Philippine History

22 February 2019


Map of the Philippine Islands, drawn by Captain John Kempthorne, ca. 1688; (evidently from earlier map of 1676). The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, Volume 38, 1674-1683 Edward Gaylord Bourne et al.

Before the Spanish

Pre-colonisation the Philippines had low birth rates as a result of extended breast feeding, contraception, abortion and diseases such as malaria that reduced fertility. Subsistence agriculture was the norm, with no surpluses. Most people lived in small kin-based villages called barangays, named after the boats that had brought Malay immigrants to the Philippine islands. (The Malay word for boat being balangay.) A datu ruled each settlement, comprising perhaps 30 to 100 houses, which were social more than political units. Datus were a hereditary aristocracy. Most communities were near the sea or rivers, with more reliance on fish than game, although chicken, pork and carabao were eaten in feasts and rituals. Rice was the main staple. Travel was generally by water; trails followed streams; there were no cross-country roads – and no wheels or draft animals. All Filipino groups would raid other settlements for slaves.

There were several related principal languages, Zambals, Ilocanos, Pampangos and Tagalog. Later the Spanish observed that the natives wrote very well using fifteen characters, of which three were vowels, resembling Greek or Arabic.

There are some indications that Hindu and Buddhist beliefs influenced the ornamentation of gold objects manufactured in the Philippines. There were gold mines in the islands of the main archipelago from Luzon to Mindanao, and local goldsmiths produced numerous pieces.

Filipino traders sailed around the archipelago in search of gold and slaves. Eleven pre-colonial boats were excavated from 1976 onwards in Agusan del Sur. These have been dated from the 4th up to the 13th century, and were light and graceful with a flat keel and well-balanced hull, needing no outriggers. The boats were found with Chinese trade ceramics.

Gold-cast pellets stamped with Tagalog characters were in use as a currency from the 10th century. A record dated at 900 CE, the Laguna Copper Plate Inscription, was produced in the Philippines using Early Kawi script (associated with 8th to 10th century Java). This affirms the material value of gold in Philippine society, as opposed to it symbolic value. Butuan mines in northern Mindanao were the source of fairly large quantities of gold and worked gold together with large quantities of imported items and a high protohistoric population density position the area firmly in the thriving trading network of Southeast Asia in that period. The Song Shi Chinese annals document a tributary mission from Butuan to the Chinese imperial court bearing gifts of camphor and cloves in the year 1001. In the 13th century Butuan’s importance waned, possibly because of the rise of the Sulu Sultanate in the south in the 14th and 15th centuries.

In 1405 the Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s trade mission initiated Southeast Asia’s “age of commerce”. Barangays consolidated into larger chiefdoms, built fortifications and acquired firearms.

At the time of the colonisation by Spain the Islamisation of Mindanao and Sulu had stimulated a development of social organisation and stratification, and this would perhaps have progressed across the whole archipelago. Manila was already an outpost of Bornean principalities. The Muslim South was never fully conquered by Spain.

By 1570, before the Spanish arrival, a thriving marketplace stood on the western shores of Manila Bay. Maynila, the “Place of the waterlilies”, had a palisade, a foundry for making cannons and quarters for Chinese and Japanese traders. Each year two or three vessels sailed to Malacca, the link between the China Sea and the Indian Ocean, carrying gold, forest products and foodstuffs. Maynila was integrated into the trade nets connecting the Spice Islands with China and Japan.

At the time of the Spanish arrival the population of the Philippines was perhaps between 1.25 and 1.57 million. (A 1591 document gives a figure of 667,612 but has notable omissions.) In 1600 the world population was only 545 million, less than 10 percent of today’s.

Spanish Colony

So for centuries before the Spanish arrived the Chinese had traded with the Filipinos, but apparently none had settled permanently in the islands until after the Spanish conquest.

Europe discovered the Philippines when Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who sailed for Spain, landed in Cebu in 1521.

Over the next several decades, other Spanish expeditions were despatched to the islands. In 1543, Ruy López de Villalobos led an expedition to the islands and gave the name Las Islas Filipinas (after Philip II of Spain) to the islands of Samar and Leyte. The name would later be given to the entire archipelago.

Colonisation began when Miguel López de Legazpi, the first Governor-General of the Philippines, arrived in Cebu from New Spain in 1564 and established a permanent settlement in 1565. Spanish leadership was soon established over many small independent communities that previously had known no central rule. In 1570, following the defeat of the local Muslim ruler Legazpi captured a Moro town, in a location that accessed the outstanding harbour of Manila Bay, a large population, and closeness to the  food supplies of the central Luzon rice lands.

