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It's All History by Jon Malek

History with a bit of humour

by Jon Malek

   Marble Boat Summer Palace
The ship that sank the Chinese navy. Photo from Wikipedia

The study and writing of history can at times be interesting, exciting, and sometimes tedious. For those who spend hours upon hours in archives, sifting through hundreds and thousands of pages of documents, it can be a lonesome task, as well. Yet, there are light-hearted moments that make the task a happy one, and the odd time we have to stop and laugh at what our sources are telling us. When I teach Asian history at the University of Manitoba, I love telling the story of Tsunayoshi, the Japanese shogun of the Tokugawa period who loved his dogs so much, he spent more time tending to them than to his country.

Of course, these funny anecdotes actually tell us a lot about the time. In the case of Tsunayoshi, it is a reminder of the life of luxury that comes with being a king, emperor, or shogun. With many others there to do the work of ruling a country for you, a leader like Tsunayoshi – with a lot of money to spend and no one to answer to – can obsess over frivolities that most others could never dream of. That’s is why the “boat that sank the Chinese navy” is both a funny event in history, but also a sobering one that warns against the luxuries of state life.

The story of this infamous ship has to do with the decline of the Qing Dynasty in China and the corruption that had filled the court. Under the direction of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the Summer Palace in Beijing was ordered rebuilt following the shameful destruction by the British Lord Elgin - who burned it down as part of the British attempt to subjugate China in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the money used to rebuild the Summer Palace had actually been set aside to rebuild the Chinese navy, which was needed to fight against the growing aggression of the British. As the story goes, most of the money went to the creation of a single stone ship that was in reality a palace for Cixi and her court in the Summer Palace. While a beautiful piece of architecture, the palace also represents the wastefulness of corruption and the silliness of history. A navy sunk because of a stone ship? Good grief.

I have come across a good chuckle or two in my own research, which have also had larger meanings. The documents I have are often between Canadian officials in Manila and the federal government in Ottawa, and they give their frank opinion of Filipino officials and diplomats. On more than one occasion, the ambassador of Canada or another government official has remarked on the friendliness of Filipinos. One wrote that a meeting with the Philippine agricultural minister was “characterized by infectious Filipino amiability.” There are regular stories in these reports on the major political figures in the Philippines, such as Imelda Marcos, General Carlos P. Romulo, the Minister of Foreign Affairs under Ferdinand Marcos, and Ramon V. Del Rosario, who was the Philippine ambassador to Canada for many years.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the strengthening of Philippine-Canadian relations. With the growth of ASEAN and the role that the Philippines was taking in global affairs, Canada wanted to enhance the already-friendly relations between the two countries, both to bolster trade and to improve Canada’s position in the Asia-Pacific region. Because of their good relations, the Philippines was Canada’s point contact for the rest of ASEAN. The Department of Foreign Affairs recognized that improving relations with the Philippines was going to be a deeply personal affair, and that strong personal relationships had to be forged. A letter from April 1980 stated that setting up in-person meetings with Filipino officials was important because Filipino government officials valued personal contact. Furthermore, Romulo presented a challenge in this regard because he was no exception to this and was concerned to maintain his “sense of personal prestige.”

Around the same time of this assessment, government officials were scrambling to find a university in Canada that would award Romulo with an honorary degree. The Department of Foreign Affairs had been inviting Romulo for years to visit Canada in an attempt to improve relations, but he always had to back out. After a few occasions, government officials heard rumours that this was because Romulo wanted to receive an honorary degree from a Canadian university before any visit would take place. At this time, he had nearly seventy honorary degrees, but had not received one from Canada.

As a major player in Philippine foreign affairs, and with someone who had much clout in the circle of Marcos’ Martial Law government, Canadian officials were concerned with appeasing Romulo. Thus, what seemed as a trivial thing – adding one more degree to seventy – was taken very seriously as a matter of national interest. When the University of Windsor rescinded its offer of an honorary degree in late 1980 – due to protests from members of the university towards Romulo’s affiliation with Martial Law – there were real fears that Romulo would be so personally offended that it would have far reaching implications for Philippine-Canadian relations, and that it might even sabotage Canada’s ASEAN position.

The Philippine ambassador, Del Rosario, was the point person in these negotiations, and at one point government officials mused that he was “praying for help from any [quarter] on this [subject].” Indeed, when he found out that Windsor had withdrawn its offer, Del Rosario apparently had a “temper tantrum” that was so embarrassing he asked for it to be “stricken from the record” after being calmed by news that the government was working on a solution. When the Royal Military College of Canada offered Romulo an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, Romulo decided that he would finally visit Canada in the fall of 1981. Romulo was apparently so pleased at this that in June 1981, he sought out the Canadian ambassador “across [a] crowded room[,] almost bowling over a waiter in process.”

In this time, and over these amusing events, relations between Canada and the Philippines greatly improved. The two countries had active trade relations – with almost equal amounts of goods and services flowing both ways – and were political allies on the global stage. Moreover, officials on both sides often referred to the large population of Filipinos living in Canada as a common ground. Both Romulo and Del Rosario were also very fond of Canada and reportedly appreciated the many attempts that upper ranking officials made to personally interact with Philippine officials. These records reflect the growing relations between Canada and the Philippines. Indeed, these were long standing relations as Canada had been one of the first nations to recognize and celebrate Philippine independence in 1946.

With greater flows of Filipino immigrants to Canada, growing trade, and Canada’s desire to become a Pacific power, it was in the interests of both nations to improve relations. Indirectly, this has facilitated the flow of immigrants to Canada, and a great show of friendship was made in 1979 when Manila and Winnipeg became sister cities. These stories, having a bit of humour to them, show one of the ways that this friendship has been made by personal interactions between officials who, in reality, were friends outside of political office.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.

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