The Spanish Philippines

   by Charles Kimball

Spain never forgot the Philippines, which was conveniently close to China and full of potential converts to Catholicism, no small matter when the Protestant Reformation was taking away millions of parishioners back home. A colony set up on Mindanao in 1542 only lasted long enough to give the islands their present name, after Spain's future King Philip II. More successful was the expedition that arrived in 1565, led by a Mexican bureaucrat named Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. He first conquered Guam, then went on to the Philippines, where at Cebu he gained the submission of the natives by bombarding their village with cannon.

Unfortunately Legazpi had nearly as much trouble getting along with the Cebuanos as Magellan did. When he became convinced that Cebu was not a secure place for a permanent capital, he packed his bags and moved the colony, first to the western island of Panay, then to Manila (1571), where he ousted the local sultan, Suleiman, and took control of Manila's splendid harbor. Legazpi's successors were placed under the authority of the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), effectively making the Philippines a colony of a colony.

Spain was in the Philippines to stay, but other European nations tried to gain a foothold there. Portugal disputed and threatened the Spanish colony until 1580, when King Philip II also became king of Portugal. In 1579 Sir Francis Drake came and attacked Spanish shipping. In the early 17th century the Dutch raided the islands, capturing not only Spanish ships but also Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese traders visiting the archipelago. The Dutch didn't lose interest in the Philippines until the more lucrative Spice Islands came under their control.

After Legazpi came the missionaries, who went all over the archipelago until they had converted 85% of the population, making the Philippines the only Christian nation in Asia. They made little headway in the south, however, since Islam was already established there. The "Moros" (a name derived from the Spanish word for Moors or North Africans) declared a jihad, or holy war, raiding Christian coastal communities and stubbornly defending their territory against every outside authority. The Moros have been a persistent problem since that time, struggling for independence against every government ruling the Philippines, including the present-day one.

Spain controlled the economy of the Philippines very strictly. The only commerce allowed between the Philippines and other Spanish colonies was a single galleon, which made a round trip voyage between Acapulco and Manila every year. Colonial officials did not develop the local economy; instead they made a living by loading the Manila galleon with silks, porcelain, and other imports from China, paid for with Mexican silver. Since demand for space on the Manila galleon always exceeded supply, merchants were only allowed to send cargo on the westbound trip if they went with it as passengers, thereby running the risk of not getting a ticket for the return trip later. The system was terribly inefficient, and loss of a galleon brought a year of destitution, but the Manila galleon trade continued its lonely rhythm for the next two and a half centuries.(1)

Some thirty to forty Chinese junks came to Manila around March of each year. The cargoes they brought included hardware, nails, pots & pans, gunpowder, saltpeter, furniture, jewels, and all kinds of foods. The merchandise that did not go into the Manila galleon for its eastbound voyage was eagerly bought by the residents of Manila. Some of the Chinese sailors and passengers remained behind when their ships went home, and they formed a Chinese community that grew rapidly; by 1600 there were about eight thousand Chinese in Manila, living alongside a few hundred Spaniards. Most of them became barbers, tailors, shoemakers, masons, painters, weavers, blacksmiths and other skilled workers, forming the middle class of Philippine society. To avoid paying the taxes levied on aliens and non-Christians, they took Filipina wives and/or were baptized. They sometimes joined the Church in disturbingly large groups; on one occasion, four hundred of them were baptized in one day. In 1603 a Chinese riot caused the Spaniards and Filipinos to panic; before it was over, 23,000 Chinese were massacred. The remaining Chinese fled the city, causing an economic slump that lasted until Spain reluctantly invited them back. Similar incidents happened later in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spaniards could not do without Chinese services, but the size and character of the Chinese community kept them in a state of constant apprehension.

- To give another example of the inefficiency involved, the winds and currents of the Pacific Ocean tended to push eastbound ships northward, so that a galleon returning to Mexico usually made landfall near Monterey or San Francisco. This meant more weeks of hardship as the ship sailed down the barren California coast to Acapulco, but not until 1769 did Spain bother to settle California and give the Manila galleon rest stops on the final leg of its voyage.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball