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The embarrassment of slavery: controversies over bondage and nationalism in the American colonial Philippines. .

The embarrassment of slavery: Controversies over bondage and nationalism in the American colonial Philippines

By MICHAEL SALMAN

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 335. Maps, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Michael Salman has produced a very intricate work of history with many levels of analysis, being as much about the nature of slavery, colonialism and nationalism as it is a challenge to conventional historiography. In particular, he explores the profound impact discourse had in shaping events in the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century. While discourse has long been accepted as a key concept in helping understanding contemporary social movements, as it is through discourse that people define their situations and assess their possibilities for action, historians have largely chosen to ignore this theoretical literature as it might apply to the Philippine Revolution and the subsequent debate over independence during the first decades of US colonialism. Salman demonstrates how the power struggles that inevitably accompany such discourses can be arenas of conflict in their own right that are no less fierce than those involving physical contestation. The central focus of the study is on how slaver y as a discourse was employed by the USA on the one hand, to legitimise colonialism as a period of progress towards some notional level of civilisation deemed commensurate with full nationhood, and by Filipino nationalists on the other hand, who were forced to refute its very existence as undermining their assertion of constituting a single people that the enslavement of each other would imply. In the process of explaining the many twists and turns that the protagonists adopted in this debate, Salman begins to question the relevance of Western social-science definitional paradigms to the non-Western world and to challenge the privileged position the USA occupies in global historiography.

All of this is a very ambitious project that requires not only intellectual rigour but also considerable skill in terms of structuring text and developing argument. To do so, Salman divides his study into three 'overlapping accounts'. Part I examines the problem of slavery that suffuses the early debate in the USA over the establishment and extension of colonial rule in the Philippines and considers the initial impact of reports that it actually existed in certain regions. Under the Bates Treaty of 1899, slavery was tolerated in the South under the pretext of indirect rule and respect for local custom while the USA fought 'a brutal war' to impose direct rule on the Christianised North. Part II reconstructs the US colonial encounter with slavery in Moro society and the circumstances surrounding the measures that led to its abolition. In particular, it charts how American perceptions began to shift around mid-1902 and how the same conditions that had previously made slavery in the South appear 'mild' now made i t seem intolerably 'harsh' without any actual alteration in practice. Part III switches attention to slavery among the non-Christian tribes and how these ethnic groups came to be seen as both a threat to nationalists' assertions that Filipinos were ready for independence and also as 'an increasingly valuable ideological source' to validate the continuance of the colonial state; to both, however, the allegation of slavery increasingly came to represent an embarrassment -- hence the title -- and one that was ultimately transformed into a metaphor of colonial bondage.

An intriguing aspect of Salman's study in the wake of 11 September 2001 is the insight his narrative sheds on the historical origins of American attitudes towards Islam. Though the USA's relations with Muslim societies date back to the late eighteenth century and the Barbary Wars of 1801-5. the southern Philippines brought the first prolonged contact Americans had with such cultures. It is unfortunate in this respect that slavery came to constitute the primary interpretative framework through which attempts were made to understand Islamic societies. In particular, the association of Moros with forms of bondage and polygamy led to their classification within a colonial typology as 'wild' and 'uncivilised' and so 'unfit' to represent themselves in the National Assembly convened in 1907. Moreover, their enslavement of Christians was increasingly viewed as 'a violation of categories, a reversal of the order of progress central to colonial ideology' (p. 89) and even as paralysing 'all true development' (p. 119). M oros gained the reputation of being inherently intractable and as not understanding 'any other mode of authority' but force (p. 93). To what extent these attitudes still dominate US foreign policy thinking in the contemporary global context is a matter of more than historical interest.

Salman has written an innovative book that sheds light on both the past as well as the present. Given the subject matter, however, his analysis of discourse might have benefited greatly from a more solid theoretical grounding. Actors shape discourse through their individual and collective agency and yet are not so much moulded by a single discursive framework as they avail themselves from among competing alternatives. In many respects, this is precisely what Salman argues, providing a valuable historical example of the duality of discourse in practice. However, he could make all this much more explicit by linking it not only to well-known figures such as Dean C. Worcester and William Cameron Forbes but also to less prominent ones. As it stands. the discourses he discusses so ably seem totally removed from the provenance of the common people. Another matter of some concern is the limited historical perspective that Salman adopts, which results in his neglect of things Spanish. There is too little discussion of conditions under Spanish rule especially given the fact that, as he notes, the Chief of the Ethnological Survey reported in 1903 that the previous colonial administration had been more effective in controlling headhunting, slavery and piracy (p. 118). More attention might also have been paid to Spanish racial classifications such as infieles (unbelievers) that seem to have their counterparts in the US lexicon. Nor does he convincingly argue that Spain's policy of reduccion, whereby people were brought to live together in municipalities centred round the parish church, was only a minimal disruption to indigenous life (p. 124). A greater sense of historical continuity would add strength and perspective to his thesis.

The embarrassment of slavery may not always be the easiest of books to read but it is certainly a fascinating one. Page by page, it rewards the reader with its keen insights into the past and Philippine-American interactions over notions of slavery, colonialism and nationalism. Such definitional disputes are not mere academic exercises but continue to have real import in the present global context. Moreover, through his analysis of discourse, Salman makes a significant contribution to Philippine history as well as questioning some of the accepted precepts of Western historiography.
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Author:Bankoff, Greg
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2003
Words:1120
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