Crime: Vanishing Archives
Historical manuscripts disappearing from Philippine institutions
"Nalutas, nakawan sa National Library" ("Theft from the National Library is solved") read the headline in the Manila daily Balita on November 12, 1993. Accompanying the story was a photograph, showing the alleged thief, Rolando Bayhon, described as a researcher at the National Historical Institute, the government agency charged with the preservation of the Philippine historical heritage, and Rufino Fermin, the owner of the Money Tree Antique Store in the Ermita district of Manila. The stolen documents, which came from the Filipiniana-Asia Division of the Philippine National Library (PNL), include a number of papers signed by Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of the first Philippine Republic.
The story about the PNL theft elicited a few anguished comments from historians in the Philippines, but only a few. The sad truth is Chat for at least two decades price less documents and old books -- the historical treasure of the Philippines -- have been disappearing from the PNL and, up to November 12, no one had uttered a word is about that in public. Compared to what he has been done in the past, the theft allegedly committed by Rolando Bayhon is nickel-and-dime stuff.
First a few words about the PNL theft. Shortly after the Bayhon story appeared in the press, a wealthy collector of Filipiniana revealed to this writer that in the past few years many Aguinaldo documents have been offered for sale at private auctions. He claimed that, when the items first appeared, he surmised that they were stolen and said as much to the sellers. He did not buy any himself, he said, but other collectors had no such qualms. An Aguinaldo signature is, after all, a good investment.
As it happens, Aguinaldo letters are not la the only things that are missing from the PNL. Let's start with books. This reporter first conducted research at the PNL in June-July 1972, a few months before Ferdinand Marco's declaration of martial law. At that time the PNL had the best collection of rare published Filipiniana in the world. In 1976, when I came to use the PNL again, most of the rare books I wanted to use, and which were listed in the card catalogue, could not be located by the PNL staff. And in 1979-80, when I tried again, even fewer materials were available Over the course of that eight-year period, the superb Filipiniana collection of the PNL had been savaged.
What happened to those books? When that question is posed to Filipino academics, their standard answer is Tadhana. They are referring to Marcos' ambitious effort to produce a multi-volume history of the Philippines, ultimately unfinished, entitled Tadhana, a word which means "fate" in Tagalog. Although the published Tadhana volumes listed Marcos as the author, the work was actually done by a team of scholars, researchers and typists furnished by the PNL, the National Historical Institute and the History Department of the University of the Philippines. Over the years, dozens of researchers were given free access to
the PNL'S stacks and, according to informants, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of valuable books disappeared into private collections.
That isn't all. In 1986, this reporter began do preliminary research on a book on the Philippine revolution of 1896, a struggle against Spanish rule in the Tagalog-speaking provinces around Manila. I came to the PNL in search of what is known as the "Watson Collection," a lode of priceless primary sources relating to the revolution that had been assembled in the first decade of the 20th century by British journalist William Brecknock-Watson. According to two books published in the early 1960s, the collection was housed in the PNL and included, among other things, the manuscript memoir of the revolutionary hero Artemio Ricarte. But when asked about the Watson collection, no one in the PNL could locate it and no one had any idea what had happened to it.
The matter was then brought to the attention of William Henry Scott, the late great historian of the Philippines, and, a few years later, to Ambeth Ocampo, a talented journalist and popular historian. Both made inquiries and reported back that, as best they could determine, the collection had mysteriously disappeared.
Hence, even before Rolando Bayhon's alleged theft of the Aguinaldo letters, it seems that collectors of rare Filipiniana have had much purloined material to choose from. Because so much rare Filipiniana is in private hands, it now appears that, in order to do research on certain important topics, a scholar is better advised to contact private collectors than to consult what remains of the holdings of the public manuscript repositories.
In fact, on a trip to the Philippines in November, that was exactly what this researcher had to do. Still working on a book about the revolution of 1896, I traveled to Manila, principally to see the letters of Andres Bonifacio, the leader of the secret society that launched the uprising. Today, more than 95 years after his premature death, Bonifacio is widely acknowledged to be the Philippine national hero, celebrated in the textbooks used in primary and secondary schools and memorialised in statues around the archipelago.
It turned out that the national hero's letters (or, at least, what appeared to be those letters) had fallen into private hands, having been purchased in 1989 by a well-known collector. According to that man's account, he had acquired them from another collector, who had bought them from one Teresita Pangan. Pangan claimed to have gotten them from her father, the well-known Philippine historian Jose P. Santos, who in turn had apparently received them from his own father, Epifanio de los Santos, himself a noted scholar and also, at one time, director of the Philippine Library and Museum, the predecessor of the PNL. How he got them is anybody's guess.
After contacting the owner of the Bonifacio letters, I was permitted to see a photographic copy of the original documents. I examined it at the business office of a friend of the owner, himself a wealthy collector, who is collaborating with the owner on a book about Bonifacio. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to make a copy for myself, because the book those men are in the process of producing will include transcriptions of the originals, and they did not want to run the risk that someone else might publish any transcriptions before they did. One of them had spent about US$10,000 for the Bonifacio materials.
There are two intriguing footnotes to the story. First, after examining the letters for an hour, I was not convinced that they were authentic. Even my untrained eyes could see that one of the letters was written in a distinctly different hand from the others. When I pointed this out to the collector and urged him to submit the documents to a handwriting expert, he was taken aback, though it was unclear to me whether he was more worried about the monetary value of the documents or the scholarly value of his transcriptions.
Second, according to the owner of the letters, before he was able to purchase them, the collection was actually offered to the National Historical Institute. Apparently -- or so the collector maintained -- the institute decided not to buy the collection.
The recent story about Rolando Bayhon and the mysterious disappearance of so many other documents and rare books from the PNL may help to explain the decision not to acquire those items. Why, after all, would the institute purchase items of great historical value if it knew that at some later date they were only going to be stolen and sold off to the highest bidder? Such is the current sad state of historical preservation in the Philippines.
What are we to conclude from all this? It is clear that many Filipino academics are genuinely dismayed at the theft and subsequent sale of their national historical treasure. They also seem resigned to the possibility that the situation is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future. Over the years, more than a few political scientists and anthropologists have called to our attention the fact that in the Philippines the line between public and private -- a line that is clearly drawn in many Western societies -- is often very difficult to distinguish. So it is then that, dating from the Spanish era, Philippine elected officials have frequently viewed personal enrichment as a natural perquisite of office. And so it also is that concepts like the public good, the national welfare, and, as in this case, the national historical treasure are not necessarily taken as seriously as they appear to be in many other countries.
To say all that is not to suggest the Philippine Government will not make a determined effort to punish the people who stole the Aguinaldo documents from the PNL. But it might explain why at least some Filipinos might be less exercised than this reporter about the fact that Bonifacio's papers are now in private hands. "The documents are safer in their hands," a Philippine writer assured me last week. "If they were put in the National Library, they'd disappear in no time."
Glenn Anthony May is a historian at the University of Oregon.