Manila became the center of Spanish civil, military, religious, and commercial activity in the islands. By 1571, when López de Legaspi established the Spanish city of Manila, the Spanish grip in the Philippines was secure. It became their outpost in the East Indies, in spite of the opposition of the Portuguese who desired to maintain their monopoly on East Asian trade.

Manila repulsed the attack of the Chinese pirate Limahong in 1574.  Chinese trade and labor were of great importance in the early development of the Spanish colony, but the Chinese came to be feared and hated because of their increasing numbers, and in 1603 the Spanish murdered thousands of them. They returned, and in later years there were more, albeit lesser massacres of the Chinese.

Fort Santiago, Manila 007

The Spanish governor, made a viceroy in 1589, ruled with the counsel of the powerful royal audiencia. There were frequent uprisings by the Filipinos, who disliked the encomienda system. By the end of the 16th century Manila had become a leading commercial centre of East Asia, carrying on a prosperous trade with China, India, and the East Indies. The Philippines supplied some wealth (including gold) to Spain, and the richly loaded galleons plying between the islands and New Spain were often attacked by English freebooters. There was also trouble from other quarters, and the period from 1600 to 1663 was marked by continual wars with the Dutch, who were laying the foundations of their rich empire in the East Indies, and with Moro pirates. One of the most difficult problems the Spanish faced was the defeat of the Moros. Irregular campaigns were conducted against them but without conclusive results until the middle of the 19th century. As the power of the Spanish Empire diminished, the Jesuit orders became more influential in the Philippines and obtained large areas of land.

Initial occupation of the northern islands was accomplished with relatively little bloodshed, partly because most of the population offered little armed resistance. The Spanish faced a significant problem in the south with the invasion of the Muslims of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. The Muslims, in response to attacks on them from the Spanish and their native allies, raided areas of Luzon and the Visayas that were under Spanish colonial control. The Spanish conducted intermittent military campaigns against the Muslims, but without conclusive results until the middle of the 19th century.

Church and state were very tightly linked in Spanish policy, with the state assuming responsibility for religious establishments. One of Spain’s objectives in colonizing the Philippines was the conversion of Filipinos to Catholicism. The work of conversion was eased by the absence of other organised religions except for Islam in the south. The pageantry of the church had a wide appeal, aided by the inclusion of Filipino social customs into religious ceremonies. The eventual outcome was a new Christian majority in the mainly Malay lowland population, separate from the Muslims of Mindanao and the upland tribes of Luzon.

At the local level the Spanish built on traditional village organisation, co-opting existing leaders. This system of indirect rule helped to create a Filipino upper class, called the principalía, who had local wealth, high status, and other privileges. This achieved an oligarchic system of local control. Among the most significant changes under Spanish rule was that the Filipino idea of public use and ownership of land was replaced with the concept of private ownership and the granting of titles on members of the principalía.

The Philippines was not profitable as a colony, and a long war with the Dutch in the 17th century and intermittent conflict with the Muslims nearly bankrupted the colonial treasury. Colonial income derived mainly from entrepôt trade: Manila Galleons sailing from Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico brought shipments of silver bullion and minted coin that were exchanged for return cargoes of Chinese goods. There was no direct trade with Spain.

The Philippines was administered as a province of New Spain (Mexico) until Mexican independence in 1821.

Palawan does not seem to figure in the early history of the Spanish rule.

Galleon trade

In 1565 the first galleons sailed from the Philippines to Acapulco, and this link to “New Spain” continued for 250 years. Global trade, uninterrupted interactions between the Earth’s major landmasses, was initiated with the founding of Manila. The Atlantic, Indian Ocean and China Sea were already connected by trade; Manila added the final link across the Pacific. This enabled economic, cultural and ecological interactions. Animals, plants, people and diseases were all exchanged. Economies grew; deforestation, erosion and floods increased.

China produced inexpensive manufactured goods in return for American silver. The Spanish Empire would have been impossible to operate without China. The value of silver during the Ming dynasty was double that in Europe. Spices, cotton, silk, tea and porcelain were exchanged for bullion from the outset, until the British Industrial Revolution altered the basic structure of trade.

