Mobilities and Empires

The following is a guest post by Mark Dizon, author of Reciprocal Mobilities: Indigeneity and Imperialism in an Eighteenth-Century Philippine Borderland, which is available now wherever books are sold.

In 1753, a group of Igorot leaders from the Cordillera Mountains at the center of the island of Luzon were in Manila, the Spanish colonial capital of the Philippines, for a visit. They wanted to air their grievances against Spanish policies in the provinces. They met with the governor-general of the Philippines, who agreed to their requests.

When I first encountered this story years ago, I was shocked. It went against everything I was taught and knew. Why were there Indigenous people in Manila, far away from their mountain dwelling?

Map of Northern Luzon
Map of Northern Luzon

Standard colonial history tends to have assigned places and movements for specific people. Spanish colonizers occupied the lowlands, while independent Indigenes lived in the uplands. Spanish conquistadors were the ones who penetrated interior borderlands and subjugated their inhabitants. In contrast, natives who resisted colonial rule fled deeper into the mountainous interior to maintain their independence. Spaniards moved, and independent natives were largely immobile in their mountain outposts.

This is supposed to be the natural order of colonialism, but the story of the Igorots in Manila contradicts this schema. It was not just Spanish colonizers who moved about. Indigenous people like the Igorots were also highly mobile.

“Manila.” Image from the collections of the Biblioteca Nacional de España. 

Throughout the years, I have discovered more instances of independent Indigenous people in “unexpected” places like Manila and other colonial towns. These Indigenous travels were not really surprising after all, but rather an integral part of Indigenous practices and even Spanish colonialism.

Most early modern Indigenous communities in the Philippines were hunters and swidden cultivators, so it was part of their way of life to move around to follow wild game and clear new agricultural land every few years. The dispersed nature of Philippine polities also required traveling for kin groups to maintain their relationships with one another. Mobility was a commonplace event, as Indigenous people walked the landscape, traveled to different places, relocated to new lands, and reunited with distant kin.

Standard Philippine history generally presents Spanish colonialism in terms of the resettlement of natives into Spanish-style towns or their flight to mountain refuges. We get the binary categories of conquered and unconquered spaces. People were located either within or outside of colonial towns. But what if we see colonialism from the lens of mobility instead?

Even the Hispanic monarchy was a highly mobile institution that spanned the globe. Charles V, ruler of Spain, famously said, “An emperor needed no other residence than his saddle.” With the global expansion of their realm in the early modern period, Hispanic monarchs had to rely on royal officials to tour their domain. These officials had to visit and inspect the different provinces to maintain monarchical control.

Provincials of the different religious orders in the Philippines went on ecclesiastical visitations of their jurisdiction. In fact, an Augustinian provincial was on a visit to the provinces when he encountered the Igorot leaders who complained to him about perceived injustices, and he advised them to go to Manila and meet with the governor-general.

Incidents like this show how mobility was not a one-way street. In Spanish colonial Philippines, it was not just the colonizers who moved and expanded. Mobility came from multiple parties and directions. Indigenous people also “conquered” Manila as they sealed pacts with Spanish officials. The constant movements of historical actors created a certain reciprocity in their mobilities.

The expansion of Spanish colonial rule, the relocation of converted natives to colonial towns, and the flight of independent Indigenous communities to borderlands occurred in a wider web of multiple mobilities. Indigenes also traveled to places such as Manila, the heart of the Hispanic monarchy in the Philippines, and left their mark. Highlighting the entanglements of Indigenous and imperial mobilities leaves us with a more complex and more nuanced understanding of cross-cultural encounters in the early modern world.

Mark Dizon is assistant professor of history at Ateneo de Manila University.