HomeThe Journal of Historyvol. 64 no. 1 (2018)

Miscommunication, Misunderstanding and Misuse in the Early Spanish Philippines, from Cebu to Aparri

John N. Crossley



Communicating with the Philippines across half the world cost Spain dearly, but communication – or rather miscommunication – also had costs within the Philippines, for both Spanish and Indigenous Peoples, and ultimately for Spain. There were many hazards: from shipwreck to duplicity, from lack of infrastructure to dishonesty, but very often from mutual miscomprehension. Misunderstanding was rife; the Spaniards had learnt some lessons from their experience in the Americas. Also, the legacy of Bartolome de las Casas meant instructions from the King about how to act in the Philippines were changed: the Spaniards were supposed to proceed with peace and friendship rather than armed force. Then there was also misuse, the result of not knowing – or ignoring – local sensibilities. In this paper, I shall consider half a dozen specific examples of what miscommunication cost. The first was because orders were not obeyed, yet practicalities for the Spaniards sometimes required turning a blind eye. The second, using new information from the unpublished Lilly Historia, shows how blood pacts meant different things to Spaniards and Indigenes, and perhaps demonstrates the cleverness of the Manileño rulers. The third is a case of misinterpretation. The fourth shows how blocking communications could yield personal gain. The fifth is where there was no chance of mutual understanding. My last example considers an incident where the “devil” extracted revenge on the Spaniards for their deliberate misuse of local land and resources in Claveria, in the Babuyan Channel, about 65 km. west of Aparri.