First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest
September 6-19, 2016, vol. 29, no. 7
What does Francisco Balagtas, the “Prince of Tagalog Poets,” have got to do with Binondo?
Balagtas was a significant part of Binondo’s cultural history, according to a book by Fred Sevilla.
Most historians refer to Binondo as the economic center of the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period. Rarely is its cultural role or significance mentioned.
Sevilla fills up the gap in his book, Poet of the People Francisco Balagtas and the Roots of Filipino Nationalism: Life and times of the great Filipino poet and his legacy of literary excellence and political activism, published in 1997 in time for the Philippine centennial.
The late senator Blas F. Ople wrote in the Foreword:
To put Balagtas’ life and career in the correct historical perspective, the book presents a kaleidoscopic period history of the Philippines from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century covering the lifetime of Balagtas.
The author, by coincidence, employs a meticulous approach similar to that used by American writer William R. Manchester in his biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, first published in 1983, which devoted voluminous pages to the events during Churchill’s time when the subject was conspicuously absent.
In Fred Sevilla’s book, this approach is adopted primarily to provide more latitude and dimension to the scanty data on the life and career of Balagtas that came from the book of Hermenegildo Cruz, who published the pioneer biography of Balagtas, Kun Sino ang Kumatha ng “Florante,” in 1906.
Fred Sevilla’s kaleidoscopic approach becomes even more significant in light of the poor state of general public knowledge of Philippine history today.
By juxtaposing the life and career of Balagtas against the backdrop of the obtaining social and political environment, the book details an interesting period of Philippine history that traces the beginnings of indio collective consciousness and the riot of Filipino nationalism…
Ople’s explanation helps us better appreciate the chapter Manila: Ferment and Social Unrest, a profile of “Binondo: The Colony’s Economic Nerve Center” (pp. 289-359). This profile of Binondo makes one realize that Binondo really had something to do with Balagtas of Bigaa (now Balagtas), Bulacan as well as his masterpiece and best epic poem, “Florante at Laura.”
The first three pages of the profile run thus:
There is a very good possibility that it was the mercantile, cosmopolitan community of Binondo that had provided Balagtas access to news reports on current world events and source material on “textbook histories” of medieval Europe and the Islamic nations of the Near East and on Greco-Roman literature and mythology.
…(T)his could account for the surprisingly unique settings and story motifs of Florante at Laura and his comedias that set his works distinctly apart from the representative indio literary genre of his time, typified by the moro-moro plays, and the types of narrative poem called awit and corrido.
These popular literary forms commonly derived their “outlandish” stories and settings from regurgitated versions of the European metrical romances, especially from the tales of chivalry and adventure revolving around the exploits of Charlemagne from the “Song of Roland” as well as those of the knights of the Crusades and their Spanish derivative, “El Cid,” that have for their central theme the unending Christian-Muslim conflict.
In contrast, for example, Balagtas’ alleged seditious comedia, “Mahomet at Constanza” was – according to Hermenegildo Cruz – based on the Greek War of Independence. …The main characters of “Mahomet at Constanza” were true historical figures of the bloody and atrocious events that led to the Greek Revolution of 1821 which created worldwide indignation and sympathy at the time.
If “Mahomet at Constanza” was, in fact, written for presentation in the 1820s, it was, in effect, a theatrical reportage of current world events that had contemporary relevance to the tumultuous climate of this period of Philippine history.
“Florante at Laura,” first published in 1838, is set in Albania, a country contiguous to Greece and at one time colonized by Turkey. A check with Albanian history indicates that the life of the Albanian national hero, Scanderbeg, who fought for freedom against the Turks, has some striking parallelisms with the tale of Florante.
Another Balagtas comedia, “Nudo Gordeano (Gordian Knot),” derives its story from Greek mythology. Still another comedia, “Clara Belmori,” is apparently about the bloody sieges in 1572 and 1628 of the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle in France. The comedia “Bayaceto y Dorlisca (Bayacid and Dirlica)” is obviously based on the life of Bayazid II (1447-1512), sultan of Turkey.
“Florante at Laura” is also richly embellished with allusions to Greco-Roman literature and mythology, which were derisively branded as “heathen” or “pagan” by the church and civil authorities during Balagtas’ time and was the subject of Inquisition-like censorship.
With strict government censorship during his time, how could Balagtas have obtained access to these materials?
The strongest possibility appears to be that Balagtas, living in Tondo and being in close touch with the people of Binondo, could have had personal contacts with foreign travelers, particularly the sailors – mostly English, Greek and Armenian – of the merchant ships from India and China which carried on clandestine trade with Manila.
Could Balagtas have acquired a working knowledge of the English language enabling him to read the news bulletins and British trade dispatches from the English trading ports at the Bay of Bengal in India that contained reports on events in Europe and were brought by merchant freighters docking at Binondo? Did Balagtas have personal association with the small community of Armenians who lived in Binondo and had intermarried and blended with the indios?
As an ethnic people of the Near East, close to the Mediterranean and a nation with a traditional mixture of Christian and Turkic heritage, the Armenians, world-famous traders like the Chinese and who had established small colonies in Madras, India, Batavia, Java and Singapore could have brought over European and Islamic literature to the Philippines.
Apparently, Balagtas’ deep immersion in the volatile environment of Binondo reached a crucial stage during the violent October 1820 massacres, events that must have jolted the foundations of his personal convictions and impelled what could have been his political epiphany–the immediate manifestation of which could be the writing of his allegedly seditious comedia.
“Mahomet at Constanza.” Significantly, this could well be viewed as a turning point that marked his transformation from chiefly a popular virtuoso poet-performer of the indio masses to a serious political activist as well – a dangerous clandestine preoccupation under the repressive colonial regime – which later caused his inclusion in the government watch list of potential political troublemakers.
On the whole, it appears that the October massacres had traumatically fanned the fomenting wind and precipitated the birth of a collective political consciousness among the indios who became pawns to the continuing clashes and constant attrition of the fiercely contending multiracial-in-group interests in Binondo, namely: the peninsular Spaniards, the Chinese and the Chinese mestizos, the European expatriates and the immigrant Mexican creoles.
In the succeeding decades, indio political consciousness vigorously developed into a distinct cohesive force that inexorably planted the seeds of ferment and unrest among the native-born races throughout the islands, blending into it and synthesizing local grievances and discontent into a collective outcry.
It is interesting at this point to take a closer look at the historical forces that ushered in the evolution of Binondo as the colony’s economic nerve center in order to get clearer insight into the volatile environment that helped shape Balagtas’ social and political viewpoint.
The October 1820 massacres mentioned in the quotes will be discussed in detail in the next issue of Gems in History.