Footnotes fuel history
Walking through the heritage district of Hakodate in Hokkaido reminded me of the more famous Japanese trading ports of Nagasaki and Yokohama because of the Western influences in their built heritage. Hakodate has red-brick bodegas fronting the bay and an array of Christian churches: Russian Orthodox, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic, all quaint in a rural Japanese landscape.
What struck me during my aimless walking was a concrete electric post proudly marked “The First Concrete Electric Post in Japan.” We often think of history in grand terms, peopled with great men who do great deeds, but history is the sum of many footnotes like a concrete electric post.
Footnotes fuel history, and the latest one came by way of the recent Sotheby’s Geneva sale of a 6.16-carat, pear-shaped, blue diamond for $6.7 million. It was not the most expensive diamond sold that day. Two others would make my gemologist cousins gape because they were more than 50 carats each, D color, flawless and type IIa. The round one of 51.71 carats sold for $9.2 million, and the oval one of 51.39 carats for $8.1 million.
Nevertheless, the “Farnese Blue Diamond” was the star of the show. It is named after Elisabeth Farnese, an Italian princess who became queen of Spain, and who received it as a wedding gift in 1715.
The gem has been passed through royal succession for three centuries, and at one point is said to have been part of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette’s tiara. It comes in a box accompanied by an engraved silver plaque. The text on the plaque, translated from the original French, reads: “Remarkable blue brilliant. This historical stone was offered by the Philippine Islands to Elisabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain, wife of Philip V, great grandfather of the Count of Villafranca, current owner of that stone 6K 1/39.”
Diamonds are not mined in the Philippines, so how did this come to be? According to the French historian Vincent Meylian, when the widowed Spanish king Philip V married Elisabeth Farnese in 1714, all Spanish colonies were ordered to contribute a suitable dowry. Gold, silver, and a case of emeralds were assembled in Cuba and loaded into 12 ships that set off for Madrid in August 1715, only to be sunk by a hurricane in the Gulf of Florida 10 days later. One of the treasures that survived was the blue diamond, sent by Martín de Urzúa y Arizmendi from the colony that bore the same name as the newlywed king. Its color was royal blue and it is believed to have originated from the Golconda mines in India, the first source of diamonds before Brazil in the 1720s.
Urzúa y Arizmendi (1653-1715), Conde de Lizárraga and knight of the Orden de Santiago, distinguished himself in Spanish America where he served as governor-general of Yucatan before being appointed to the Philippines. The appointment was made in 1704, but he began his term five years later, upon his arrival in Manila in 1709.
As governor-general of the Spanish Philippines, from 1709 till his death in Manila in 1715, he instituted the first administrative and economic reforms marking the change of dynastic winds in Madrid when the crown was blown from the Hapsburgs to the French Bourbon line that continues to its present King Felipe VI.
Urzúa y Arizmendi is not a familiar name in the long list of 96 men who served as governors-general (not counting acting governors) beginning with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565 to Basilio Agustin in 1898. What little we know of him and his administration includes these: that he ordered the reduction of Chinese traders living in Manila to avoid a repeat of bloody Chinese revolts against the Spanish, and that he intervened in the internal dispute between the Archbishop of Manila and the regular friar orders, the Recollects in particular.
He saw through the piracy of the English, and repelled Moro incursions, the most serious being the siege at the Fort of Zamboanga that lasted two months. He established the first state monopoly on tuba, or alcohol from nipa, and restricted its production to Luzon in 1712. In general, his term was marked by a period of peace.
Acquired by an unnamed collector, the Farnese Blue Diamond will perhaps never be seen in public again, leaving us with little else but a Philippine footnote in its history.