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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A Frontier Rises South of the Border

27mindaviews sojourners

Book Review
ABACA FRONTIER: The Socioeconomic and Cultural Transformation of Davao, 1898-1941
Author: Patricia Irene Dacudao
Published by Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2023

CEBU CITY (MindaNews / 12 April)—The 2016 elections thrust Davao, the once-peripheral city and region South of the border, into the national limelight, when its long-time Mayor, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, was elected the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines. Henceforth, Davao no longer was perceived as being out there in the backyard. For in the previous years—despite claims that it is “the largest city in the world, in terms of area”—Davao City was still considered too underdeveloped that it paled in compassion to the highly urbanized areas of Cebu and Manila.

Having been colonized by the Spanish regime only towards the last 50 years of the Crown’s control over the islands (in 1858) and despite the efforts of both the United States and Japan to bring Davao into the orbit of the global economy, the “(m)ainstream Philippine history, as taught in courses in the national school system, hardly mentions the Davao region.”


Dacudao adds: “This absence may be largely due to a historical vacuum in framing the accounts of Filipino inhabitants, both indigenous and migrants, as they engaged with foreigners from different shores. The exclusion of Davao in the history of the Philippines tends to reinforce the notion of Davao as a distant periphery in national life and consciousness.” But the fact was that what was once a “backwater” of untamed forests inhabited by indigenous peoples turned into “a remote resource frontier” with the abaca fiber (aka Manila Hemp) and, ultimately, morphing into “a regional economic center.”

With Abaca Frontier, Dacudao debunks the assertion that Davao’s history has little to contribute to Philippine historiography, critiques those who have written Philippine history ignoring significant events unfolding in the South and argues that, henceforth, the historical events of Davao must appear in the pages of these history books taught our schoolchildren.

That is to say, that the historical facts integrated in Abaca Frontier should find their way into these more comprehensive and inclusive Filipino history books! With this book, Dacudao proves once and for all, Ferdinand Braudel’s thesis which he posited in his 2019 book Out of Italy, Europe that: in “the dialectic of the internal and the external” of the Italian renaissance… “it is sometimes said that the light shed from the margin is the best, that a complex whole may be best be apprehended from its outer limits.” In a situation in which “every fact, every event has been minutely studied by generations of devoted historians, the vantage point of the periphery, of the diaspora, can provide new clarity to developments in the core.”

With this book, Dacudao inverts the standpoint of dealing with history, by viewing “history from the perspective of the southern borderlands, for excluding Davao from the historical narrative only makes Philippine history incomplete and myth-ridden.” By incorporating the location, characters and events that unfolded in the periphery, the author posits that historians would be able to “create a more nuanced and broader history, be it local, national, or global.” This is one book that certainly attempts not to overlook the international forces at work in Davao’s glocal history. This is history dealing with a city’s localized position presented within a broader history of the Philippines engaging the world at large.

But why abaca? What relevance does this plant/commodity have for the Davaoeños today, let alone the Filipinos? The generations born after the Second World War have had no direct experience of having seen an abaca plantation. Perhaps some of the baby boomers’ generation may have heard their parents speak of those early years when abaca was the main cash crop planted in the fertile fields of Davao and exported abroad. But for the GenX down to GenZ generations—except the indigenous youth in the far-flung tribal communities that still grow abaca plants—they would have a hard time distinguishing an abaca from a banana plant.

Well, for Davaoeños who now proudly claim that their city has become the third most developed urban center in the country and whose GDP is much higher than any other metropolitan area, there is need to look back to when it began to rise and what were the foundational elements that made possible the city’s transformation from a small town surrounded by forests into the urban jungle of today.

Long before the logging industry became another export-oriented commodity, along with other products like the coconut, which connected Davao to the global market especially in the post-war years, it was abaca which was produced for the world market (specifically the USA, Great Britain, other European countries and Japan) during the American colonial period.

One needs to consider the global events unfolding in the latter part of the 50-year American colonial rule of our country. After WWI, tensions began to escalate across the world in the late 1930s. The superpowers of the globe, including the newest player, the United States of America, were preparing for the eventuality of another global war. Which means they had to equip their navies not just with the latest weapons but things like cordage, those ropes needed for the ship’s riggings.