Chinese junks trading in Southeast Asia were 350 tons or so, with a crew and passengers of 200 to 400, or maybe even 500. The number of junks varied each year, with seven in 1616, and fifty in 1631, and 30 or 40 per year at the end of that century. A substantial Chinese population of sangleys was established in Manila. There were not just traders, but some owning land, some working Spanish land, and making a significant contribution to vegetable growing. Twenty thousand sangleys inhabited the designated Parian neighbourhood of Manila (under the watch of Spanish artillery) in 1638. There were outbreaks of violence between the Spanish and sangleys, with thousands of Chinese killed in 1603. But the profits encouraged perseverance and by 1605 six thousand Chinese had returned, and in 1621 there were twenty-two thousand in Manila. Another major revolt occurred in 1640, with thousands of Chinese killed, and there were incidents in 1662 and 1686. The large Chinese population in a small Spanish colony fanned fears that caused such troubles, but the symbiotic relationship continued. Numbers may be uncertain, but a Jesuit states in 1749 that there are forty thousand Chinese in the city, and double that in the archipelago. Whilst in 1768 there is mention of more than twenty thousand Chinese in Luzon, with others in Panay, Cebu and Zamboanga.

For the first 50 years typically two ships crossed the Pacific, but thereafter only one per year was the norm.

A 1593 law limited a galleon’s size to 300 tons, but this was not enforced and the largest was 2000 tons. (A ton was two casks, totalling 887 litres). The Rosario, in use from 1746 to 1761 was 1700 tons, with a cargo capacity of 18,867 pieces (the legal limit was 4000 pieces). Almost all these ships were built in the Philippines, from the abundant local hardwoods, financed by the Treasury. The galleons timetable was determined by the arrival of Chinese junks in Manila and the returning Acapulco ship bringing silver from the previous year’s sales, with delays imposed by weather of enemy actions. The route was guided by northeast trade winds, with vessels following the the westerlies north from Manila towards Japan; aided by the Kuroshio Current they then sped towards California, then they turned south to Acapulco. This journey might take 4 or 5 months, sometimes as much as 7 or 8. June was the best month to set off, later sailings meant encountering a typhoon. The threat of shipwreck and cold weather in the north, insufficient water and food, confined quarters, lack of hygiene and disease caused enormous distress to passengers and crew. After 6 months scurvy, beriberi and starvation threatened everyone aboard. In all more than thirty galleons were lost at sea, the British captured four ships, and thousands of people died on the crossings. The exchange of American silver for Asian textiles kept the vessels sailing, based on the labour in the mines of Peru and New Spain, and the resources and labour of the Philippines. This exchange originated the intercontinental market which birthed the global economy, and had profound impact on the world’s ecology and cultural interaction.

The Galleon Trade ended in 1813.

British Rule

There was a brief British occupation of Manila from 1762-1764 as a result of the Seven Years’ War, which was fought between France and Britain. Spain became a British enemy when it sided with France due to ties between their royal families. The British invaded the Philippines challenging Spain’s control of the archipelago after 191 years of rule. The Royal Navy, British Army and the East India Company in Madras joined forces to capture the Spanish colony. In conjunction with a separate attack against Havana in the Americas, both settlements were successfully seized. In the Philippines, whilst the expedition was intended to harass the Spaniards in their possessions, as well as for commercial gain and new territories, the military campaign led by General William Draper and Admiral Samuel Cornish may have been launched under the guise of an invasion in order to gain prize money.  The invasion and occupation of the capital Manila and the port city of Cavite resulted in looting and a galleon was seized. The fleeing Spaniards destroyed many of the records, and in the sack of the town by the British, many historical documents of great value were destroyed or stolen from the archives. In reality the British only controlled Manila and Cavite, but Manila was the capital and key to the Spanish Philippines. The British accepted the written surrender of the Spanish government in the Philippines from Archbishop Rojo and the Real Audiencia on 30 October 1762. The city remained the capital of the Philippines under the government of the provisional British governor, acting through the Archbishop of Manila and the Real Audiencia.

The British commanders imposed a ransom of four million dollars upon the Spaniards. The enormous sums in prize money and valuables seized mainly benefited the commanders.

The terms of surrender dated 29 October 1762 signed by Archbishop Rojo and the Real Audencia, and sealed with the Spanish Royal Seal, ceded the entire archipelago to Great Britain. The Seven Years War was ended by the Peace of Paris signed on 10 February 1763. At the time of signing the treaty, the signatories were not aware that the Philippines had been taken by the British and was being administered as a British colony. Consequently no specific provision was made for the Philippines. Instead they fell under the general provision that all other lands not otherwise provided for be returned to the Spanish Crown.

