Monday, July 04, 2005

Another America that is Largely Lost

From my travel log 6 November 2002
Delaware, USA

It might be a bit strange that to study the biodiversity of the Philippines, one has to go to America. But we were once a colony and once a colony, always a colony. With political independence we are guaranteed historical dependence. So it is really not strange to for a historian to go to Spain to study the Philippines and a scientist to spend time at an American natural history museum. Our historical ties to Spain and the United States will always be there. The question is whether Filipinos will look with lingering affection at their colonisers the way the Commonwealth countries do at England.

The United States was never an imperial power until the war with Spain having spent the last half of the 19th century dealing with the Civil War and westward expansion. So in 1898, the USA ended up winning the Philippines, together with Cuba and Puerto Rico as war indemnity. The first thing the Americans did was to crush the Philippine Republic, institute civil government and do a natural resource inventory of the islands. And so we have information on our biodiversity and we thank the Americans.

It is said that the ante bellum Bureau of Science in Manila was one of the leading research institutions of the world, a sort of Smithsonian in Asia. The National Museum of the Philippines was established early in America’s colonial venture. The specimen types resulting from the various expeditions to study the country’s resources were deposited in the museum. But all was lost save for a few shell specimens. War destroyed Manila in 1945 and with it a museum. War was a direct result of America’s colonial venture that a militarist Japan couldn’t ignore. The duplicates were in American museums.

And that’s why I have to go to America. In the museum reading the expedition accounts and those about who led them we see an America largely gone. This America is gone in the Philippines and is largely gone in America too.

But my host at the museum who is into philately aside from being a renowned ornithologist invited me to her parents home. Here I saw an America that few Filipinos will ever see as most of us will see suburban America. Here is the America of gentility whose descendants can be traced from the original colonists of the 13 states. Here is the America whose descendants have a living link to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

It was a glorious autumn day with a pleasant temperature and the oaks and maples were in their yellows and reds. Upon entering the estate I noticed the spacious grounds. I was ushered into the manse by a butler. A butler! A butler in democratic America?!? (I only knew butlers from “Remains of the Day”, “The Aristocats” and that Niles character from “The Nanny”)

We had a light lunch and discussed America’s colonial legacy to the Philippines. The gentleman and lady of the house were academics who studied Asian history. The couple being what I call “mildly Democrat” of course noted the radical changes in American life after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nonetheless, I was asked how Filipinos viewed America today. It is really affection or a love-hate relationship?

Nonetheless it was this social class that laid down America’s legacy to the Philippines, the educational system, the country’s constitutional foundations, its armed forces, the State University among others. It is said that even these members of the White Anglo-Saxon class who were largely communicants of the Episcopal Church tried to fashion a egalitarian Philippines for this is at the heart of America’s ethos. In the Philippines, has this been lost? Or badly transmogrified? And have we squandered these?

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