Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 11, August 2005

image of book goes here
Elizabeth Mary Holt

Colonizing Filipinas:
Nineteenth-Century Representations of the Philippines in Western Historiography

Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press,
2002, pp. xii, 191;
ISBN 971-550-418-3
bibliography, index, images, paperback.

reviewed by Carolyn Brewer

  1. Elizabeth Holt's Colonizing Filipinas: Nineteenth Century Representations of the Philippines in Western Historiography, is an insightful and at times provocative study into the way history about the Philippines was written by the colonizers during the America period, 1898-1910. However, the title sells the book short. Holt does much more that this. She also explores the way the colonizers constructed the archipelago, Filipinas, as well as Filipino women (a different form of Filipinas) and sexuality, which, as Reyneldo Ileto puts it in his Foreword to the text, 'feminize the nation itself so as to cement its subordinate position to the American father' (p. viii). Neither does Holt leave the Filipinas as mute objects before the colonizers' collective gaze. Instead, wherever possible, she highlights points of resistance that disrupt the neat picture that the colonizers were attempting to draw.
  2. Holt brings a discursive approach to the study of the relationship between the United States of America and the Philippines. Indeed, the way she crosses disciplinary boundaries and her eclectic use of theory is refreshing and allows for astute analysis of the uneasy link between gender, race and colonialism that was central to the colonial project. Further, the way Holt interweaves theory with her case studies ensures that the reader is left with no illusions about which theory she has found most useful and how she has applied it in each of her case studies. For students, this practical aspect of Holt's work is particularly valuable.
  3. Holt begins her study by problematising the absence of women from Philippine historiography. She poses the question, 'How does one go about reinserting women into mainstream Philippine history?' (p. 1) and proceeds to write a history in which women and gender issues are not just present, but are foregrounded as central to the colonial effort. In this regard, Holt's source material does not just focus on what men have said about the Philippines and Filipinas. Instead, wherever possible, she uses material that is written by women—either white-American or Filipinas themselves. Holt's insightful reading of photographs provides another angle of vision into the colonial processes that had an impact on Filipino society during the America period.
  4. In the first chapter, she discusses the way the texts of authors such as John Foreman (1892, 1899) and Dean Worcester (1899) have become authoritative works informing subsequent texts written about the early years of American colonisation. Holt explains the way that the academic convention of authors' referencing each other's works 'turn impressions and interpretations into solid "facts" over time' and, in the Philippine case, she demonstrates how this textual knowledge then became the truths upon which political action was based (p. 4). One particularly interesting section of this chapter deals with the representations of Filipinos by two white women—neither of whom admitted their contradictory position in Philippine society as 'subalterns vis-à-vis male colonisers, and conquerors vis-à-vis the colonised nation.' [1] However, both these women's texts differ from those of the male authors of the time in that they focus on what Holt calls 'women's space' (p. 17)—clothes, servants, relationships, dinners, ceremonial events and descriptions of the countryside. Further, the sections of this chapter relating to race and eugenics as well as the representation of Filipinos by white men and women set the stage for the history that subsequently unfolds.
  5. In chapter two, Holt takes as her text for analysis a painting by an American painter GW Peters, Amigos Returning to Their Homes Under the Flag of Truce, which she reads from different perspectives—the white American and the Filipino. And this is where the ambiguity of the title of Holt's book becomes most obvious—Filipinas being the name for the archipelago and also for Filipino women. In the painting, the women Filipinas can be read to signify the colony, but also as an allegory for the feminine domestic sphere that is ripe for colonisation (p. 30). On the other hand, the woman carrying a child in the painting, while representing both the Madonna and Mother Filipinas, could also be signified as the madonna/virgin female allegory for liberty and independence—thus subverting the authority and power of the United States. In this way, and throughout her text, Holt provides readings from the 'underside' of Philippine history (p. 33) that disrupt the comfortable binaries of civilised/savage, educated/uneducated, good/bad, virgin/whore—upon which the power and authority assumed by the United States resides.
  6. In her third chapter entitled 'Americans and their "New Possessions",' Holt highlights the hierarchically structured order/chaos, civilized/savage dualisms that, as she says, 'implicitly favored white Americans and America' (p. 51). Quotations justifying war from American philosopher and suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone's daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, caught my eye and I would have appreciated references to each of these. Nevertheless this chapter sets the scene for the five chapters that follow—in which, I feel, Holt is at her analytical best.
  7. The chapter on 'Filipinas and White-American Suffrigists' is particularly notable for its section on the speech of Clemencia Lopez, a member of the Filipino elite, that was delivered to the New England Suffrage Association in 1902 (pp. 74-80). Holt draws her readers' attention to the tension for Lopez between the desire of American suffragettes 'to take part in national life' and for the Filipino people 'for the right to have a national life to take part in' (p. 75). In addition, Lopez's appearance as guest speaker before her American audience makes a mockery of the perception that Americans had of Filipinos as 'savages without education and morals' (p. 75)—a point that Lopez was concerned to reiterate. But more, Holt is aware of the historical fact that Filipino women were not always part of the western patriarchal construction that confined women to the private realms and subordinated them to men—and she highlights the way that Clemencia Lopez made good use of her relative equality with men in her speech.
