As far as I can recall, my dilemma began when I bought an old box from an antique dealer in Malate and realized what I had. I decided (after struggling) to keep it and try to do something with it. It was obviously very old, and considering the historical value of the papers I knew that I should’ve turned it over to a museum. It would’ve been the magnanimous and the right thing to do. Remember Manuel Estacio De Venegas’s stately residence became the Palace of the Governors of the Philippine Islands. Venegas once ran the colony and through the use of bribery and coercion became a very rich and powerful man. Once I realized what I had (it took a while to get the papers translated) I vainly tried to convince myself that though I bought them the papers didn’t belong to me. The realization pained me but didn’t pain me enough to give up my treasure.
My labors began, as I related, in a cheap hotel in Bali. Between then and now, I’ve struggled. I’ve lost sleep over it and because something was wrong with my play. I spent time in Fort Santiago, went through the dungeons several times, and became friends with the people working there, and it made the same impression on me each time I went. Back then I only had a glimpse of what I wanted to do. I sat on the steps and stood on the walls. A faint voice out of the past asked me in Spanish the name of the river that once flooded the dungeons. I answered that it was the Pasig, the black, polluted Pasig, fed by monsoons and tides. “Sadly,” he replied, “it was also a river of death. There were prisoners in the dungeons when they flooded after a heavy rain.” He told me that his homeland was a tiny island in the south and that he had come to the fort on a pilgrimage. He added that he’d come to “even the score” and told me that he planned to cross the river and hold a vigil at Malacanang Palace, the presidential residence and a bastion of power. I don’t know what happened to him, but after that I was determined to explore the city and its river. Interrogated by their executioner, some American and Filipino prisoners died horribly when their cells were flooded. Some others starved to death while some survived. One afternoon, in the fort, I talked with a survivor who said to extend one’s life under such conditions was to extend one’s agony, and that he died many deaths before he was freed. I don’t know if I believed him then and went ahead with my business. It would take a while to connect the dots. Meanwhile I tried to find out as much as I could about Manuel Estacio De Venegas. I also felt glad that Fort Santiago hadn’t been left in utter neglect and that someone had made an effort to clean it up.
Later events have caused me to feel differently, but why I should care is even more troubling. The citizens of Manila were infuriated over how Venegas exploited them but they wouldn’t do anything out of fear of what he would do to them. On mere suspicion they could be thrown inside the dungeons and die while waiting for a decision from Mexico or Madrid. It took months for communication to crisscross the vast oceans, and by then it was often too late. It was always a long wait. There is no way for us to know what it was like, when a prisoner had to wait for what was more than likely his demise. So it was no surprise that citizens gave into Venegas. From afar he seemed formidable, just as the walled city with its thick walls and moat appeared formidable enough to repel any attack. Inside the houses were stately, two-storied structures with many windows and balconies, and there was San Agustin Church that survives to this day. It was a pleasant place, overseen by a corrupt official who gained power and wealth through bribery, coercion, and murder. A colony had been given to a monster by a man of God. That this turbulent region, where nations fought each other out of greed, could have such a pearl within it may have seemed inconceivable to all of those who hadn’t been to the famous city, particularly Europeans. They continued plundering the riches of the orient that fueled the competition between England and Spain, and the Portuguese and the Dutch. A few foolhardy men set out on their own. They burned with ambition and were often savage. But we’re talking about the tropics where according to the British “only fools and dogs brave the noonday sun.” Then in their heavy armor they’d begin to drop like flies and faced either madness or death. For the benefit of my play, I didn’t hesitate to exaggerate. I stretched the truth here and there, but sedition among the revolutionaries was real enough (the Filipinos felt betrayed by the Americans), and the fighting went on to the grim end. I found myself taking sides. I actually lost my objectivity before I arrived in Manila and before I fell for a Filipino movie star. (As far as I was concerned, it was more than a schoolgirl crush.) I wandered for several months without finding my bearings, or one might say I became distracted. I should’ve known better. Submerging myself in the history of a place I didn’t know very well became easier than writing about something that I really knew about. Intolerably, I fixated on the old fort and the dungeons there, and nearby were the ruins of the chapel where a national hero spent his last hours, and where a stage director used a real horse in a play. I could sit on the steps and stand on the walls, and I could almost see the actual events.