They were valued because of their resistance to saltwater damage and the fact they do not swell. Abaca was the coveted fiber for its natural qualities thus “elevating this indigenous plant as an international and strategic modern war material.” The various agricultural and industrial businesses in the US also need the fiber to be used for other purposes, e.g., for binder twine used for the grain harvest machines.

When synthetic alternatives arose in the post-war period, demand for abaca began to decline and ultimately the abaca plantations in Davao were phased out. In a matter of a few decades, those fields planted to abaca saw the coming of the banana plantations which would become Davao region’s main commodity exported to global markets today. A new era dawned with the shift to bananas which has persisted until today even as the plantations have been threatened with the Panama disease. This has led to speculations that, one day, bananas will go the way of the phaseout of abaca.

From 1898 to 1941, Davao City was transformed into a dynamic globally connected frontier under the American colonial rule which opened up to receive citizens from all over the world attracted to its rich potentials. The original inhabitants of this locality began to see the influx of more migrant settlers from across the archipelago, especially from the Visayas, turning this locality into a multi-ethnic society. Eventually, the Americans—having purchased the islands from the Spaniards—laid claim on their new colonial territory. But there were many citizens from other nation-states with their distinct cultures who flocked to this frontier town: the Japanese (some of whom built the Kennon road), the Chinese, those from India, Syria, the Middle East, Australia and other European countries.

The relative peace and order reality of Davao City was one factor why it became a melting pot characterized by a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faith identity. Unlike other parts of Mindanao where wars and conflicts had erupted since the days of the Spanish colonial rule up to the American occupation, Davao did not have such a violent profile. It provided for a more conducive place for trade and commerce, where everyone hoped to prosper in this land of promise.

The interaction of this mix of nationalities and ethnicities made for a multi-culturalism that would led to hybridity in various forms. As interactions between and among the various groups were generally cordial and amicable and collaboration was greatly enhanced, there was a free interchange of things and tastes arising in the people’s everyday lives. Even romantic liaisons led to mixed marriages resulting in hybrid families. To facilitate communication, the people had to maneuver through the reality of the multi-languages. This was certainly true among the Filipinos, which explains why today the Cebuano-Bisaya language spoken in the city is a hybrid combination of Cebuano, Tagalog and English words.

The influence of American culture was, of course, the dominant one. From chocolates to soft drinks, from music to films, the seduction of the people to American products would fuel the colonial mentality that persists until today. Come to think of it, since Davao was a main extension of American imperial rule in the country—at par with their presence in the major American bases up in the North—it was here that one could actually locate the impact of US Imperialism. Their benevolence however, although within the perspective of their “Manifest Destiny” discourse, contrasted sharply with the abuses committed by the Spanish colonizers.

Alas with Japan’s defeat during WWII, the Japanese presence in Davao ended, leaving behind their partners and descendants of the mixed marriages (with some of them migrating to Japan in the following decades). And with the impact of the war and the declaration of the Philippine Independence, the American settlers mostly returned to their home country even with a sense of estrangement having gotten used to living in Davao. And by the 1950s, the abaca industry became a thing of the past!

To do research and then write this book, Dacudao had to become a multidisciplinary scholar. While primarily a history book, Abaca Frontier traverses across the various fields of scholarship: economics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, culture and Philippine studies. She reviewed literature dealing with migrant studies, frontier studies, indigenous people’s studies and other fields of inquiry. The multicultural methods used by Dacudao and the range of sources indicating the rigor of her field research is unprecedented in Philippine social science knowledge production. No wonder, the book is praised by distinguished scholars.

James Francis Warren (author of The Zulu Zone: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southern Asian Maritime State) asserts that: “Abaca Frontier is a marvelous book about the settlement history of Davao City and its commodity-based frontier situated on the margin of the great island of Mindanao.”

