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The Philippine revolution in the bicol region. (The Philippines).

The Philippine Revolution in the Bicol Region


Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1999. Pp. xxii, 226. Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

The Bikol Blend: Bikolanos and Their History


Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1999. Pp. xiv, 291. Illustrations, Figures, Tables, Bibliography, Index.

More than three decades have passed since John Larkin's call for attention to the histories of sub-national regions in the study of the Philippines and their Southeast Asian neighbours ('The Place of Local History in Philippine Historiography', Journal of Southeast Asian History 8,2 [1967]: 306-17). Drawing on research into the province of Pampanga and its experience of the Revolution of 1896, Larkin stressed the importance of local considerations and interests in determining the role of local actors in national events. He argued that sub-national studies of Philippine regions and provinces could serve as 'building blocks' (Larkin, p. 317) for a national historiography that did not mistake events in Manila for the life of the archipelago.

Among the sources for research on sub-national histories, Larkin noted the writings of local historians or antiquarians, 'rather unsophisticated works by untrained scholars, occasionally rich in raw data but rather sparing in good methodology' (Larkin, p. 306). In its richness but not in any lack of sophistication, Elias Ataviado's account of The Philippine Revolution in the Bicol Region matches Larkin's characterisation. Published in Spanish before the Second World War and first published in English translation half a century ago, this volume deals with political and military events in the provinces of far southeastern Luzon that comprise Bikol between August 1896 and January 1899. The primary focus is on the core abaca-producing province of Albay, where the author witnessed in his youth much of what is described in the text. Regrettably, a second volume treating the start of the Philippine-American War up to mid-1900 apparently remains to be translated.

The main thread of Ataviado's frankly nationalist narrative follows the growing awareness among townsmen in Bikol's most important province of their own stake in the struggle for independence from Spain. From the eagerness in late 1896 of Albayanos to fight against 'the Tagalog rebellion' (p. 20), this thread leads to the first recognition a year later that the leaders of that rebellion fought for the rights and interests of all Filipinos and finally to the willing acceptance of the revolutionary army's assumption of administrative control of the region in the last months of 1898. Ataviado shapes his story in explicit refutation of American colonial scholarship and its representation of the Revolution of 1896 as a localised, essentially Tagalog affair with little backing from other groups in the archipelago. This scholarship had promoted the theory that favourable economic conditions and the unimportance of grievances over friar lands in Bikol might have delayed support for the revolution in the region. This delayed support would have been further exacerbated due to Bikol's distance from of most of the fighting, which diminished the military significance of that support. But Ataviado's Bikolanos counted the fight as their fight.

While stressing the willing, if rather inactive, support of Albay for the cause of national revolution, Ataviado keeps in view the distinct courses of events in Bikol's various provinces. An early chapter also features the story of his own memorable flight from the eruption of Mount Mayon in June 1897. Throughout, the tone of the narrative is fresh, and its argumentation elegant. The translation seems in most respects an admirable one.

Though with an unconcealed nationalist agenda and without the sociological focus of later generations of historians, Ataviado offers an account of events in Bikol that meets Larkin's call for historical study of Philippine regions. The narrative of the revolution in Albay, as Ataviado presents it, does add to the story of the national revolution. Rather than undermine the integrity of that story, its regional perspective makes possible a better appreciation of its national context.

In The Bikol Blend: Bikolanos and their History, Norman Owen collects writings reflecting his work on the region since, consciously or not, he first heeded Larkin's call toward Philippine provincial history in the early 1970s. Of the volume's eleven essays, all but one -- a talk given to schoolteachers in Bikol in 1983 -- have previously appeared elsewhere. In focus, they range from broad synthetic surveys of the social and economic history of the region, and its century-long dependence on abaca, to detailed treatments of the careers of an eighteenth-century Spanish missionary and a nineteenth-century American abaca-trading firm. Four essays fall into a middle range between such specificity and such breadth. It is these chapters of The Bikol Blend that make the collection so valuable as testament to Owen's distinctive contribution to the study of modern Philippine and Southeast Asian history.

One of the four, 'Winding Down the War in Albay, 1900-1903', highlights that contribution by counter-example. Tracing the course of accommodation between Bikolano elites and the emergent American colonial order, it offers a regional study of a national development of clear import. It serves, that is, the agenda for provincial history Larkin put forward in 1967. But in the context of Owen's work on Bikol history, this essay is aberrational. Rather than situating regional developments in national developments, Owen has long stressed the impact of supra-national economic forces on Bikol society. Thus, he writes in 'Abaca in Kabikolan: Prosperity Without Progress' -- reprinted in this collection from Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations, (ed. Alfred W. McCoy and Ed. C. de Jesus [Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1982]) -- of the relevance of the regional case to 'an insufficiently studied problem in Third World history -- the paradox of truncated development'. At risk of oversimplifi cation, Owen's Bikol emerges most often as regional society and economy in world rather than national context.

Three other essays--'A Subsistence Crisis in the Provincial Philippines, 1845-1846', Measuring Mortality in the Nineteenth Century Philippines', and 'Subsistence in the Slump: Agricultural Adjustment in the Provincial Philippines' -- also underline the ends other than a more robust national history to which Owen has turned his decades of research on Bikol. Space precludes extensive discussion of these essays, but each is marked both by a meticulous discussion of sources of data and by a treatment of the lives and choices of ordinary Southeast Asians that, for all its utter mastery of materials on Bikol, contributes less explicitly to Philippine national historiography than to the broader study of commodity-producing zones integrated into world markets.

Owen's command of the historical geography of Bikolandia is a particularly gratifying aspect of each of the constituent chapters of this book. Maps superior to the three basic figures reproduced from his Prosperity without Progress: Manila Hemp and Material Life in the Colonial Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) would have served the collection well.
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Author:Montesano, Michael J.
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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