Subsequent Spanish Rule

The brief British occupation weakened Spain’s grip on power and catalysed rebellions and demands for independence. The governors of the Philippines instituted economic reforms, and cash crops such as sugar, indigo, hemp and tobacco were encouraged. This reduced the dependence on Mexican funds. The financial independence from Mexico was accomplished with the establishment of the tobacco monopoly in 1781. In that year Governor-General José Basco y Vargas founded the Economic Society of Friends of the Country. The Philippines by this time was administered directly from Spain. The country was reorienting towards Europe and away from Mexico.

With the termination of the galleon trade in 1813 and the abolition of the monopolistic Royal Philippine Company in 1834, trade was further liberalised. The development of cash crops , including rice and coffee, and the involvement of British and American exporting these goods and importing manufactured goods and textiles from Glasgow and Manchester transformed the economy.

Developments in and out of the country helped to bring new ideas to the Philippines. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cut travel time to Spain. This prompted the rise of the ilustrados, an enlightened Filipino upper class, since many young Filipinos were able to study in Europe.

Enlightened by the Propaganda Movement to the injustices of the Spanish colonial government and the “frailocracy”, the ilustrados originally clamored for adequate representation to the Spanish Cortes and later for independence. José Rizal, the most celebrated intellectual and essential illustrado of the era, wrote the novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which greatly inspired the movement for independence. The Katipunan, a secret society whose primary principle was that of overthrowing Spanish rule in the Philippines, was founded by Andrés Bonifacio who became its Supremo (leader).

The fall of the Spanish

It was the opposition to the power of the clergy that in large measure brought about the rising attitude for independence. Spanish injustices, prejudice, and economic oppressions fed the movement, which was greatly inspired by the brilliant writings of José Rizal. Opposition to Spanish rule began among Filipino priests, who resented Spanish domination of the Roman Catholic churches in the islands. In the late 19th century, Filipino intellectuals and the middle class began calling for independence. In 1892, the Katipunan, a secret revolutionary movement inspired by Dr. Jose Rizal and led by Andres Bonifacio. Membership grew dramatically, and in August 1896 the Spanish uncovered the Katipunan’s plans for rebellion, forcing premature action from the rebels.

The Philippine Revolution began in 1896. Rizal was involved in the outbreak of the revolution and executed for treason in December of that year. The Katipunan split into two groups, Magdiwang led by Andrés Bonifacio and Magdalo led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Conflict between the two revolutionary leaders ended in the execution or assassination of Bonifacio by Aguinaldo’s soldiers.

In 1896 revolution began in the province of Cavite, and after the execution of Rizal that December, it spread throughout the major islands. Revolts broke out across Luzon, and in March 1897 the 28-year-old Emilio Aguinaldo became leader of the rebellion and achieved considerable success before a peace was patched up with Spain. By late 1897 the revolutionaries had been driven into the hills southeast of Manila. Aguinaldo negotiated an agreement with the Spanish that in exchange for financial compensation and a promise of reform in the Philippines, Aguinaldo and his generals would accept exile in Hong Kong. He agreed to a treaty with the Pact of Biak na Bato and with his fellow revolutionaries was exiled to Hong Kong. The rebel leaders departed, and the Philippine Revolution was temporarily at an end. The peace was short-lived, however, for neither side honored its agreements, and a new revolution was made when in April 1898 the Spanish-American War broke out over Spain’s suppression of a rebellion in Cuba, after the USS Maine, sent to Cuba in connection with an attempt to arrange a peaceful resolution between Cuban independence ambitions and Spanish colonialism, was sunk in Havana harbor. The first in a series of U.S. victories occurred on May 1, 1898, when Commodore George Dewey and his U.S. Asiatic Squadron annihilated the Spanish Pacific fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay.

Aguinaldo arranged with U.S. authorities to return to the Philippines and help  in the war. He landed on May 19, rallied his revolutionaries, and began liberating towns south of Manila.

In the mean time rebels had encircled the Spanish in Manila and with the support of Dewey’s squadron in Manila Bay would have conquered the Spanish. But Dewey was waiting for U.S. ground troops who began landing in July and took over the Filipino positions surrounding Manila. By the time U.S. land forces had arrived, the Filipinos had taken control of the entire island of Luzon, except for the walled city of Intramuros Manila, which they were besieging. On June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo declared the independence of the Philippines in Kawit, Cavite, establishing the First Philippine Republic under Asia’s first democratic constitution. On August 8 the Spanish commander informed the United States that he would surrender the city if the US troops made the advance into the capital look like a battle, and if the Filipino rebels were kept out of the city. On August 13, the mock Battle of Manila was staged. The Americans kept the promise to keep the Filipinos out of the city.

