Christianity and Colonial Empire in the 19th Century Philippines

Frontier Constitutions
John D. Blanco is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego. Blanco's latest endeavor, Frontier Constitutions: Christianity and Colonial Empire in the Nineteenth Century Philippines was published by UC Press in February 2009. In Blanco's blog entry below, he talks about how his book examines the history of the Philippines and how the country was effected by imperialism.


By: John D. Blanco

While most students of Philippine culture and history know the archipelago to consist of a mélange of interconnected peoples belonging to different languages and indigenous cultures, concentrated in one of the most ecologically bio-diverse regions in the world, and suffering from the long-term effects of conquest and colonization by Western powers, few pause to consider that for the past four centuries the Philippines has also been a crossroads of globalization, where competing visions of world hegemony have been played out in dramatic fashion.  If standard textbooks of Spanish or US textbooks mention the Philippines at all, it is only to highlight the furthest reaches of imperial Christendom in the sixteenth century, or US imperialism in the twentieth.  Yet it is on the frontiers of these histories and empires that the limits of global hegemony, as well as new approaches to the “worlding of the world” were staked.  I began with this simple premise in my research, which led me to the question: how did the actors involved in these arenas of early global rivalries and conflict understand the colonial past?  How did they imagine the future of the Philippines, and what kinds of values and attitudes did these imaginaries produce?  How was the idea of modernity refracted not only through divergent responses to Spain’s reforms in colonial economy and society, but also through the changing role of Christianity in Spain’s concept of empire? 

Frontier Constitutions concerns the cultural transformations, adaptations, and innovations of peninsular Spanish colonists and native-born Creole, mestizo (Chinese and Spanish), and indigenous colonial subjects around crisis of colonial hegemony in the Philippines between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the resulting social anomie that arose from this crisis in law and politics. The crisis of colonial hegemony engendered new political and cultural expressions, which, in turn, sanctioned the formation of new political communities around the precariousness of Spanish rule. The basic argument I develop is that, in the invocation of political communities around the future of colonial hegemony – an imperial order formed by the temporal and spiritual authorities around the twin objectives of conquest and evangelization from the sixteenth century – the colonial state comes to rely on an authority that individual colonial institutions could neither control nor successfully channel.  That was the authority of “common sense” in the realms of patriotic sentiment, public opinion, aesthetic reflection, and the articulation of social norms in literature and the novel.

From a methodological perspective, what excited me so much about this period and the rise of Philippine literature that occurred within it, was the prospect of intervening in certain debates that have emerged from a multilateral dialogue involving scholars in Philippine, Latin American, Indian subaltern, and US border studies around the colonial transformations that took place during the long nineteenth century.  From a personal perspective, I found it a joyful exercise to excavate the lost dreams of a period marked by the end of Spain’s Renaissance Empire and the onset of US imperialism.