Macario Tiu (author of Davao: Reconstructing History from Text and Memory) posits: “Abaca Fiber is a must-read for Dabawenyos…; it is a product of superb research!” And Oliver Charbonneau (author of Civilizational Imperatives: Americans, Moros, and the Colonial World understanding of settler dynamics in Philippine state formation, US imperialism in Southeast Asia) stated that with this book, Dacudao “expertly places the island at the intersection of regional, national, imperial and global histories.”

By reading through the section—“A Note on Sources”—as well as scanning the 26 pages of References and Bibliography, the reader cannot but be impressed with the breadth and depth of the rigorous research work that the author undertook to complete the manuscript which became the book. By digging into archival materials in the vaults of libraries, research institutes and even private collections in the U.S., Australia and the Philippines as well as finding all the time to read through hundreds of books that serve as her review of related literature, Dacudao managed to piece together a stunning profile of Davao City’s “growth as a frontier ‘backwater’ to a major agricultural and commercial center in southern Philippines in the first half of the twentieth century.”

Dacudao has done many Filipino scholars a big favor with Abaca Frontier. By mapping the field of the literature needed to do this kind of historical narrative, many scholars can now stand on her shoulder to assist them in their own exploration of this field as they aim to contribute to what is now a bourgeoning field of Philippine—also Mindanao—Studies! As groundbreaking as the works of both foreign and Filipino scholars, e.g., Sturtevant, Anderson, Warren, Nimmo, Gowing, McCoy and De Jesus, Ileto, Rafael, Abinales and many other scholars, Abaca Frontier will occupy a special place in academic institutions that deal with Southeast Asian/Philippine Studies in the years to come.

And in so far as books dealing with Davao history—as written by a scholar who hails from Davao is concerned—Dacudao’s book is the most accomplished work so far! It breaks new grounds in dealing with Davao’s history and expands the horizon earlier explored by a small group of Davao-based historians, including Ernesto Corsino, Mac Tiu and Tony Figueroa. Even as the book’s title frames the period of 1898-1941, it provides a historical overview of Davao since the pre-colonial period.

By reading through the various literature written by mainly European explorers (e.g., the English seafarer Francis Drake in 1579, the buccaneer William Dampler in 1703, the Frenchman Joseph Montano in 1880, the German Alexander Schadenberg in 1885, the Austrian scholar Ferdinand Blumentritt in 1890), the Spanish chroniclers (the Jesuit Quirico More in 1864) and the American anthropologists (Fay-Cooper Cole in 1913 and Laura W. Benedict in 1916), Dacudao profiles Davao at the dawn of both the Spanish and American regimes. It is through their lens that today’s generations can glimpse into how the foreigners viewed Davao in those years, albeit from a mostly colonial—and oftentimes pejorative—viewpoint.

Unfortunately, Davao City’s indigenous communities did not have the same kind of epic stories as other Lumads across Mindanao that had oral narratives indicating their view of the coming of the colonial explorers and masters. And there has not been a Mindanao- or Davao-born Moro or Lumad scholar who has written Davao’s history from the point of view of the original inhabitants. While Mindanawon scholars like Mac Tiu has begun to explore this field through “text and memory,” the data accumulated needs to be expanded. Thus the “voice of the native” still needs to be heard if we are to complete the story of how Davao evolved through the years.

The 412-page book is divided into three parts: Part I is subtitled “Encountering the Foreign;” Part II – “Local Production, Global Trade;” and Part III – “Creating Culture.” There is a short Epilogue and Conclusion at the end. Fortunately there is a 17-page Index that would be useful for any reader who needs to locate specific topics within the thick book. Chapter I situates Davao within its location at the periphery of empires and sultanates, charts the progress of the city as it advances towards progress and development and how it ultimately traversed the Empire’s frontiers.

Chapter II deals specifically with how Davao’s plantation economy boomed where abaca “was king and laborers reigned supreme,” how this business supplied the world markets and what it meant “working and living in the hinterlands.” Chapter III zeroes in on the inter-action of cultures brought about by Davao’s reality of multiculturalism which led to hybridity. Through this Chapter, the reader gets to know the “material culture in Davao’s contact zones,” and how the city evolved into a mix of “cosmopolitan places in an urbanizing frontier.”

