Looking at us

Published November 18, 2020, 11:29 PM

by Gemma Cruz Araneta


Gemma Cruz Araneta

For us Asians, the 19th century was pivotal because total and absolute colonization was achieved by the European powers that invaded our region with superior fire power and technology. Our ancestors  did not only lose  ancestral lands and waterways; they  were demolished by the battle for  “knowledge production” and the “genealogy of ideas.” Not only did  the colonizers destroy the existing network of diplomacy, trade and commerce, interdependence, they were hugely successful at churning out  colonial knowledge where Asians were described as “savages” who had to be saved   from themselves.They believed that we were inferior; we were  “the other.”

Stanford Raffles wrote  a history of Java which is reprinted to this day as it is considered a classic, an indisputable source. At the height of Britain’s colonial power, many of the functionaries of the East Indian Company wrote about what they saw and experienced in the polities they conquered and exploited. There was an assortment of  warrior-merchants and merchant-scholars, travel writers whose works are considered primary sources.  Scottish diplomat John Anderson, published  data about a  “mining mission” in Sumatra in 1823.  John Crawford, appointed British Resident by Stamford Raffles, authored  a rather ambitious  history of the Indian archipelago and Asian languages. In their cozy colonial “eco chamber,” those men reinforced each other’s production of knowledge. How  maliciously curious they were about  our ancestors.

The United States of America, the Johnny-come-lately of colonialism, drove the original inhabitants  to near extermination after which they invaded half of  Mexico’s  territory all the way to the West, to California, in order to  reach the rim of another ocean, the Pacific. The USA did not want to be mistaken for a European power,  but it  created its own stereotypes of the people they subjugated. They had their own “eco chamber” inhabited by luminaries like Walter Gibson, writer and magician  (1850).

Do you know that most of us are still looking into those centuries-old colonial “eco chambers”?  Our 21st century realities still bear vestiges of colonialism.We have not rectified our  geopolitical borders, we continue referring  to our region as Southeast Asia, a colonial trademark. The way we understand and deal with each other today, the manner in which we perceive our land and sea borders  unassailably bear a colonial mark. This should be a reminder  that writing is an act of power,  so we must not take as gospel truth what  former colonial masters  have written about Asians.We have to redefine their history books  in our own terms because those colonizers were writing for audiences back home and  were fully  supported by their  respective empires and trading companies. Take note of the dedication or acknowledgement pages of their books.

In my generation, most of our history, geography and social studies textbooks were rooted in works compiled in those colonial “eco chambers.” However, we were never warned  that these were tools for empire-building, for the colonization not only of the land and waterways but, more severely, of the mind. Very few of us were encouraged to read colonial writers with a critical eye; we did not notice that these were “confessional texts” projecting their own very personal views as they were looking at us, usually with disdain.

Let us read these books through  Southeast Asian lenses,   with Filipino glasses. Let us now scrutinize the scrutinizers, redefine their works by examining   how those alien  eyes were studying   us through  their  colonial microscopes. By evaluating the data, they compiled , we can jumpstart our own  personal decolonization.

These were the notes I took while listening to Dr. Farish Noor of the Nanyang University of Singapore who was the keynote speaker at a webinar convened by Dr. Fernando Santiago of SEARCH  of the De La Salle University (Manila campus).

While listening to Dr. Noor’s thought-provoking lecture, Jose Rizal came to mind. That was why he spent months at the British Library annotating, by hand, the “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” by Dr. Antonio de Morga. Rizal  was decolonizing our history.

([email protected]) (gemmacruzaraneta.com)