The carabao is the national animal of the Philippines. It’s a good choice because this beast of burden can do everything. It can haul a house’s worth of goods (up to 3500 kilos or 7700 pounds), turn a mill stone, or carry several passengers for hours. It is your pick-up truck, tractor, and engine all in one. A contemporary observer wrote that the carabao was “patient and tractable so long as he can enjoy a daily swim. If cut off from water the beast becomes irritable [and] will attack men or animals and gore them with its sharp horns.” Americans were a bit dramatic, of course. They resented the carabao for clogging carriage traffic as it lumbered through Manila at two miles per hour.
The true test of the carabao’s usefulness is that there are still 3.2 million in the Philippines. According to a 2005 United Nations report, “99 percent belong to small farmers that have limited resources, low income, and little access to other economic opportunities.” At the dawn of the 20th century, though, every farmer and hacendero relied upon the carabao, which is why the rinderpest epidemic of 1901 hurt the islands so badly. This was one of Javier Altarejos’s biggest problems at the beginning of the book: finding the money to replace his herd.
When I first chose to write romance set in the Philippines, I made my hero a sugar baron to best fit the chronotope of popular Regency historical romance. Javier grew up in the 1880s and 1890s, when Negros ruled the Philippine and European sugar markets. His parents traveled to Europe in the off-season, and they brought back champagne and horses. He grew up in a beautiful local-style mansion, attended by maids, cooks, and nannies.
However, the true model for Javier (other than Enrique Iglesias, see in Instinct Magazine photo above) was less Darcy and more John Thornton of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. By the time Javier inherits Hacienda Altarejos, the boom times are gone. He has to deal with war (several of them), closed ports, labor shortages, rinderpest and cholera epidemics, drought, and American trade restrictions. Moreover, without a sugar central, his product is no longer the best available. Javier is a good man doing the best he can to keep a major economic enterprise going in tough times. Hacenderos had a reputation of getting rich off the work of their wage laborers, much like the bourgeoisie of industrial Britain—or the fictional factory owners like Thornton. But the reality is that the workers’ jobs depended on Javier and Thornton keeping their doors open, which was not a simple task.
This is not a blanket defense of hacenderos. My story is sugar coated. I romanticized Hacienda Altarejos, and I knew it while I was doing it. The true history of sugar in the Philippines is a story of great injustice. If you did not know that, there is a new documentary out there to guide you through that reality called Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar. The Gilded Age was fraught with labor disputes on the other side of the Pacific, as well: the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Riots, the Coal Strike of 1902, just to name a few. This was the other reason Twain used the term Gilded Age, because all that glitters is not gold.
(Note: Hacendero is the older Spanish spelling, though you will often see haciendero in the Philippines and elsewhere. However, in my research, the version without the added “i” was more popular in contemporary sources.)