The challenge of writing about the sixteenth century Philippines, or sixteenth century Britain for that matter, is that so much has changed or been lost to modernity. For countries like my beloved Philippines, there’s the added challenge that history has been vanquished by the soldiers and colonial governments. What I find myself having to do to is re-create that time period by going back to sources like Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler. I have lists and lists of plants, animals, and other things he saw during first contact between sixteenth century Visayans and Magellan. I have taken those lists and brought them with me on this trip. And I’ve tracked down which animals and plants I can. The challenge is tremendously exciting! Of course, it’s difficult to know with complete certainty, for example, if the “black bird” he mentions is a specific one endemic to Cebu (more on that at a later posting).
The work of historians, anthropologists, and religious studies professors has been crucial to my understanding of that time period. Archaelogists have discovered that during the sixteenth century, the port of Cebu was a large and active trading port. Shards of ceramics from China have been found in Cebu City (using stratigraphy to date them) long before Magellan’s landing. Other Chinese shards have been found in towns all along the Eastern coastline of Cebu. It’s believed that the port of Cebu was a distribution point for the rest of the barangay (settlements).
So that’s where I started my own re-creations, the east coast of Cebu. A local environmental organization brokered for me a tour down through several cities and municipalities — all the ones where I’d read there was archaeological evidence of settlements during the sixteenth century. These are quite rural places. Beautiful. Usually municipalities that have just become cities. Most families fish and farm for a living. The men go out in small banca (1-2 people outrigger boats) where they either spear fish or use lines for catch. They return and the women sell the fish in the marketplace. It is a very old tradition, this division of labor.
To recreate sixteenth century Cebu I tried to be in or around as much nature as I could. I sought out whatever local, endemic animals and plants I could find. And I tried to track down things Pigafetta had described in his chronicles. The caveat is this: No culture, no matter how simple ever stays the same over 500 years. All I could do was go sideways — get a sense from modern Cebuanos of how their resourceful ancestors may have lived from the traditions they still maintain today. Like weaving, fishing, seafaring, and house-building.
I sound all academic in this post. *laugh* But it was tremendous fun to put deep anthropological research in the service of historical fiction! I took a private 2 day tour of the East Coast of Cebu: Naga, Carcar, Talisay, Alcoy, Daliguete, Argao, Boljoon, Oslob. The forest of Alcoy. A protected Marine Sanctuary in Oslob where my family and I, guided by the ever-resourceful Maretes (more on this wonderful woman later), snorkeled and saw Philippine coral reefs for the first time. If there is no such term as Historical Ecology, I’d like to coin it now because I got a chance to see animals that have been around at least for the last 500 years and organizations like the Coastal Conservation Education Foundation are working hard to preserve them.
Here’s an excerpt from my excellent 2 days of researching the East Coast:
Today, I drove w/my family stopping at small cities and barangays on Cebu’s east coast.
Today, I saw a real mangrove w/my own eyes for the first time.
Today, I learned the history of cities like Talisay, Naga, Carcar from a fish warden, an agricultural officer, and a tourism officer.
Today, I saw old photos that were taken of antiques and relics.
Today, I saw how people make tuba (palm wine) from palm sap.
Today, I met women hand-weaving mats and long swatches from abaca (pineapple thread).
Today, I was in the presence of a carabao, a pig, a parrot, and lots of kambing (goats). I saw an enormous balete tree (daket in Cebuano) and the way palm and banana trees stand together.
Today, we saw hermit crabs roam footpaths along the shore.
Today, I learned to recognize the warning of the tuko lizard and heard the siloy sing its sad and beautiful warning song.
It was a good day.