Amongst the Bissayans of Zvbv

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Phelippe, Our Lord King:

May the grace, peace, and loving kindness of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with Your Majesty Don Phelippe, by the grace of God King of Castilla, León, Aragón, the two Sicilies, Jherusalem, Navarra, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Mallorca, Sevilla, Cerdeña, Córdoba, Córçega, Muria, Jaém, the Algarves, Algezira, Gibraltar, the Caribbees, the islands of the Canaries, the Eastern and Western Yndias, and of the islands and continents of the Ocean Sea; Archduke of Austria, Duke of Borgoña, Brabante, Milan, Atenas, and Neopatria; Count of Hapsburg, Flandes, Tirol, and Barçelona; Count of Ruysellon and Cerdania; Marquis of Oristan and Guanno; Seignior of Vizcaya and Molina, &c.

Most serene, most excellent, most puissant Prince: from this city of Zvbv, the City of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, capital of your dominion of Las Islas Phelippinas, this seventh day after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, in the Year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred sixty and nine, greeting.

Inasmuch as our foremost intent is to ferret out and defeat the Devil in every guise he may assume, and to bring the light of the True Faith to the heathen, and to save as many as we can of these poor souls from eternal damnation, we call Your Majesty’s attention to the barbarous practices of the Bissayans of Zvbv, which seem to us harmless enough, yet may contain within them the seeds of impurity of thought.

The people of the Bissayas are well built, of pleasing countenance, and white; but they are called the Pintados because they adorn themselves with pictures from head to foot, it being their custom to tattoo themselves when they have performed some act of valor.

They prick the skin until the blood comes, with sharp, delicate points, according to the designs and lines which are first drawn by those who practice this art; and upon this freshly bleeding surface they apply a black powder, which is never effaced.

Children are not tattooed, and the women tattoo all of one hand and part of the other.

The tattooed designs are very ingenious, and well adapted to those parts or members whereon they are placed. The men do not tattoo the body all at the same time, but by degrees; and for each part to be tattooed the person must perform some new act of bravery, so that the whole is a continuous process taking many years. Thus it is that the more mature of the men are often covered from head to foot with tattoos, so that they seem dressed even when naked. They do not, however, on this account go naked; they wear well-made collarless robes, which reach the ankle and are of cotton bordered with colors: when they are in mourning, these robes are white. They take off these robes in their houses, and in places where garments are unnecessary; but everywhere and always they are very attentive and watchful to cover their persons, with great care and modesty, wherein they are superior to other nations, especially the Sangleys.

From early childhood the Bissayans file and sharpen their teeth, leaving them uniform, or among the less elegant, fashioning them all to a point. They cover their teeth with a varnish, either lustrous black or bright red, then bore a hole which they fill with gold, so that this point of gold remains as a shining spot in the middle of the jet-black or bright vermilion tooth.

They are accustomed to wearing cotton and silk garments, and gold pieces fastened by brooches; and rich necklaces, pendants, earrings, finger rings, and ankle rings. They also wear rings upon the instep of the foot, precisely the same custom the ancients wrote about when they mentioned nations who used gold for fetters and chains, especially among the nobles.

What is most singularly barbarous, however, is the practice common to the adult males of wearing the sagras bolt, which they call the palang. While many Spaniards have observed it, none has seen fit to call Your Majesty’s attention to this pervasive practice, preferring to consider it unmentionable. The sagras bolt is an article of personal jewellery worn by all Bissayan men, and so important is it to them that it is never fashioned of any metal but gold. Even the poorest man will not consider wearing a palang made of tin, for gold alone is deemed worthy of the purpose. The palang is an ornament worn around the head of the penis, and one’s manhood is not considered complete without it. So valued is it by these people that no woman will consent to intercourse with a man who does not wear a palang. The men themselves say it is their women who demand that they wear the palang, for otherwise the pleasure the women derive from sexual congress would be greatly diminished.

Entry is much hampered by the increased size the palang lends to a man’s member, and the men say they must insert it in a sideways manner, and the woman must needs help, else the effort will come to nought. And afterwards they cannot pull it out until the member has gone soft, and their ardor cooled, so that an act which should be done merely for the purpose of propagating the race becomes with them long and depraved bouts of passion.

In these islands there exists a doctrine, sowed by the Devil, that a woman, whether married or single, could not be saved, who did not have some lover. Consequently virginity is not recognized or esteemed among them; rather, they consider it a humiliation and misfortune. Married women, moreover, are not constrained by honor to remain faithful to their husbands, although the latter will resent the adultery, and hold it as a just cause for repudiating the wife.

It is, however, not a general custom in the Phelippinas to marry more than one wife, although, doubtless influenced by the Mahometans who dwell in Mindanao and Burnei, a man may after several years take a second wife, then some time later yet another—indeed, as many as he can support. There is a marked distinction between wedlock and concubinage; because the latter has its own ceremonies.

For marriage, betrothal commonly takes place while the persons to be married are in the womb:  two married couples, when the wives are with child, agree that if the wombs should bear a boy and a girl the two children should be joined in matrimony, under a penalty of ten gold taels.

In the marriage there figures a dowry, and the surrender of the woman, for it is the husband who gives her the dowry, an amount agreed upon and fixed in accordance with his means.

In the matter of divorce, if the cause is unjust, and the man parts from his wife, he loses the dowry; if it is she who leaves him, she must restore the dowry to him.

If the man has just cause for divorce, and leaves her, the dowry must be restored to him; if it is she who leaves him, for a just cause, she retains the dowry.

Amongst a people for whom the marriage bond is not sacred, amongst a people who tattoo themselves for every enemy killed, who consider it beautiful to show black teeth that are adorned with gleaming spots of gold, who do not prize virginity, whose women count themselves damned if they do not have a lover, and whose men wear gold palangs, I find myself a confounded man. I feel I am entering a dark abyss of blind idolatry, and that within the walls of this infernal cave are an infinitude of loathsome creatures, foul, obscene, and truly damnable. And yet it is my impossible task, aided by the light of truth, to reduce them to order: so that we who are enlightened may offer praise to Almighty God and have compassion for those who, blinded by their ignorance, know not the way of truth.

I humbly entreat Your Majesty, for the service of the Lord, and your own, to be pleased to read this paper throughout; and I wish Your Highness to command me to return, to die in my cell in peace, for if I remain here I cannot conceal so many offenses against God and against the service of Your Majesty, without reprehending them with the same publicity as that with which they were exposed. For in taking it upon myself to wear a gold palang in the manner of the Indios, I could not but test its efficacy with a woman for whom I was, according to her belief, delivering from damnation. As the dalliance has since been discovered by the husband, and the woman publicly repudiated, and the dowry returned to the man, I feel that my position here is untenable, and write only in the hope that Your Majesty will not ignore what this report makes bold to suggest.

May God our Lord guard and preserve the precious life, the very royal person, and the very catholic estate of Your Majesty for uncounted years, with the enlargement of your reigns and dominions as your royal heart desires.

Of your S.C.C.M., the ever loyal servant who kisses the hands of Your Majesty,

(ecce signum) 
P. Diego Sánchez, coadjutor for these islands

Carlos Cortés has had a novel, Longitude, published by the UP Press in Diliman, Quezon City, and a short story collection, Lassitude, by Anvil Publishing in Pasig City. The latter won a National Book Award. His short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. A graduate of the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, he has attended the Silliman Writers’ Workshop in Dumaguete, and the UP Writers’ Workshop in Diliman, QC. He lives in Mandaue.

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