It is easy enough to agree with the early readers of this book when they exclaim that this is a stunning, marvelous, excellent, a must-read book that “makes a valuable contributions to our understanding of settler dynamics in Philippine state formation, US imperialism in Southeast Asia, and the development of commodity frontiers and zones of intercultural exchange in the early twentieth century (in the words of Carbonneau).” Dacudao has done Philippine Studies (and not just the field of History) a big favor through her undeniable high level of scholarship.

Many young scholars will benefit from the enormous data and literature that find their way into the pages of this book, as well as the theories postulated in this book. There are sections in the book that the author mentions in passing but which are beyond the scope of her study; these are areas that can then be pursued by our young scholars hoping to find their own niche in the vast field of historical research. They would have owed Dacudao a debt of gratitude for having given them a head start for their research, for having scanned the horizon so that they are already guided in the right direction.

Despite Dacudao’s amazing accomplishment in writing this book, there are understandably areas that she would not cover at length or make critical comments. She is quite clear in regard to the scope and emphasis of her research, so a reviewer with a critical viewpoint who might point out the weak points in the book will do her a disservice. One has to take into consideration that within the framework of her research project, the main theories that she appropriates for purposes of fulfilling the goals of her study, the mainly positive view of how this frontier turned into a trading outpost resulting in progress (with a subtext that it partly fulfilled the projection of Davao as the Land of Promise!), the reality of most archival materials being written from a colonial perspective and lastly, her social location within the field of study. All these would influence the overall tone of the book. As a consequence, there are areas that are hardly touched or glossed over.

These then are the possible areas that we hope young Filipino/Mindanawon scholars will pursue, as a continuation of the scholarship paved by Dacudao. But they may have to explore the appropriation of critical/decolonial theories and search for and collect data (gathered through primary and secondary sources) that are oriented more to a post-colonial perspective.
These include the following areas: the impact of America’s colonial policies imposed on their new colony. For no matter how some scholars would claim that Americans were more benevolent than the Spaniards, its guiding principle of manifest destiny and its frontier-oriented discourse which resulted in the benevolent assimilation thrust impacted on land policies that ultimately dislocated many of the indigenous communities.

This very same thrust guiding the white American settlers and their State apparatus which pushed the native Americans from their ancestral domains was duplicated in the Philippines, particularly in areas like Davao and Bukidnon, where huge plantations were to be established. The persistence of this problem—worsened later by the logging industry and today’s drive towards intensified mining—owed its origin in the opening up of abaca and coconut plantations introduced by the Americans.

The influx of migrants to Davao—due to the push and pull factors, e.g., on one hand, the migrants wanted to either own a piece of land or find employment in the newly opened territory and, on the other hand, the foreigners who run the plantations could not rely on the indigenous local population who were not used to being dictated upon in terms of working hours—led to a major demographic shift. As more migrants flooded Davao (especially those from Cebu, Bohol and Leyte), eventually they constituted the majority of the city’s population. Culture domination followed as the Lumads embraced many aspects of the Bisaya culture, including their language. Today, many Lumad elders complain that their children and grandchildren, especially if they go to school, no longer speak their mother tongue, preferring to communicate in the hybrid Bisaya-Cebuano.

The whole cultural matrix of Lumad’s way of life had been severely depleted as the indigenous belief system of their ancestors had been devalued. Unlike during the Spanish regime when it was mainly the demonization of the indigenous belief system and the introduction of the Catholic faith that dismantled this indigenous cultural matrix, during the American occupation a less coercive manner through education and the introduction of the evangelical-Pentecostal wing of Protestantism led to the decline of rituals among IP communities today.

It was not as if the Lumad merely bowed down to the will of their colonizers. Where the structures of colonization were put in place, the chieftains also asserted their agency. While the book mentions in passing the more known insurrections led by Datu Bago and Datu Mangolayon, there is need to document more of the resistance movements large and small among the indigenous communities in the city and across the region. Mindanao historians Rudy Rodil and Greg Hontiveros had documented some of these in areas outside Davao and Mac Tiu began to write about a few of them in Davao. But there is need to expand the documentation in this area.

