06 April 2024

1762 redux


(Related post

"But are the men prepared to resist not just one but a possibility of two enemies? None of us expected things would turn out like this."

It is 2024 and history is repeating itself. It was 1972 and history was waving its smirking flag. It was 1945 and a battle was claiming lives pointlessly. It was 1899 and betrayals were the rage. It was 1896 and loyalties ran dry. It was 1872 and executions were par for the course. It was 1762 and Brexit was born. 

"We've come to this godforsaken island for business. The sooner we can get out of here, the better."

Who would have thought that a 262-year old war still had so many things to say about contemporary foolishness, war trophies, warmongering and revolt, the conquered mindset, the conquistador mindset, myopic political decisions? A cryptic war, the 1762 British occupation of Manila. Buried in time, in the dustbin of history, but here resurrected with a stylistic flourish and imaginative brilliance by Vin dela Serna Lopez, a debutant novelist. Costume drama, period film, historical fantasy. It all unearthed the intrigues and hysterics of an overcast day.

They entered the walled city now sweltering in filth and wet weather. The clouds had always hung low over the Plaza Mayor since the arrival of the British, and in contrast to the pastel days of peacetime, its streets now assumed a grayish visual palette, as though they were always looking forward to the passage of some funeral.

The very atmosphere and mood of the period was captured in a prose wearing the patina of colonialism and the varnish of deathly expectation. The novel 1762 was a depiction of wartime situations in Manila in the latter part of that year when British forces, during the final year of the Seven Years' War, invaded Filipinas, which was then under Spanish rule for almost two centuries. 

An omnipresent narrator was giving his assessment of history, connecting the dots across time and place, taking brief moments to announce his presence to the readers. The narrator was not that too intrusive; he just tore the fabric of time. (See, for example, pages 245, 282, and 285). And what a story it was. A reflection about wars fueled by human avarice and Putinic delusions of power. It was not a dry recounting of well-researched events but one full of emotions, arresting imagery, and descriptive flair.

Pre-British, it started with the founding of a Filipino revolutionary group called Brotherhood of the Molave, a template for all movements doomed to fail because of a lack of cohesion and telltale signs of crab mentality. Because groupthink. Because leadership squabbles. Just because. The very same becauses and flaws that plagued the Katipunan and allowed national heroes to succumb to other (so-called) national heroes. The disruptive Chapter 4 of the novel, a rend in the fabric of time, was the master key of the novel, the break that allowed the creatures in Pandora's box to reveal their true natures and revel in the world created by the novel's fiction. The problematic Chapter 4 turned out to be the novel's problématique.

"Why is it," he said, "the we all share a single vision, but no one knows how to get there?"

"How can we know," she replied. "We do not even have an idea who we are."

The sentiment was of course shared many times over by many other Filipino novelists and cultural commentators in their own times seeking to unmask an identity straddling many different facets, diagnosed in 1987 by James Fallows as "a damaged culture" in an essay of the same name, an essay as provocative as it was obsolescent, whose words still ring true for obvious reasons and no longer ring true for not so obvious reasons.

Reading 1762 in 2024 and thinking about how its lessons reverberate (or fail to reverberate) through time felt like a quixotic preoccupation. The quixoticism was lifted by the richness of ironic ideas, revealing the rubble of history that perpetually invites materialism and the war economy to swoop down and profiteer and cannibalize on what was left. A scene immediately after the post-British cannonade:

He organized a private reception for Draper and his officers, and on that occasion obtained the contract for assessing and repairing the damage along the walls. Rafael, to whom Don Diego assigned the surveying of the fortifications without the aid of engineers, found the southern curtains all but nonexistent, the Bastion of San Andres itself crushed beyond recognition, its red adobe arsenal beaten into a pulp, its grassy courtyard converted into a grave. Puerta Real, with its thick wooden doors smashed down the middle by pickaxes and its arch and ramparts hewed and hammered by howitzer balls, stood like a proud and mighty son of a bitch in spite of its dozens of flesh wounds. The Bastion of San Diego suffered so much from the left orillon eastward, which the interlopers climbed and scaled, its tower of cut stone bared like a bone out of a blasted leg. Earth had given way and had slid out of the breach, protruding like clotted blood where the moat once flowed into.

