director for library software engineering, and other staff at the Princeton University Library will work with Lee in tagging each item from the San Pablo collection with metadata — information about the origin, authorship and content of a source — to facilitate comparisons between multiple items. Metadata for the Dongalo document, for instance, will include keywords like “Parañaque,” “Indios” and “Tagalog,” which will link to other sources with the same metadata.

“What got me excited about the idea of digital repatriation is that it is an area where a well-resourced library like ours can contribute in a respectful way,” said Anu Vedantham, assistant university librarian for research services, teaching and social sciences at Princeton University Library.

Shortly after the digital repository project was launched, Lee and Martinez-Juan traveled to San Agustin Church to hunt for pre-1762 documents that the British may have left behind. They joined forces with Regalado Trota José, a recently retired archivist at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. José has been keeping busy in retirement lending his expertise in the artwork and history of Philippine churches to Lee and Martinez-Juan.

Inside the church’s storeroom, the trio dug through dusty crates overflowing with contemporary newspaper clippings and theological journals. Towards the bottom they found leather- and vellum-bound volumes wrapped in plastic, and after browsing through about a dozen, Lee let out a scream. She spotted a stamp on the reverse side of a volume cover bearing the words “Ex. Bibliotecha Conv. S. Pavli” — “from the library of the convent of San Pablo.”

“We were all practically jumping with joy,” said José, who’s now helping the staff at San Agustin scan and catalog the 67 volumes they possess.

Father Ricky Villar, the director of the San Agustin Museum, had initially been hesitant to grant access to the materials but was delighted by the find. “He wants us to help him restore as much as possible of the library with the items they have,” Lee said. Technicians at San Agustin are beginning to create scans of these newly unearthed books. Father Villar has been appointed director of the San Agustin Center for Historical and Archival Research, where researchers can handle the church’s San Pablo materials in person. And as they continue scrutinizing the materials one by one, Lee and Martinez-Juan are planning a series of workshops across the Philippines to engage communities with the archive.

Another eureka moment came at the Lopez Museum and Library in Manila, which held some mysterious bound manuscripts in storage. In January of this year, José and Martinez-Juan found the vellum-bound volumes with the help of the Lopez Head Librarian Mercy Servida. They discovered that minuscule numbers on the spines of the volumes matched those in an auction lot and a catalog of San Pablo items written in the 1960s. This past July, Christina Lee went to the Lopez Library with Princeton graduate students David Rivera and You-Jin Kim to inspect the discovered volumes. They also found rare local documents produced in the indigenous languages of Bicolano (along with Tagalog) and an entire bundle of royal orders found hidden at the home of Governor of the Philippines Manuel de León after his death in 1676. Researchers at the University of Santo Tomas, the University of the Philippines, and Princeton are working together on transcribing the most significant documents found at the Lopez Library.

For Lee and her colleagues, this is what it means to repatriate the stolen archive to the Philippines. “We have very carefully thought about how to bring this back to Filipinos,” said Lee. “For me, it’s an intellectual pursuit. I don’t necessarily have a personal attachment to Philippine history,” she added. “But for them, this is really important: this is about their national history.”  After the British looted the San Pablo library, the treasure-seekers scattered its contents across several countries, where they resided in obscurity for over two centuries. It is fitting that an international collaboration of scholars, librarians and students is piecing together this lost archive and reuniting it with the nation whose full history remains to be told.