There is a book about this far-off island called Sarangani but it is not distant anymore. A historian—Ian Christopher B. Alfonso—armed with a new way of making sense of names and memories, has relocated it for us. He did this by looking back once more at history or histories that “have been circumscribed by the Manila-centric national historiography” and thus exoticized what were major points in the creation of a political geography.
In the Epilogue of the book A History of the Sarangani Islands 1521-1921, Alfonso said “Sarangani almost became the center of the proto-Philippine territory because of Villalobos (1543-1544).
With the mention of Villalobos, we realize how the journey of Magellan was just the beginning of a wide swath of conquest not only by Spain but also by the Portuguese that had always remained on that area, not a periphery but a central battlefield for the ownership of what would become the Philippines.
Villalobos, of course, was the head of this other Spanish expedition and we know him in our history books as a naming conquistador. In the book it says: “On 2 February 1543, another Spanish expedition under Villalobos reached Mindanao, particularly the ‘beautiful bay’ (“bahia hermosa”) of Baganga (now a town in Davao Oriental).” Alfonso continues: They conquered the area to establish a Spanish settlement there but it was not suitable. Then they tried to retrace the route of the Magellan-Elcano to reach Mazagua (now Limasawa Island, Southern Leyte) but it was contrary to the winds. With 400 crew in four ships, they coasted down on the south of Mindanao and ended up in Sarangani and Candigar on 14 April 1543. Villalobos gave names to these islands for Spain.”
Naming would preoccupy this Alfonso book. True enough, to name or to label objects or places is to claim ownership, to stake dominance. Places were being vanquished and no greater proof could validate the victories than when the colonizer began to give names to lands and marked boundaries.
Sarangani was not just a group of islands. Succinctly, Alfonso states: “In Sarangani, Villalobos decided to establish the initial core of the Spanish settlement in the soon to be Spanish Philippines (underscoring mine).” This claim was not achieved in a facile way. Through various communications uncovered in archives, there was a constant messaging between Villalobos and a Portuguese Jorge de Castro, identified as the Captain of Ternate. Once more, the two major imperial forces were wary of each other.
Was the Villalobos an expedition or a conquest? De Castro is quoted saying thus: “I was certain that these people were not coming to be lost or wrecked for a second or third time (referring to the previous Spanish expeditions) but to avenge.”
What was apparent in these claims was the fact that, to use the words of Alfonso, there was “a nascent Philippine formation via Sarangani.” Outside of enlarging territories, the said place—the Sarangani Island Group— “was brought to the attention of the world because of Spain’s obsession with Maluku,” which was located southeast of another island group.
A name came up at this point—Captain Francisco Serrao who had reached the area in 1512 “in pursuit of the quality spices thriving in the area.” This Serrao was the same person whose “invitation to his relative Ferdinand Magellan to come to Maluku sparked the idea of establishing a new route to Asia traversing the Americas.” We know the story at this juncture: the Portuguese monarch was enamored with another route, which then urged Magellan to present the concept to the Spanish king. And the rest is history.
The recently completed memorialization of the circumnavigation of the world has myopically focused on this one person, Magellan, but in this book by Alfonso, we confront how multivocalic the said event was, which was initiated with the launch of in 1519 of the Armada de Maluco also known as the Magellan-Elcano expedition.
Interesting is the position taken by the historian Alfonso vis-a-vis Magellan when he wrote: “While in Cebu in April 1521, Magellan obtained information about the direction to Maluku. Unfortunately, his hubris led him to his death at the Battle of Mactan on 27 April 1521.” For a historian to use hubris to describe one of the most famous navigators is a sign of how critical new histories can be, and how even those who subscribe to the archives can rise above them.
There are many more exciting discoveries and insights in this book by Alfonso, notwithstanding its small size. For one, in the prologue of the book, he indicates how he shares with Shinzo Hayase and Macario Tiu “and the rest of scholars who find folklore beneficial in understanding our past. These non-textual sources are now considered as good supplements to the traditional way of consulting archives, the latter critically pointed to by the important historian Reynado Ileto who talked of the “tyranny of Philippine archives.”
One more exciting trait of Ian Christopher B. Alfonso’s history is how it reflects the archipelagic thought where there is multiplicity-in-oneness. Following the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant who employed the archipelagic metaphor for its non-linearity, the book twists our heads to look at a different directions, for “spatial turn” at historical times when cultural spaces knew no political boundaries, when the Indonesia side of our archipelago mattered in meanings and the putative centers were still named differently.
Here in A History of the Sarangani Islands 1521-1921, we see how the “insurrection of the imaginary faculties” assisted the scholar to make sense of the worlds around him.
The book is a joint publication of the Project Saysay Inc., Ateneo de Zamboanga-Mindanao Institute, and University of San Carlos-Cebuano Studies Center. It is a Grantee of the 2023 National Commission for Culture and the Arts Publication Grant and the 2022 National Book Development Board Publication Grant.