The rise of plantations led to the massive infrastructure program during the first quarter of the 20th century. As plantations cover a wide area of land, these locations had to be reached via a network of roads and bridges. Eventually roads were built to penetrate the hinterlands which previously were primal forests, rich in biodiversity. In the process, a systematic move to deforest Davao’s previously untouched territories led to the decreasing forested areas.

When the abaca plantations were phased out after the war, more logging operations began to penetrate the hinterland areas aided by the network of roads and bridges. It took only a few decades before the hills and mountains across the city’s territory became bald. Today as one travels the BUDACO highway, on both sides of the road one can see the extent of the rape of the forests and it will take tremendous will power and effort for the DENR to reforest these locations.

The worst hit are, of course, the watersheds. Meanwhile, floods have now become a regular occurrence across the city and there is no end in sight as to how the local government would solve this major environmental problem besetting the citizenry! In these times impacted by the tragic consequences of climate change, one looks back to the American colonial era and point out how it all began.

The legacy of the plantation economy persisted in the first two decades of the Republic. Still believing that the whole Davao region’s soil is conducive to planting cash crops, in the 1960s the bananas took over the abaca. Both Japanese and American-controlled corporations are back to Davao either operating or sub-leasing banana plantations and repeating the abaca’s experience of being a commodity for sale to the global market. The industry persists today amidst the fear that the Panama disease might, one day, force the plantation owners to shift into another cash crop.

For this is the legacy of the American capitalist system in Third World countries, to prefer their economies tied up to an export-oriented thrust and attracting foreign capital. Davao City’s industrial base never took off significantly, and while one cannot deny Davao City’s prominence today as an economic hub, what propels its economic growth are still mainly due to investments in the real estate, commercial trade and service industries.

While it is true that surveys indicate the improvement in the standard of living of migrant settlers compared to when they were in their places of origin, from the perspective of the plantation workers, things may not have been as rosy as projected in the literature. After all, the economy operates within a capitalist framework that inherently favors the owners of capital rather than the laborers. This has to be contextualized within the strong labor movement in Metro Manila in the post-war period, and it trickled down a bit to Davao as there were pockets of labor organizers who penetrated the plantation. (The reviewer knows this for a fact because his family’s history include a character who migrated from Metro Manila as a labor organizer; consequently he was killed by the Japanese for his involvement in the guerilla movement at the start of WWII.)

In the declining years of the American colonial regime and the expansion of the global war towards the Pacific, there arose a strong desire of “the city’s leading inhabitants” in “promoting direct foreign cooperation” as “international cooperation became a central theme and goal after the region gained a city by 1937.” On the other hand, due to “increasing pressure from the outside…generated by the Manila press and politicians in the 1930s, forced Davao residents to confront their developing relationship with the ‘foreign,’” which triggered an “anti-foreign, especially anti-Japanese rhetoric.”

Both the colonial mindset of the Americans and, later, the Japanese were in operation although mainly for economic reasons. However, the tensions leading to WWII’s Pacific arena revealed their political intent, as the two major powers would stage their warfare in locations like Davao which suffered intensely with the bombings during the war. For what seemed to have been mainly their intent to exploit Davao’s resources for its own economic progress, Japan—behind the scenes—may have harbored a desire to replace the United States as our colonizer. And for at least four years, Japan did manage not only to run business enterprises in Davao but colonize the whole area through the use of force. (The reviewer’s father who worked in an abaca plantation told his children that some of the Japanese who worked as simple workers turned out to be high-ranking officers in the Japanese Imperial Army). So much for international cooperation!

One can only hope that our upcoming young Mindanawon/Davao scholars will follow the path expertly paved by Dacudao, and explore the related fields identified above and engage in research work to fill in these gaps (but perhaps guided more by decolonial and critical theories). For as Fernand Braudel exhorts: “All history must be mobilized if one would understand the present.”

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Mindanao’s most prolific book author. Gaspar is also a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents. He recently moved to his new assignment in Cebu City.)

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