Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Beyond Inevitability: The Opening of Philippine Provincial Ports in 1855

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Beyond Inevitability: The Opening of Philippine Provincial Ports in 1855

Article excerpt

The opening of Philippine provincial ports to the world market in 1855 served to solidify the direct incorporation of regions outside Manila into the international capitalist system. This article reconstructs the events surrounding this important episode by situating it in the context of global capitalist dynamics and Spanish imperial decay, and the conjuncture in which local interest groups manoeuvred to intervene in the colonial state processes of the Spanish Philippines. In line with Philip Abrams' vision of history as the nexus of structure and action,(1) the 1855 ports policy is reinterpreted as issuing from the articulation of macro and micro spheres, a perspective which allows for contingency in so far as the possibilities of human actors confronting structured totalities are multiple yet theoretically bounded. By eschewing the overdetermined view of socioeconomic change and by accounting for human agency in history, this article serves as a case study to overcome the notion of inexorability that, as David Booth rightly points out, has been frequently imputed to the epoch of global capitalist change.(2)

Philippine Historiography and Capitalist Penetration

In 1855, some two decades following the formel opening of Manila to world trade, Iloilo, Zamboanga, and Sual in Pangasinan province were declared by the colonial administrators of the Spanish Philippines open to international commerce. Three other ports were subsequently opened: Cebu in 1860, Legaspi and Tacloban in 1873. The 1855 decision was a fundamental reversal of an ancient policy of keeping "foreigners", specifically citizens of rival Western powers, away from the interior.(3)

Although Bourbon-influenced liberal governors had de facto welcomed foreign merchants to Manila since the late eighteenth century, Spaniards in the colony had always sought to protect the provinces from the perceived pernicious religious and political influences of Westerners.(4) The authorities were also determined to preserve the advantages held exclusively by Spanish and local interests in the coasting trade.(5) On a number of occasions, particularly in the export of rice to China, Spanish vessels obtained special permission to load local produce in provincial ports and sail directly to external markets, ostensibly after payment of the requisite duties in Manila.(6) Non-Spanish vessels, however, were forbidden from conducting trade in the provinces, a stricture overturned by the unprecedented edict of 1855.

The shift in policy concerning provincial ports has been generally considered a pivotal conjuncture that radically altered the morphology and trajectories of change in the late nineteenth century colonial Philippines. The significance of 1855 is succinctly summarized in Alfred McCoy's statement that "Contemporary historians have been nearly unanimous in their assessments that the year 1855, the year Iloilo was opened to foreign commerce, marks the start of a new era in Philippine economic history."(7) As conduits for international commerce, the opened ports ushered in the emergence of monocrop export agriculture in various pans of the archipelago where little crop specialization had previously occurred,(8) a process that brought in its wake profound societal transformations.

Nonetheless, in contemporary Philippine historiography the crucial event of 1855 has been largely assumed away as requiring little elaboration.(9) Attention has been focused on the more important changes that occurred following direct linkage to the world market.(10) The few historians who have chosen to confront the issue, unfortunately, have offered conflicting and at best cursory treatments of the 1855 opening of ports outside Manila.

Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson, for instance, have written that "after forty years of trying, the merchant houses in Manila finally prevailed upon the Spanish authorities to open other ports to international trade".(11) According to Conrado Benitez, "Once Manila was opened, the advocates of greater freedom did not rest content, for there were great difficulties in connection with the exportation of products from the places far from Manila. …

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