It was in that Joaquínesque prose register that the novel gained much of its heft. The writing in the first few long chapters, prior to the British arrival up to the brutal war scenes, displayed well-thought out choreography of events and a panoramic sense of unfolding apocalypse. By the time the Spanish capitulated and political wranglings on the fate of Filipinas commenced and the exorbitant war ransom to be paid to the British was being negotiated, the chapters became shorter in length and the narratives splintered into many characters, diluting the sense of the epic while pursuing a myriad of human motivations converging on a single outcome. We were no longer in open combat but in a period of calm before a new storm, ushering the chaos of war inside the negotiating chambers of the Spanish clergy and British military men. The long drawn out negotiations of war ransom was punctuated by an exchange of nascent ideas on nationalism and old ideas about colonialism.

Draper ... instead quizzed the governor on his decisions to put the archbishop in charge of civilian affairs.

"It makes sense when you consider our lack of object for the people to assiduously venerate," Drake explained. "I had to concede some appointments to the enemy to placate the troublesome elements."


"You have to know these kinds of people. They cannot civilize themselves, don't know what their values are, what they exactly aspire for. They are always in need of people to look up to—their heroes, without which they willingly resort to tyrants and gods."

It was after all a colonial work of fiction in sometimes modernist, post-colonial garb. But still, a predictable analysis of imperialism, that. Veneration without understanding was the default mindset of the conquered noble savage from the point of view of the conqueror and their sympathizers. Does not really explain why in so-called civilized societies during this "enlightened" era people willingly resort to a Donald or a Vladimir. 

By 1762, the implant of Spanish Catholic faith has so rooted the Indio on the spot that his subservience to a god divine and existing in the triple guises of a holy trinity could no longer be easily swayed by the British import of brutishness. 

"By failing to raise the first million dollars demanded of you according to our terms, you, Your Excellency, have neglected the people."


"Strip me naked. All you can see is but the body of Christ."

Drake laughed. "Spare me your sophistries. You had the chance to surrender the Filipino but I'm afraid greed has gotten in the way of your theology."

"The Filipino is lost. For all we know she is already sunken, burnt, or captured by pirates! You've got the Santisima Trinidad, what more do you want?"

Henry Brooke, the well-bearded County Kildare native, raised an index finger from where he sat at the far corner. "The Saint Sima Trinda is a spoil of war. We captured it ourselves so it should not be counted part of the first installation [ransom installment?]."

The conversation between British military Drake and Spanish Archbishop Rojo was about galleon ships Filipino and Santisima Trinidad as war spoils. But the italics was a feint. Straighten the letters, replace "Santisima Trinidad" with "God", and we're talking business. The Filipino is lost. She was already captured by British pirates who would bleed her dry. Where before the Spanish was bleeding the country dry. God (or religion) is a spoil of war.

Our well-behaved narrator is a student of history, reconstructing momentous events, giving voice to characters of historical import, retracing their steps and motivations for destruction (of self-destruction). A few references to the pandemic (lockdown of Intramuros, the new normal), a few quixotic turns later (mention of a book being considered to be translated into Arabic, an origin story about a character called Rosinante [sic]), the reader arrives at the climactic section of the novel where Divina Paula, a young woman and seer, had been hallucinating images. In one scene, a montage of images flashed before her, some recognizable moments in history but which, in the world of 1762, was future.

A recapitulation of a hundred years of weariness which once again Divina Paula had to suffer in the recurrence of painful apparitions trapped in her memories from the future. She saw some more of those visions before his body dissolved into the wall's abysmal shadow: the end of the terrible epochs of galleons and gibbets, the midnight descent of torches from the mountains, the departure of hereditary lords and the rise of sugar barons, the transition to a long century through an orgy of blood and water, the rape of women at the ruins of bombed-out churches and universities, new empires waking up on the heels of an endless procession of widows, the blue heat in the fiery age of machines, the static quietude of a white noise known to us as the new millennium.

After seeing these fragments of the future,  she "was about to submit herself to the hopelessness present in those who had witnessed history's moral collapse." Like Walter Benjamin's angel of history, she "sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage." She had a peek into history's hysterical unfolding. Unlike her, we who never learned our lessons perceive not a single unified calamity but "a chain of events." That may be why we could not adapt to historical disruptions and the natural histories of destruction, We always came unprepared, like people perennially caught off guard by The Big One.

We did not make the connections from a sequence of past tragedies. We react too little too late. We who were drawn to the same mistakes, doomed to repeat our folly like a young moth circling a burning candle, inevitably drawn to the flame. We were toast.


  1. Not much to say about the post, other than that it's interesting, but just thought I'd comment to say that it's nice to see you're still up and blogging!

    1. Thanks, Tony. It's so great to hear from you! I miss the good old days of active blogging.