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L'archipel des épices

Xavier Huetz de Lemps


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1The Spanish colonial bureaucracy in the 19th century Philippines is a good example of the kind of profoundly and incorrigihly corrupt Systems whose capacity to survive, adapt and reproduce is a source of fascination to contemporary observers and historians alike. This book seeks to explore and understand the workings of an administrative machine that nevertheless “held” the archipelago until 1898. Eschewing clichéd idealisations or demonisations of Spanish rule, and eschewing the kind of historiography that confuses rules with realities, this study presents the day-to-day administration of the colonial Philippines under a new light. It also helps to gauge the difficulties faced by Spain, both in the metropolis and in its last colonies, in building a modern bureaucracy based on a clear separation of the public and private domains. Lastly, this book constitutes a contribution to the scanty historiography of corruption, and in particular highlights the little-known connections between corruption and colonisation.

2The historical critique of the sources may pose problems, but the documents refering to corruption are astonishingly abundant. Naturally, the central core of the documentation is composed of judicial and administrative sources. However, since those who produced them were sometimes themselves corrupt or in cahoots with dishonest employees, these documents need to be systematically verified and checked against other sources, such as church, diplomatic or private archives. The very scale of the phenomenon made corruption a subject of wonder if not debate, especially in the last quarter of the century. Travellers’accounts, descriptions of the islands, reform proposals, parliamentary debates or colonial literature – all bear witness to the schemes of certain functionaries and furnish interesting snapshots of administrative mess. This highly varied assortment of documents does not provide clear answers to all questions, but it does lift a corner of the veil shrouding the extent, the forms and the causes of the corruption.

3The first part describes, orders and classifies corrupt practices between the late 18th and the late 19th centuries. Provincial government is the best avenue of approach to the administrative apparatus and the corrupt systems riddling it. Indeed, governors enjoyed discretionary powers in most domains and were particularly open to the temptation of abuse of power and graft. As illustrated by the abolition (1844) of the right they had hitherto enjoyed to engage in trade, this level is emblematic of the tardiness and half-heartedness of the resolve to introduce new bureaucratic and professionalised working practices. Like others, this reform did not succeed in stamping out practices – often long-standing and brutal –whereby senior officials traded on their power of influence and used public authority for private ends. Upstream, the forms adopted by the corruption infecting the lower administrative levels of the colony, the Philippine municipality, were very similar to those of the provincial government. Aside from the differences of scale, the context is in any case different since the latter was a sub-bureaucracy of Philippine assistants “elected” by the powerful through an electoral process that was itself tainted by corruption, Downstream, a glance at the layers of the central administration places the corruption of governors and their subalterns in perspective: in Manila, the forms adopted by corruption were milder, but the sums siphoned off were often considerable. The conclusion of this inventory and this mapping of corrupt practices leaves no doubt as to the extent of the disease. All levels of the colonial administration were affected by corruption at one time or another. Some of them, like provincial government, the Philippine municipality or Customs appear to have been permanently and systematically infected. Others, like the offices in charge of Chinese affairs, receive scant mention in the sources, although they were very much exposed to temptation, Obviously the scale of the sums concerned, the devices used to accomplish personal enrichment or the degree of clandestinity varied very much, from the petty day-to-day corruption of police officers to the spectacular graft of powerful predators. These different levels were frequently interconnected, making up a System: corrupt provincial governors used municipal machinery to divert public funds or cash in on their influence at election times; but they in return enjoyed considerable protection in Manila or Madrid. In any case our sources give an inaccurate picture of the reality of the phenomenon: cases of extortion associated with the abuse of power are considerably over-represented owing to the mechanics of production of administrative and judicial sources.

4The second part deals with control and sanctioning procedures. On the one hand these defined the bounds of what was then considered corruption, and on the other hand they were intended to restrain any officials who might be tempted to take the plunge. The arsenal of repressive means was progressively reinforced in the 19th century on the basis of the legal heritage from the early centuries of Spanish colonisation (Laws of the Indies and juicios de residencia): corrupt practices were given a proper legal definition, legal penalties were stiffened and control procedures were multiplied. In this way judges were equipped with the tools they needed to prosecute corrupt practices. However, the actual implementation of these procedures was severely limited for a number of reasons. The architecture of the powers in charge of stamping out corruption remained muddled, and the work of the judiciary was slowed down by constant disputes over competence. Judges had a very bad reputation, and there are numerous disturbing facts which suggest that indeed they were not always honest. Moreover, considering the overriding importance of maintaining colonial rule, senior officials or judges tended to wink at the doings of subordinates or those accused. Except for irregularities discovered fortuitously in the course of routine checks and inspections, the vast majority of prosecutions were in response to denunciations and complaints brought by the alleged victims of exactions, by colleagues of the official accused or by the parallel hierarchy and the countervailing power – at least potentially –that was the regular clergy. By examining the capacity for initiative and the responses of the colonised population vis-à-vis irregular conduct and large-scale breach of the civil servant ethics, we can gain a feeling for the realities of life among the pueblos, look behind the scenes of political life in the provinces and get close to the hidden levers of the colonial administration. In this extraordinarily complex interplay, an accusation of corruption constituted a weapon that was only utilised when a certain number of conditions were met. By deciphering the conditions in which denunciations – whether well-founded or not – were made, the historian is able to put forward some hypotheses regarding the forever submerged part of the iceberg.

5The third part deals with the employees themselves: for a civil servant, the decision to resort to corruption was governed by a set of variables only one of which – and rarely a decisive one – was fear of the courts and their penalties. This tangle of structural data and human variables cannot be sorted out solely within the colonial context, for at a superior level it was the metropolis that dictated the criteria for selection and the material conditions of employees. In fact the 19th century was marked by a twofold tendency towards centralisation and metropolisation of the colonial civil service. The systematic and grotesque politicisation of recruitment of civil servants transferred to the Philippines, the brazen clientelism governing selection and promotion, and the abusive protection that these crony networks offered to civil servants of dubious moral standing ail engendered a very high degree of instability in the civil service, a multitude of flagrant injustices and a loss of any moral scruples in most servants of the State. Then again, the colonial context accentuated that collective demoralisation, rendering the notion ot the public good meaningless. An examination of the attempts at reform, particularly the creation of a specialised corps of colonial civil servants, makes it clear that the issue of corruption in the Philippines was by and large a simple by-product of the structural problems in the metropolis. The conscientiousness of senior officials like Overseas Minister Maura or Governors-General Despujol and Blanco in the closing years of Spanish dominion, and their sincere efforts to combat the disease, came up against a value system which despite a modernist discourse continued to conceive public employment as a favour and to tacitly accept the inevitable distortions of clientelism.

6If one accepts a functionalist approach to corruption and views it free of any moral judgment, an analysis of the costs and benefits of public malpractice produces mixed results. The economic and administrative cost of corruption was assuredly very high for the colony. For the metropolis on the other hand, transfer to the Philippines was a means of keeping supernumerary civil servants happy, and the corrupt practices of a proportion of these may be interpreted as a privatised form of colonial exploitation. In the medium term, however, the racketeering of Spanish employees and the brutality accompanying it exacted a heavy political cost on Spain in their contribution to disaffection of the Filipinos. And finally for the long term, the persistence of the corruption from the period of Spanish rule into that of American colonisation and later the Republic of the Philippines is a question that ought to be addressed, even if the answers can be of hypothetical value only.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2006

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