Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Historical Grey


Like anything, colonization is a complicated and contradictory process. But when looked back upon by people who wish it hadn’t happened or happened differently, it can take on an all-consuming and oppressive totality.

It was something that humiliated, subjugated and tortured a poor helpless people. The worse that you can make it sound, the more it seems to empower the need to seek redress or justice for what happened. History becomes then a list of bad things that happened and ways that the colonized peoples were victimized and marginalized. There can be obvious truth to this, but it tends to cast colonialism in a light that doesn’t ever really exist. Colonization becomes more unified and consistent than it really is. It moves towards feeling monolithic as its sins become more pronounced.

Take for example in Guam’s history, the Chamorro Spanish Wars. From this name alone it creates an image of Chamorro warriors fighting bravely against the Spanish invaders. Chamorros did fight bravely against the Spanish, but it was not a war of all against the invaders. For every Chamorro that did fight, there was another Chamorro that did not fight, hoping to remain above the fray, and for every two that did or didn’t fight there was probably one who decided to fight for the Spanish, defending them against other Chamorros.

The fighting in the Chamorro Spanish Wars goes on for 27 years, but the only real sustained long term fighting takes place in the 1670s. The rest of the time there are sporadic bursts of fighting, but most Chamorros simply wish to be left alone. What helps convince rebel Chamorros to stop fighting is when they can no longer effectively maintain the idea that the battle is truly “Hami kontra Siha.” The Spanish begin to reward those Chamorros who fight for them and turn in rebels, and this helps to sap the spirit of those who are trying to get rid of the Spanish. The advantage that we find in Hurao’s speech, “they are few, but we are many,” is no longer true. Yes, the Spanish presence, which is some priests, assistants Filipino and Latin American soldiers is small compared to the total amount of Chamorros. But by the 1670’s, they had enough loyal Chamorro converts that they were the ones leading the charge in razing villages and hunting down recalcitrant Chamorros. The last openly resistant village in the 1670’s, Hånom falls because of the instrumental role that Chamorro converts from a village further south along the coast play in attacking it.

As much as it might pain me to admit sometimes, there were plenty of Chamorros who sided with the Spanish, and some may have done so because of fear, but I’m sure quite a few did because they actually believed in the new religion. This is what agency in history actually means. It is not giving agency to those who were denied it before, and not only giving it to those who you might want to have it. It means acknowledging it wherever it probably existed. The fact that many Chamorros may have converted because they truly believed is actually more powerful than anything else. In the midst of so many apologists who want to try to imagine that this war was not one of force, intimidation and terror, they miss out on celebrating the Chamorros that willingly converted, which is the way the religion was supposed to work. So many people, because of the nature of how history unfolds want to make excuses for things they are clearly inexcusable, and therefore miss this point. They are too busy trying to make the sins committed against those who resisted seem less sinful, they forget to celebrate the few, the brave, and the faithful who came willingly usually because of some miracle or some epiphany.  

Now the creation of a gray area doesn’t do as much as people think it does. The fact that some Chamorro agreed with the new regime and wanted the new regime to take over their island doesn’t mean that it was right to do so. It is interesting how often people align the “rightness” of history not with anything dealing with morality or justice or truth, but rather with how well you fit within what eventually happened. Within the context of the time, Chamorros such as Kepuha, Hineti and Ayihi would be considered for the most part to be traitors or people who had betrayed the lands and rights of their relatives over to those they saw as the new masters.

Now to the victors they were the most faithful, the most upright, the most loyal and the best of what Chamorros had the offer the holy universe. It is important to remember that the historical aura that is placed around figures like these comes from the conjuring of those who wrote the accounts. They praise the Chamorros who defended them and obeyed them and decry and hate those who resisted. Ayihi for example is talked about as a true leader of the people, but all we do know is that the Spanish attempted to offer Ayihi as a counter to the populist heroic figure of Agualin. Ayihi’s support may have been more forced or fantastical than anything, but if you believe the accounts he had an alliance of villages standing behind him.

But in any analysis that wants to purport to represent anything close to the truth, they may have been on the “right” side of history in terms of power, but they were definitely on the wrong side of history in terms of everything else. The event was already a tragedy, the greyness doesn’t make it less of a tragedy but more of one. It means that it was not something where you can pick simple winners or losers. But the problem is that people often use that fact to someone imply that you can’t therefore differentiate between right or wrong.

In terms of colonization, there are always examples of resistance, accommodation and adaptation and the story of Chamorros is no different. There is a strength in those who openly and fiercely resist, but there is also a strength in those who survive and endure. Chamorros looking back at their history feel compelled to choose between these two means of self-definition and self-preservation.

In the 2012 Marianas History conference, Robert Underwood’s keynote speech touched on one such dynamic. He referred to it as “leapfrogging” through history. He lamented how younger Chamorros, those he referred to as historical avengers, leap frog their way through our history looking for those who fit their ideological position. So Chamorros wanting to connected to their roots today, don’t bother with all those Chamorros that lived during the colonial periods. Instead they reach all the way back to ancient times, to mythical warriors of the times long past, to the fiery chiefs like Agualin and Mata’pang who battled the Spanish and literally gave their lives for their people.

Underwood prefers to celebrate those who we are more culturally and temporally connected to. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who from our perspective today lived in more complicated and less politically pure moments in history and therefore don’t make good figures for us to aspire to. When you look at the Chamorros of the prewar American period and the Spanish period, you find there is a toughness, a minesngon, but you will also find a detachment from the sovereignty of the island and the formal sovereignty over even their own lives.

But here are the two poles that we have to choose from. Those who fight openly and aggressively and those who suffer quietly but do not necessarily give up. Each plays a role in creating who we are today.

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