  8. In a chapter entitled 'Filipinas and Photography,' Holt uses images taken by men and she directs our attention to the placing of Filipinas (women) in each of the photographs that she analyses. One particularly telling image is a montage of photographs of females of the Philippines that was originally published in Harper's History of the War in the Philippines (p. 112). The images are arranged in a way that replicates Mantegazza's evolutionary tree of man (sic) in which anatomy has become an allegory for progress. The five images in the Harper's montage are arranged so that the reader's eye is taken in a clockwise direction down the evolutionary scale. In each image the skin colour of the women becomes increasingly darker—from the fore-grounded well-dressed, beautifully posed fair-skinned Spanish woman, past a high class Filipina, then a Chinese meztisa, followed by an india with her child on her hip and lastly a portrait of a broad-nosed, curly haired, black indigenous woman. As Holt says, '[t]he photograph constitutes Filipino subjects in a manner that satisfies American colonialism' (p.119).
  9. A cartoon and an article by Frederick W. Eddy in Women's Journal (December 1901) form the central motifs of Holt's fifth chapter. Using Antoine de Baecque's theory, she describes how an allegory 'operates in a colonial situation as an "especially visible technology of appropriation"' (p. 81) and then proceeds to analyse the conceptual framework that underlies America's domination of the 'Others,' America's civilising mission overseas, and the way America is the country that liberates 'primitive' peoples from the shackles of their former lives. This chapter is a particularly telling indictment on America's foreign policy then—and now.
  10. In her penultimate chapter, Holt explores the link between Filipinas, history and sexuality. In this chapter, the querida [mistress]/prostitution question is discussed with the inevitable and associated health concerns and 'problems' of miscegnation. As Holt puts it, 'Filipinas' bodies were fetishized once again—[as] sites for multiple and contradictory beliefs in which the colonizers' anxieties over sexual and racial difference functioned simultaneously' (p. 127). In this chapter, I feel Holt could have referred to Anne McClintock's important text, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest[2] to elucidate her material and strengthen her theoretical position. Nevertheless, she outlines well how ambiguous domestic relations, concubinage and miscegnation were all represented as the paramount danger to health, racial purity and American power and cultural identity. Indeed, white-American men, through contact with non-white women, contracted not only disease but also debased sentiments, immoral proclivities and extreme susceptibility to decivilised states—entitled 'dementia americana' by the Manila Times (p. 127).
  11. A case study in which an American husband shot and killed another American in a crime of passion over a Filipino woman forms the basis of the concluding chapter of the book. In this chapter, Holt, as well as reconstructing the story of the murder from the various available sources, focuses on the way, the woman, the femme fatale, Inez, is represented by the media. In spite of a studio portrait that shows otherwise, she is portrayed as 'a dangerous and exciting, but not surprisingly a degenerate woman' (p. 139). The power of this chapter resides in they way that Holt manages to bring together all the themes that she has developed throughout her text. As she puts it, 'Discursive practices have specific functions at particular times and different places. In Manila of 1907, patriarchal, sexual and racial discourses served the white-American colonizers ... [as] they endeavoured to implant white American values in a Philippine environment' (p. 154).
  12. To conclude then, Holt's Colonizing Filipinas, is an extremely interesting and well written text that documents not only the 'common sense' thoughts or conceptual architecture from which the Americans made sense of their world in the colonial situation of the Philippines from 1898 to 1910, but which also provides alternative readings from the 'underside' of history. Holt's discursive approach allows her to read between the lines of the variety of sources she employs to demonstrate how the American conquest of the Philippine Archipelago was carried out. Through a diverse use of theoretical tools related to the discourses of colonialism, racism, sex and gender, Holt is able to demonstrate how the Philippines, the people of the islands, and especially women were constituted as ready for and deserving of the civilising mission of the United States of America.
  13. And now, in the twenty-first century, and after several other abortive interventions, the United States of America is attempting to implant white American values in yet another environment—Iraq. This book is a timely reminder of the suspect ideologies and stereotypes that underpinned the colonisation of the Philippines and reminds us that even today, some nations are still fixated on the spurious and insidious categories of colonialism and its militarised interventions. That this text needs to be read by all historians of the Philippines goes without saying. Moreover, it will be a valuable addition to the libraries of all people trying to make sense of the present civilising mission of the United States of America and its coalition of the willing.


    [1] Anne-Marie Medcalf, 'Reconstructing a Homeland: Gender, Gallicity and Sense of Place', in, Researching the Fragments: Histories of Women in the Asian Context, ed. Carolyn Brewer and Medcalf, Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2000, pp. 48-64, p. 48.

    [2] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Routledge, New York, 1995.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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