Pathless Travels: Popularizing the Boxer Codex illustrations
By PIO S. VERZOLA JR.
Students of Philippine history who are familiar with the works of W.H. Scott will probably notice that among his books, the most colorful and well-designed cover belongs to Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society (1994).
CAGAYANES. A warrior from the territory of what is now Cagayan Valley. Note certain similarities in the general design of the spear and shield, as well as headdress, as compared to their Cordillera counterparts. Photo courtesy of Lilly Library, University of Indiana.
What makes this book cover truly stand out is the full-color illustration of a native Tagalog couple in pre-Spanish attire. The illustration is part of the famous Boxer Codex manuscript, written ca. 1595, and which contains 75 colored drawings of the inhabitants of the Far East.
Of these, 15 images depicted the life of Filipinos at the time of Spanish contact. They showed Tagalogs, Visayans, Zambals, Cagayanons and Negritos in their native attire, jewelry, and weaponry.
The drawings, which may have been by a Chinese artist, are finely crafted.
The funny thing is that there is no Filipino publication (at least, that we know of) – whether magazine, textbook, or even coffeetable book – that has incorporated these Codex illustrations in full color so that we ordinary Filipino folk and our children may have a more concrete visual image of how our ancestors dressed and decorated themselves.
Instead, what we see are individual image reproductions scattered here and there, and often in grainy black and white photographs.
I first became aware of these pictures when they were published, as poor-quality black and white photos, as part of a long article in a 1960’s issue of the defunct Sunday Times Magazine. I made sure to keep a copy of that issue of STM. This was because, as a young kid – I remember was around 10 years old then – I was already wildly fascinated by the pre-Spanish history and indigenous groups of our country. My copy was later lost during the long martial-law years.
ZAMBALES. Two warriors from the territory of what are now the western Central Luzon provinces. Take note that unlike among Northern Luzon tribes, the preferred weapon here is the bow and arrow instead of spear. Photo courtesy of Lilly Library, University of Indiana.
Later on, I found out that an earlier popular article on the Boxer Codex was written by Carlos Quirino and Mauro Garcia and published in the Philippine Journal of Science (1958). The article was accompanied by the same black-and-white copies of illustrations from the Codex. But this issue of the journal has long been out of print.
At present, 19 Codex illustrations can be downloaded for a fee from Retrato, the web-based photo archive of the Filipinas Heritage Library. However, the website does not say very clearly whether the illustrations are colored reproductions of the originals, or are the same grainy black and white photographs from the Carlos Quirino collection. Even the price is not very clear.
According to a Wikipedia article, the original owner of the manuscript – perhaps even the official who commissioned its creation – might have been Luis Pérez das Mariñas, a son of a 16th-century Governor General (the topmost Spanish official in the country) and who later became Governor General himself.
For some reason not yet fully explained, the manuscript fell into the collection of a British noble, Lord Ilchester. The Codex survived a direct hit on the noble’s house during a 1942 air raid. In 1947, Prof. Charles R. Boxer acquired the manuscript through auction.
From there, ownership of the Codex went to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana where it is presently stored.
It is thus very unfortunate that, despite the incredible advances in information technology, our country’s libraries, museums, schools, and media cannot even provide a decent colored reproduction of this medieval document that is of basic historical and educational value to the Filipino people, especially to the young.
But the situation is not hopeless.
In fact, this author directly emailed the Lilly Library to inquire about the availability of the Boxer Codex illustrations for possible high-quality reproduction. The results have been positive. We cannot divulge the details for now, but let us exert more efforts in this direction.
Let us hope that a year or two from now, we can finally have a good-quality but inexpensive colored reproduction of this 400-plus year-old collection of images that give us a more detailed peek into our foggy past. #