When I started this writing project I thought it would be a “piece of cake” to write a historical novel once I got past my self-induced fear. The mechanics of researching and writing have never been difficult for me. I love every bit of it. Reading old documents and trying to piece clues together to come up with a plausible theory and paint a picture, so to speak, of a time long gone excites me.
Then why is this particular project so challenging? I’m not sure, but it is proving to be so. I have been busy. I’ve prepared historical timelines for Guam, the Philippines, Mexico and Spain. I’ve prepared documents full of references, lists of people and families, and data tables.
I’ve learned interesting facts that I was previously unaware of. Did you now that leprosy was present on Guam by the 11th century and possibly as early as the 7th century Did you know that a supply of cocoa was part of the provisions given to Padre San Vitores and his companions for the journey to Guam? Did you know that a card game named L’Hombre was all the rage with 17th Century Spanish soldiers? That in 1650, 1770 and 1850, the world experienced the lowest temperatures of a mini ice age?
After spending a significant amount of time reading various historical accounts on a variety of topics and amassing a small library of publications on topics relating to Guam’s history, I forced myself to narrow my focus. There was no way I could tackle the entire history of Guam in my first book so I narrowed the time frame to the 100 years of the 18th century.
Next I focused on a specific area of research. In order to develop a believable setting for my story it seemed “natural” to learn about the environment at that time. Another frenzy of investigation took me to Web sites where I learned about the mini ice age and volcanic activity of the period. I perused reports by Spanish naturalist Antonio de Pineda y Ramirez and American Navy Lt. William Safford, who also was a botanist. Spanish governor Felipe de la Corte y Ruano Calderon’s descriptive and historical report provided even more information.
Then one day while reading Frenchman Louis de Freycinet’s account of his sojourn in the Mariana Islands, I became intrigued with his population tables. Most people with any knowledge of Guam’s history know that the Chamorro people were on the verge of extinction in the 18th century. I wanted to know the exact numbers and what factors were known about the decimation of my ancestors.
The second in a 12-part series, this is an account of my journey for information and understanding of Guam’s past concerning the decline in numbers of our people.
It is difficult to envision the reality of Chamorros who survived the colonization by Spain. A young Chamorro boy who survived the Spanish colonization and somehow reached the age of the manamko would have seen a decline of more than 90 percent of his people over his lifetime.
My investigation into exactly how this occurred was fascinating and confusing. Fascinating to think that our population numbers were once so high, and confusing because of the contradictory numbers I found in conducting the research.
I was aware that the high population numbers that are often cited for the Chamorro population at San Vitores’ arrival were not generally believed to be accurate by historians, but I wanted to consult the primary sources myself.
I went back to the oldest account that I had at hand, Franciscan Lay Brother Juan Pobre de Zamora’s account of his 7-month stay in Rota in 1602. In his account, Fray Juan Pobre relates that Sancho, a Spaniard who survived the shipwreck of the Santa Margarita in 1601 and lived among the Chamoros on
Guam, told him that there were “nearly 400 villages” and “more than 60,000 people” on the island of Guam. Rota, he reported, had 12,000 people living in 50 villages. Sancho had also told him that the “indios” said that there were more than 20 islands that shared a common language in the Marianas chain but he didn’t know the size of the “islands lying in the direction of the volcano” since he had not visited them.
From this account we could assume that there were more than 72,000 in the Marianas in 1602. In 1668 when Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores arrived to bring Christianity to the Mariana Islands, Jesuit priest Francisco Garcia says there were 100,000 inhabitants in the islands. Searching other documents, I realized that there were a whole slew of estimates for the early period. Father Bowens in a letter to Father van Horenbeeck in 1673 reports the 12,000 inhabitants of Guam were distributed among 180 villages. 18th century circumnavigator George Anson reports that Tinian was once home to 30,000 inhabitants. The classic source for history of the Marianas is French Jesuit Priest Charles Le Gobien, whoin 1700 said, “These islands are densely populated. On Guahan alone one counts 30,000 inhabitants” I soon realized that while it was enjoyable reading the accounts, I wasn’t any closer to a definitive number. I decided to search the work of scholars. Anthropologist Jane Underwood of Arizona State University wrote in a paper on the population
history of Guam that the contact population figures that were generally accepted as late as the mid 20th centuryranged between 40,000 to 73,000 inhabitants. A later study by Richard Shell indicates an even lower number of 24,000. For my purposes, I settled on a conservative number of 30,000
inhabitants of Guam at contact.
Using this number as a starting point and the Freycinet population tables, I realized that by 1731, a 63-year-old man who had witnessed the arrival of San Vitores would have seen the decline of over 93 percent of the population numbers present when the Padre stepped ashore. The survival of that young Chamorro boy is perhaps the story of our people.
In the face of tremendous hardship and incredible odds, he survived. This could be said to be the root of the Chamorro pride that is still felt today. As one of only 701 Chamorro men enumerated on the island of Guam in 1731, he, along with the 626 women and 588 children, were responsible for the survival
of the Chamorro language and cultural traditions that exist to this day. This small group of Chamorros that numbered less than 2,000 grew to more than 177,000 Chamorros as reported by the U.S. census in the year 2000.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said it well when he said, “A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them.” I am proud to claim that somewhere in my being, no matter how small, there are remnants of those tenacious people, my Chamorro ancestors.