Named after King Phillip II of Spain, the Philippines was the main outpost in Asia for Spain, which had the majority of its empire in the New World, particularly Peru and Mexico. The Philippines was visited by Magellan— an "able and ruthless" Portugese soldier-adventurer-seaman with battle-lame leg employed by the Spanish — and was formally claimed by the Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (also spelled Legaspi). Over the years missionaries introduced Christianity and tried to unify people, who had different languages and ethnic backgrounds, under a central government based in Manila.

The Philippines was an important acquisition for Spain, which at the time was competing with Portugal for control of the major trade routes from Asia and the New World to Europe. Philippine colonial history was often influenced more by events in Europe than in the archipelago. Portugal's claim on the islands was halted when Spain annexed Portugal in 1580. Holland declared independence from Spain in 1581, which led the growth of Dutch influence in Spice islands and the Dutch East Indies south of the Philippines. Spanish in the Philippines fought off attacks from the Dutch and the English. Manila was briefly occupied by the British, from 1762 to 1764.

The Spanish left the Philippines with an education system, the Roman Catholic religion, the Roman alphabet, private ownership of land, the Gregorian calendar, egalitarian Christian doctrine, unequal distribution of wealth, global consciousness, and various New World plants such as cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes.

Ferdinand Magellan was the first European recorded to have landed in the Philippines. He arrived in March 1521 during his circumnavigation of the globe. He claimed land for the king of Spain but was killed by a local chief. Following several more Spanish expeditions, the first permanent settlement was established in Cebu in 1565. After defeating a local Muslim ruler, the Spanish set up their capital at Manila in 1571, and they named their new colony after King Philip II of Spain. In doing so, the Spanish sought to acquire a share in the lucrative spice trade, develop better contacts with China and Japan, and gain converts to Christianity. Only the third objective was eventually realized. As with other Spanish colonies, church and state became inseparably linked in carrying out Spanish objectives. Several Roman Catholic religious orders were assigned the responsibility of Christianizing the local population. The civil administration built upon the traditional village organization and used traditional local leaders to rule indirectly for Spain. Through these efforts, a new cultural community was developed, but Muslims (known as Moros by the Spanish) and upland tribal peoples remained detached and alienated. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Trade in the Philippines centered around the “Manila galleons,” which sailed from Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico (New Spain) with shipments of silver bullion and minted coin that were exchanged for return cargoes of Chinese goods, mainly silk textiles and porcelain. There was no direct trade with Spain and little exploitation of indigenous natural resources. Most investment was in the galleon trade. But, as this trade thrived, another unwelcome element was introduced—sojourning Chinese entrepreneurs and service providers. *

Magellan in the Philippines

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on Homonhon Islet (Limasawa Island), near Samar Island in the present-day Philippines, at dawn on March 16, 1521. He claimed the islands for Spain, named them the Islas del Poniente (Western Islands) and held the Philippines first Catholic mass on April 14, 1521 on Cebu, where he planted a cross on the spit where a local ruler was converted along with the 800 of his people. Local believed that the cross possessed magical powers and over the centuries that followed took pieces of it

Magellan spent about a month in the Philippines. He was welcomed to the islands of Samar, Leyte, and Limasawa. Within a week of arriving on Cebu he converted 400 islanders including Humabon and Juana, the island's king and queen. Professor Susan Russell wrote: “Magellan's arrival in Cebu represents the first attempt by Spain to convert Filipinos to Roman Catholicism. The story goes that Magellan met with Chief Humabon of the island of Cebu, who had an ill grandson. Magellan (or one of his men) was able to cure or help this young boy, and in gratitude Chief Humabon allowed 800 of his followers to be 'baptized' Christian in a mass baptism. [Source: Professor Susan Russell, Department of Anthropology, Center for Southeast Asian Studies Northern Illinois University,]

Magellan was killed on Mactan Island off Cebu Island by a local leader named Lapu Lapu. A plaque on Mactan reads: "Here Lapu Lapu and his men repulsed the Spanish invaders, killing their leader, Ferdinand Magellan, Thus Lapu Lapu became the first Filipino to have repelled European aggression." Of the 300 or so men that left Portugal with Magellan on his ship only 14 made it back alive.

Lapu Lapu is an enduring cultural hero in the Philippines. His defeat of Magellan has been immortalized in movies, comic books and popular songs. Every year the triumphant defeat of the Spanish is reenacted on the island of Mactan. Russell wrote: Lapu Lapu’s “resistance to Western intrusion makes this story an important part of the nationalist history of the Philippines. Many historians have claimed that the Philippines peacefully 'accepted' Spanish rule; the reality is that many insurgencies and rebellions continued on small scales in different places through the Hispanic colonial period.”


Ferdinand Magellan was the leader of a group of sailors that the circled the globe in the early 15th century, an amazing feat that perhaps will not be equaled until a human being lands on Mars. Magellan himself did not complete the trip. Of the 300 or so men and five ships that left Portugal with Magellan only one ship and 14 men made it back alive. [Source: Most information in thsi article is from a National Geographic article by Alan Villiers, June 1976 and the book "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

"No other had so much natural wit, boldness, or knowledge," is how one man described Ferdinand Magellan, an "able and ruthless" Portugese soldier-adventurer-seaman with battle-lame leg. "Magellan's feat," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "by any measure—moral, intellectual, or physical—would excel even that of Gama or Columbus or Vespucci. he would face rougher seas, negotiate more treacherous passages and find his way across a broader ocean.”

