OPINION: Blair & Robertson, 'The Philippine Islands 1493-1898'

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at May 25 2018 09:20 PM

Monumental! Indispensable! Encyclopedic!

The 55-volume series of Philippine historical primary source documents, direct and first-hand pieces of evidence and eye-witness accounts of events, persons, places, culture--all about our nation and us. From its original Spanish into English.

Photo courtesy of The University Library, University of the Philippines Diliman

How else can one describe the “single greatest contribution to Philippine historiography” ever put together? How else could Filipinos have learned their national history from the country’s entry into international consciousness up to the onset of our existential change, our “Americanization?”

Colloquially referred to as “Blair and Robertson.” No educated Filipino must ever be caught without having in the least, a whiff of familiarity with “B&R!” All of us who have had rudimentary introduction to our national history in early grade school learned it from books whose authors sourced their material from “B&R.” 

After all, the set is regarded as “the unequalled monumental work of translation, annotation, collation and editing of primary sources, truly an indispensable reference for any serious study of Philippine history during the Spanish era.”

A 1962 quotation from a New York City antiquarian book dealer describes the “B&R” set. “The most usable collection of source materials for the study of Philippine history…….contains a monumental collection of English translations of original sources on the discovery, exploration, pacification and Christianization….on the social, religious, political and economic conditions of the Archipelago from the beginning of Western contact to the end of the Spanish period.”

America’s perplexity, most probably whetted one May morning in 1898 finding herself in possession of an archipelago in the western Pacific, may have led to the inspiration that challenged scholarship and erudition, thus creating knowledge about their new territorial acquisition. The United States was beginning to govern a people they knew very little of. The objective was to assemble and furnish ‘authentic and trustworthy material’ for a history of the islands. 

Emma Helen Blair (1851-1911) was a historian, journalist, editor and librarian. Her collaboration with James Alexander Robertson may have been influenced by an earlier project that she assisted. The English translations of the “Jesuit Relations,” annual reports by the superior of Jesuit missions.

Her collaborator, James Alexander Robertson (1873-1939), was an archivist, historian and translator. He became the director of the fledgling National Library of the Philippines from 1910 to 1916. 
Together, they performed a historical celebration. “The Philippine Islands 1493-1898.”

The original 55-volume set was published and issued serially from 1903 through 1909 by the Arthur H. Clark Company of Cleveland, Ohio. At the outset, Ms. Blair and Mr. Robertson desired to produce a ready reference in English for the American public. A popular edition, as it were. The economics of publishing, however, apparently deemed that the limited edition be addressed mainly for university libraries, the academe, the US Foreign Policy establishment and private collectors. It appears therefore that there was, from the very start, an unintended built-in scarcity. In the antiquities and curio business, scarcity becomes an inevitable element in an auction’s hammer drop.

After a hundred years, world wars and natural calamities, very few intact and complete sets survive in the Philippines; in fact, even in the United States. While earlier bibliographical tracts may have mentioned that about a thousand such sets were originally printed, some researchers now opine that perhaps no more than 500 sets were in fact printed and sold between 1903 and 1909. It is believed that very few sets (perhaps just about 5 or 6) have survived in the Philippines. They are, understandably, under lock and key!

Recognizing that access to materials is the principal requisite to historical research, Dr. Domingo Abella, then-Director of the National Archives, elected President of the International Association of Historians of Asia in 1960, embarked upon a reprint of the rare Blair and Robertson. In 1962, a re-issue, by photo-offset, was printed in Taipeh, limited to 300 sets, 55 separate books to the set. 

In 1973, Cacho Hermanos published a “reprint of the first re-issue,” also by offset printing. It is unlikely that they printed more than 500 sets. Cacho compressed the 55 volumes into 19 books. These too have become rarities.

Happily, “Blair and Robertson” is now available in digitized platform. E-books. The “Project Gutenberg” as well as in “Primary Sources in Philippine History” are both a ‘google’ away! But for very serious Filipiniana collectors and rare antiquarian book fanciers, especially individuals with deep pockets, there is no substitute for the original 55-volume printed in 1903-1909.

An internet antiquarian rare book dealer--the American Book Exchange--has in its current listing, both the original as well as the Domingo Abella/Taipeh edition. They are quoted at US$14,850.00 and US$9,935.00, respectively. That is exclusive of shipping and handling fees. The book exchange, in its statement about the original set, says: “rare and elusive,” “this is only the third set we have handled….in several decades.” There is none available of the Cacho Hermanos edition, but I recall that a set was available in 2014 from the same exchange for US$2,500.00. All such availabilities are used and ex-Library owned or from private estates.

There is now, in the Philippines, an ex-Library set of the original 55-volume B&R available for collectors. The Leon Gallery/Auctions in Legazpi Village, Makati (G/F Eurovilla 1) recently acquired the set, readied for participation in their forthcoming auctions. This set has a very interesting provenance. Once upon a time, owned by the St. Charles College, Catonsville, Maryland (a seminary and a liberal arts college) which was closed down. The set was donated to Chaminade University in Honolulu. Evidently, they found no use for it and was consigned to an antiquarian bookshop/broker in Kilohana Square on the outer fringe bordering Waikiki, towards Diamond Head. The set was serendipitously found and acquired in 1982. In both libraries, none of the volumes was ever borrowed or maybe, even read! The library cards inside the flap envelopes have no recorded borrowers. Otherwise, the set is in excellent condition considering its age.

The pages of these volumes are in near mint condition. As a matter of fact, pages are unslit, unseparated and unopened, from the day these were shipped out of the publishing house, obviously, authenticating that these were never borrowed and read. There is no inside wear and tear except that a hundred years of non-use and silverfish have visibly taken its toll. About 5 of the books’ spines have damage and require professional restoration. Having belonged to two libraries in succession, the spines have the Dewey System designation hand painted in white on the lower half of the spine, i.e. (“991.4/B575”, in this instance). 

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