Friday, November 26, 2004

Fiesta de las Señas

Fiesta de las Señas

Updated 02:05am (Mla time) Nov 26, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 26, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

SINCE a plane crash, terrorism and being hijacked are statistically improbable, I always look forward to my flights. However, on long trips my concern is the battle against boredom and physical inactivity.

I used to take a lot of wine with the meals to help me sleep. Then I wake up refreshed at the destination. Today there are many other diversions aside from cards and in-flight movies. I also look forward to Internet service that will be offered soon, but nothing beats plain conversation with friends. Unfortunately, on some flights to the United States, this is also regulated. For example, if you are seated away from a group of your friends and decide to stand on the aisle and chat with them, the stewardess will request you to return to your seat. If two or more people line up to use the restroom, they will also be told to return and wait in their seats.

One of the results of 9/11, aside from the tedious pre-boarding security checks, is the suspicion that awaits people who congregate on board during a flight. Walking around the aircraft to relieve boredom or stretch is now suspicious activity.

In the past, smoking was part of the diversion but since more and more flights are non-smoking, the desperate have to hide in the restrooms and tamper with the smoke detectors.

Then as now, long trips required diversion. During the time of the galleons, smoking was allowed in designated times and places. Cigarettes were prohibited but adequately covered pipes and cigars in holders were permitted.

Cards were also popular. Despite the ban on gambling, fortunes were either made or lost during the six-month voyage.

Naturally, sex was an option. One of the projects I have long abandoned was a research on the early "comfort women." Taken on board as sex slaves in Manila, they were eventually abandoned in Acapulco. The same thing happened with Mexican women, who were abandoned in Manila.

What became of them? The answer lies in the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City.

Some passengers brought women for their exclusive use, while others rented them out to passengers and crew. A law against this was passed in 1608 but had little effect.

William Lytle Schurz, in his book "The Manila Galleon," makes passing reference to a man who took 15 women from Manila. Some gave birth during the voyage, others landed in Mexico pregnant, thus causing grave scandal.

Stranger than fiction though was the Fiesta de las Señas:

"This was the ceremony which was held on the discovery of the ‘señas,’ or signs, of the nearness of land. Then all restraint was broken down for a brief and uproarious celebration, and 'to the sound of drums and trumpets' there began a veritable saturnalia of the sea, with all the boisterous license which attends the modern 'crossing of the line.' Cubero Sebastian and Gemelli Careri describe the rough hilarity of this day, when ranks were topsy-turvy and gloom seemed driven from the ship. The instructions of Governor Valdes required that these festivities be kept within the bounds of 'decency and modesty.'

"The fiesta began with the singing of a Te Deum 'in gratefulness for the approaching end of so wearisome a voyage,' for the California coast was now ahead. The principal feature of the celebration was the ‘tribunal de las señas,’ or 'court of the signs,' where the common seamen, 'clad after a ridiculous manner,' sat in mock trial judgment on their superiors and on the passengers. The latter were hauled before the canopied dais of 'The President' and two assistant ‘oidores,’ or judges, and one after another made to account for his conduct during the voyage. Indictments were read in each case by the clerk of the court and jocular sentences of death imposed by the judges. However, these sentences could be commuted to full pardon on payment of compensation in money, chocolate, sweet meats or wine, which were distributed among the half-famished revelers. 'The best of it was,' said Gemelli, 'that he who did not pay immediately or give good security, was laid on with a rope's end ... I was told a Passenger was once killed aboard a galleon by keelhauling him; for no Words of Authority can check or persuade a whole ship's crew.'

"The general of Cubero's, who might have been a marquis of the peerage of Castile, was sentenced to death on the charge of keeping the hatches closed during storms, so that those below nearly perished of thirst; but he was pardoned on the usual condition of a largess of delicacies. The sergeant-major, who also acted as doctor, and had bled more than 200 persons on the way across, was convicted of having shed human blood. The pilot was accused of always quarreling with the sun, while Cubero himself, the chaplain of the galleon, was not exempted from the inquisition by 'benefit of clergy.' They complained that he was always seated in his chair admonishing them. They called him 'the guide of death' (‘el lazarillo de la muerte’) because, whenever he went below deck to minister to anyone, the next day that person was thrown into the sea. But the priest is indulgent towards their grim humor and adds: 'On this they burst out laughing, and this was a day of great rejoicing.'"

The economic aspects of the galleon trade have been covered, but much remains to be researched on social and cultural aspects to complete the picture.


Blogger Mr. McKelvin said...

visit me at

November 25, 2004 at 10:21 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home