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Crime, society and the state in the nineteenth century Philippines. (The Philippines).

Crime, Society and the State in the Nineteenth Century Philippines


Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1996. Pp. vii, 251. Tables, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

This study of criminality and the state response to it begins with an interesting premise: that 'determining criminality reveals the dominant values of society and popular culture' (p. 1). This immediately strikes the reader since crime and criminals are generally considered divergent of society and not representative of it; the dark side of human society. Greg Bankoff theorises that the study of this divergence can and does reveal as much about societal norms and practices as a study of the day to day life of law-abiding citizens.

The book is divided into two main parts: Part I revolves around crime in the context of the nineteenth century Philippines. The author attempts to define crime and criminals in that particular period of Philippine history. He acknowledges the difficulty of this since crimes were perceived differently at that time. This is further aggravated by a 'divergence between Spanish and indio perceptions of crime' (p. 32). What may be considered a simple crime against property in Spanish law, i.e. the theft of a carabao, may be a matter of life and death for the indio whose very survival depends on the labour of the animal. Thus, the murder of a carabao thief may seem just and right in the indio world view but evidence of savagery from the Spanish viewpoint.

The author also emphasises that crime is a measure of social tension. If so, then the nineteenth-century Philippines was indeed fertile ground for crime because of the enormous changes and social upheavals occurring. Among these changes were a swelling population, commercialisation of agriculture, and changes in land ownership patterns. The demand for privately held and controlled land resulted in the growth of tenancy as more and more peasants were dispossessed of their fields and communal lands. In addition to these socioeconomic upheavals were such natural disasters as flood, drought and outbreaks of locusts and rinderpest. It is not difficult to imagine this as a backdrop for rising criminality in the country.

The author then goes into the specifics of these crimes. He further classifies crimes as urban and rural. The urban areas are represented by Intramuros, Binondo and Tondo, all of which are located in Manila, the first highly urbanised area in the country. Cavite, Camarines Sur and the hinterland are used to exemplify rural crime. These sections are extremely interesting as they delve into the details of crime and criminal behaviour. It is apparent that there are differences between rural and urban crime.

In the urban areas, most were crimes against property, crimes of a commercial nature and crimes against chastity. This may well be because of the prevalence of merchants, traders and their goods, which explained such crimes as smuggling, theft and the sale of stolen goods. The floating, predominantly male population (labourers, stevedores, Chinese coolies and artisans) also explains the prevalence of prostitution in the city.

In contrast, rural areas experienced more banditry or group crime, manifested as attacks on landowners, arson and theft. Passive resistance was also evident in the crimes of vagrancy and flight. Rural crimes were largely the result of the peasants' increasing alienation from the land due to the increasing commercialisation of the cash crop economy. In both urban and rural settings, crimes committed reflected the prevailing socioeconomic challenges faced by both areas.

Having given the readers a colourful and riveting description of crime and criminals, Bankoff discusses how crime also 'reveals much about the structure of the state and especially changes in its institutions' (p.3) in Part II. He then goes on to discuss the change from a colonial to a judicial state through the use of the courts, the police and punishment. The first two sections deal mainly with the structure, function, procedure and personnel of the courts and the police. These sections provide a wealth of information on the colonial government's set-up and functions, as well as the reality of nineteenth-century Philippines. The author emphasises that despite well-meaning laws, rules and restrictions, the judicial reforms of the nineteenth century 'never managed to bridge the gulf between theory and practice' (p. 114). In both the judicial and police systems, harsh realities invalidated the noble aims of laws, selection criteria and guidelines. The shortage of qualified manpower plus the inevitable lack of funds to sustain them resulted in such anomalies as policemen involved in banditry and local politicians who skimmed off the tax collection. This situation sounds depressingly familiar to the modern-day Filipino.

The final chapter on 'Punishment' echoes the same refrain: Spain did establish a colonial prison system but not the funding for it. This again resulted in the inevitable gap between intention and reality. Whereas Spain intended to provide decent, clean prisons in which to rehabilitate criminals, the result was overcrowded, unsanitary and substandard jails where, more often than not, prisoners succumbed to illness or violence. This chapter is particularly interesting for the glimpse it provides us of the lives of convicted criminals: the unsanitary and dangerous conditions they lived in, the endless round of hard labour, and the prison social hierarchy with which they had to contend. Again, most of these conditions may still be observed today and Bankoff may just as well have been writing of current conditions rather than those in the nineteenth century.

The author's scholarly efforts are evident in his astute use of diverse historical sources such as the criminal statistics of the Real Audiencia, travel documentaries of colonial officials, visiting writers such as Sinibaldo de Mas and Jose Montero y Vidal, court records, prison files and the Asuntos Criminales, or case histories in the Philippine National Archives. From these sources, Bankoff constructs tables and data to support his assertions and findings. The use of these facts and data make the book extremely useful for scholars pursuing specialised study of the Philippine social history.

However, for the general reader, the book would have profited more from visuals or illustrations. Although there is a photo section, very few are of actual criminals and/or punishments. Most are of peripheral generic characters such as 'mestizo merchant' and 'servant girl'. The photo of 'Chinese merchants' seems incongruous since the trio looks more like Chinese monks. Despite these, the book makes for interesting and informative general reading, as well as scholarly perusal.

Bankoff's book raises numerous other points or questions for further research. Some of these would include the Church role in the penal system, the baffling continuity of the conditions presented, and the changing (or enduring) perceptions of crime and criminals. How did these affect the national psyche? Are perceptions of crime still divergent? How do these apply in today's situation? Can this help explain the election of Joseph Estrada as president in 1998? For those interested in legal history, the book provides a wealth of information on the judicial and legal framework, the penal system, police procedures and prison conditions. These are only some of the questions and issues that can spin off from Bankoff's study. The book also provides interesting vignettes, which can be of great use to social historians, or teachers who want to inject slices of real life in their classes. These include vignettes on local crime, domestic crime, prostitution, banditry and the like.

All in all, Greg Bankoff's work is a very useful and interesting book for scholars because of his use of hard facts and his compilation of otherwise scattered and raw data. But it is also extremely engaging for the general reader who will indeed see that it is often the dark side of society that mirrors it most clearly.
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Author:Habana, Olivia M.
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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