Even established historians make mistakes

That Batangueño historian I alluded to in a previous blogpost used to be my FB friend. We parted ways when I criticized his favorite historian, a fellow Batangueño of his, for failing to define what a Filipino is, something that really gets into my nerves. For if one can chronicle the history of his people, how is it that he could not even define their national identiy?

I was expecting a scholarly response to elicit debate not so much as to show him that I know more than him but to obtain his perspective. Because that is how knowledge is developed: a synthesis of logical elements from both sides of the fence will emerge to form a new thesis (logicians call this the dialectical method). For all we know, his favorite historian’s difficulty in defining what a Filipino is could be the answer to our country’s problems. But to my surprise and disappointment, he went on a diatribe, prompting me to unfriend him. When he found out that I removed him from my friends’ list, he sent me an enraged private message filled with personal attacks. My golly, I thought. And to think that this guy prides himself as a scholar.

There is nothing wrong with idolizing one’s favorite person, especially if that person has a profound influence on his career. We all have our own idols. But I have observed that many historians today treat their mentors as if they’re demigods who are free from fault. However, once their demigods have been proven to be false idols, they still cling to them steadfastly. That should not be the case. The people we idolize, no matter how accomplished they are, are humans too. We praise their achievements and calumny their follies.

Not too long ago, as I was rereading Gregorio F. Zaide’s José Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero (Centennial Edition), I spotted a glaring error. In citing an entry from Rizal’s journal during the national hero’s trip to the United States in 1888, Zaide concluded that the waterfall the hero was referring to was Pagsanján Falls when it was clear on the entry that the waterfall in question was located in Los Baños. Below is Rizal’s journal entry, translated by Encarnación Alzona from the original Spanish, which was cited —and “corrected”— by Zaide (emphasis mine):

Saturday, May 12. A good Wagner Car — we were proceeding in a fine day… and we shall soon see Niagara Falls… It is not so beautiful nor so fine as the falls at Los Baños (sic Pagsanján — Z.); but much bigger, more imposing…

As we can see here, Zaide corrected what seemed to be an error from Rizal’s part when in fact Rizal was being precise. What made Zaide conclude that the unnamed waterfall in Los Baños was Pagsanján is beyond me. Rizal clearly indicated in his diary that it was in Los Baños. He did not even mention Pagsanján at all. Being a Pagsanjeño, Zaide was probably unfamiliar that Los Baños has a waterfall that was popular during Rizal’s time. Me and my family have even visited it twice.

I am referring to the slender cascades of Dampalít.

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While Rizal may have not named Dampalít in that journal entry of his, one should take into account that it was the nearest waterfall to his hometown of Calambâ. For sure, he must have had visited it a lot of times. And while he did not mention it by name during his US trip, he did mention it in his second novel, El Filibusterismo:

Así es como S.E…. ordenó la inmediata vuelta a Los Baños… Los baños en el Dampalít (Daán pa liít)… ofrecían más atractivos…

In Soledad Lacson-Locsín‘s English translation of the said novel, she offers an explanatory note:

Dampalít: A spring, which with the water coming from seven falls or talón in the locality, formed a river bed with crystal-clear water, to which many went to bathe.

Rizal had a penchant of inserting places that he had visited in his novels. In addition, it should be noted that during Rizal’s time, Pagsanján Falls was almost unknown. The most famous waterfall back then was Botocan Falls in Majayjay, and it was even cited by no less than Juan Álvarez Guerra and John Foreman, personages that Filipino historians should know very well. If Rizal had indeed been to Pagsanján Falls, there is no doubt that he would have written about the experience considering that the arduous trip towards the falls and shooting the rapids afterwards were an exhilarating experience.

This Zaide error may be a minor one, but the message I’m trying to convey is this: even established historians make mistakes.

When I discovered the long-lost foundation date of La Laguna Province in 2012, I was met with both praise and criticism. The criticism was due largely in part to my credentials: I have no formal training in historical research. Humorously, a group of local historians from Batangas —obviously the type of people who have nothing to do with La Laguna’s history— were the most vocal online. I told them that I am open to peer review. If established historians can make mistakes, so can ordinary people like me. Finally, I challenged my detractors that if they really think that the foundation date of my adoptive home province was erroneous, all they had to do was to write a formal antithesis to refute it. All in the spirit of scholarly debate. Should they succeed, then so be it. Congratulations. But so far —and it has been almost five years— none has dared to do so.

Even if a historian has all the primary sources at his disposal, or no matter how many TV appearances he has done, his findings or declarations are all deemed useless if he lacks the necessary reasoning or even field experience to justify them. And then of course there is also the issue of carelessness, as already demonstrated by this blogpost. In the end, it appears that the final arbiter of historical conclusions is logic, not primary sources alone.

2 thoughts on “Even established historians make mistakes

  1. There’s a hefter price for errors committed by academics. They’re in position to influence, they’re designated educators. In Egyptology, there’s a battle going on between academics and outsiders, basically enthusiasts like Glenn Anthony May, who in my view presents better arguments (that the sphynx is a lot older than it is).


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