As the Americans occupied Manila and planned peace negotiations with Spain, Aguinaldo convened a revolutionary assembly, the Malolos, in September. They drew up a democratic constitution, the first ever in Asia, and a government was formed with Aguinaldo as president in January 1899.

At the same time a German squadron under Admiral Diedrichs arrived in Manila and declared that if the United States did not grab the Philippines as a colonial possession, Germany would. Since Spain and the U.S. ignored the Filipino representative, Felipe Agoncillo, during their negotiations in the Treaty of Paris, the Battle of Manila between Spain and the U.S. was alleged by some to be an attempt to exclude the Filipinos from the eventual occupation of Manila. Although there was substantial domestic opposition, the United States decided neither to return the Philippines to Spain, nor to allow Germany to take over the Philippines. Therefore, in addition to Guam and Puerto Rico, Spain was forced in the negotiations to hand over the Philippines to the U.S. in exchange for US$20 million, which the U.S. later claimed was a “gift” from Spain. The first Philippine Republic rebelled against the U.S. occupation, resulting in the Philippine-American War (1899–1913).

On February 4, the “Philippine Insurrection” began when Filipino rebels and U.S. troops skirmished inside American lines in Manila. Two days later, the U.S. Senate voted by one vote to ratify the Treaty of Paris with Spain. The Philippines were now a U.S. territory, acquired in exchange for that $20 million in compensation to the Spanish.

US Commonwealth

So eventually it was America that broke the Spaniard’s grip on the Philippines.

In response to the US takeover Aguinaldo launched a new revolt. The rebels turned to guerrilla warfare, and the U.S. Congress authorized the deployment of more troops to subdue them, so by the end of 1899 there were 65,000 U.S. troops in the Philippines. Anti-imperialists in the United States, such as Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, opposed U.S. annexation of the Philippines, but in November 1900 Republican incumbent William McKinley was reelected and the war continued.

On March 23, 1901, in a daring operation U.S. General Frederick Funston and a group of officers pretending to be prisoners surprised Aguinaldo in his stronghold in the Luzon village of Palanan and captured him. Aguinaldo took an oath of allegiance to the United States and called for an end to the rebellion although many of his followers fought on. During the next year U.S. forces gradually pacified the Philippines. In one infamous episode U.S. forces on the island of Samar retaliated against the massacre of a U.S. garrison by killing all men over the age of 10. Many women and younger children were also killed. General Jacob Smith who directed the atrocities was court-martialed and forced to retire for turning Samar, in his words, into a “howling wilderness.”

In 1902, an American civil government took over administration of the Philippines, and the three-year Philippine insurrection was declared to be at an end, although scattered resistance persisted for several years.

More than 4,000 Americans died suppressing the Philippines, more than 10 times the number killed in the Spanish-American War. Over 20,000 Filipinos soldiers were killed, and an unknown number of civilians perished.

The Americans were entrenched. They brought over their educational system, their legal system and planted the seeds of their own style of government.

In 1935 the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established with U.S. approval, and Manuel Quezon was elected the country’s first president. The status quo ended with the Japanese Occupation and it wasn’t until after the end of the Pacific war that the Philippines finally regained true independence. On July 4, 1946, full independence was granted to the Republic of the Philippines by the United States. It is one of the strongest democracies in Asia.


Reference material:

Barrows, David P.  A History of the Philippines. 1905

Bourne, Edward Gaylord  et al. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. Blair and Robertson. 1906.

Capistrano-Baker, Florina H. Philippine Ancestral Gold. Ayala Foundation. 2011.

Constantino, Renato. A Past Revisited. 2005.

Dampier, William. A New Voyage. 1697

Giraldez, Arturo. The Age of Trade. Manila galleons and the dawn of the global economy. Rowman and Littlefield. 2015

Mann, Charles C. 1493 How Europe’s discovery of the Americas revolutionised trade, ecology and life on earth. Granta. 2011.

Pigafetta, Antonio (translated R. A Skelton). Relation or statement of Magellan’s Voyage

Preston, Michael and Diana. A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The life of William Dampier. Explorer,  naturalist and buccaneer. Corgi. 2004.

Theroux, Paul. Fresh-Air Fiend. Hamish Hamilton.