Compared to what Magellan accomplished, Columbus’s journey was a ride to the park. Columbus followed sunny trade winds to the West Indies and followed the prevailing westerlies back to Europe. Magellan on the other hand traveled about ten times the distance Columbus did: through the crushing winds in the furious fifties latitudes of southern South America and icy seas of north of Antarctica, then traveled across the breadth of the Pacific (a distance about four times what Columbus traveled across the Atlantic), having absolutely no idea where land was or where he was going. Once he achieved that feat he was only halfway home. His objective was cloves and other cooking spices in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands.

Magellan's Early Life

Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) was born to a noble family in a part of Portugal with a climate described as "nine months of winter and three months of hell." He was orphaned at an early age and grew up as a page in the Portuguese court at a time when Dias rounded the cape of Good Hope and de Gama (both Portugese) made it to India.

In 1505, at the age of 25, he sailed to India where he served under Alfonos Albuquerque, founder of the Portuguese empire in Asia, and explored as far east as the Spice Islands (Moluccas) in present-day Indonesia. When he returned to Portugal in 1512 he had attained the rank of captain. He was lamed for life while fighting the Moors in Northern Africa and later fell out of favor with Portugese court and moved onto to Spain.

To gain support for his plan to sail west to the West Indies by locating a westward passage at the southern tip of South America, Magellan married the daughter of Portuguese expatriate who made decisions regarding Spanish voyages to the west. The union helped seal a deal that gave Magellan and a partner one twentieth of all the profits of their voyage and their heirs would be given the governorship to all new lands discovered. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Purpose of Magellan's Voyage

The main reason Magellan circled the globe was to determine where the dividing line between Spain and Portugal— set up by the Treaty of Tordesillas—was. The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World between Portugal and Spain. Signed in 1494, the agreement gave Spain all the land to the west of a meridian 370 degrees west of the Cape Verde Islands (off Africa), and the land to the east to Portugul. This agreement is why Brazil ended up being Portuguese and the rest of Latin America became a Spanish possesion.

The line dividing Spanish and Portuguese territory ran 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands on the Atlantic side (46°longitude) and 134° longitude on the Asian side, but nobody knew exactly where that was. With the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529, the Portuguese payed Emperor Charles V of Spain 350,000 ducats of gold (a huge sum of money at that time) to gain possession sole of the Spice Islands. When chronometers were invented they showed that the land was in fact on the Portuguese side anyway. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Like Columbus, Magellan was also seeking a western route to Spice Islands in Asia, but by this time he knew there was continent in the way and he was determined to get around it. The expedition was payed by the Spanish king (the Portuguese king had refused to back him). Most of the crew was Spanish. Two-and-a-half years before he set off Magellan himself changed his nationality to Spanish.

Magellan's Ship and Crew

Magellan sailed with 300 men and five heavily armed but "barely seaworthy" ships (varying in size between 75 and 125 tons). The largest ship was smaller than the Mayflower, which in turn was smaller than a modern tug-boat.

The ships were were supplied trading goods such as brass bracelets, 500 looking glasses, bolts of velvet, 2,000 pounds of quicksilver and 20,000 hawkbells to barter for spices. Unknown to Magellan was that his suppliers had short-changed him on supplies. He didn't realize until he was about to go through the Straits of Magellan that he had been given six months of supplies instead of the year and a half he agreed to.

Magellan's 250 man crew consisted mainly of foreigners— Portuguese, Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks and Englishmen—because Spaniards were reluctant to embark on such a risky voyage with a foreign captain. The three Spanish captains who accompanied Magellan were suspicious of him from the start and they may have made plans to make sure he didn’t finish the voyage. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Most of the details we know about the voyage are from Magellan's log and a journal by one of his crew members, Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian gentleman-adventurer who "came along for the ride." His account of the voyage is one of most of the insightful and vividly written reports in the Age of Discovery. Luckily he was one of the 18 men that finished the voyage. "I am determined," the Italian Knight of Rhodes wrote, "to experience and to go...that it might be told that I made the voyage and saw with my eyes the things hereafter written and that I might win a famous name."

Magellan's Battle in the Philippines

On present-day Mactan island off the island of Cebu a local king pretended to covert to Christianity to enlist Magellan's crew "to fight and burn the houses of Mactan to make the King of Mactan kiss the hands of the King of Cebu...because he did not send a bushel of rice and a goat as tribute."

Pigafetta wrote: the "lord of the aforesaid island...sent one his sons to present the captain-general two goats, saying he would keep all promises with him, but because of the lord...Cilapulapu (who refused to obey the King of Spain) he had not been able to...And he begged that on the following night he [Magellan] would send but one boat with some men to fight."

In the fight that ensued 60 armor-clad Europeans were pitted against 2,000 near-naked Mactanians. Pigafetta wrote: "The captain-general resolved to go there with three boats...[with]...sixty men armed with corselets and helmets...and we so managed that we arrived...The captain...[told]...the lord of the place and his people that, if they agree to obey the King of Spain and recognize the Christian king as their lord, and give us tribute, they should all be friends. But if they acted otherwise they should learn by experience how our lances pierced. They replied they had lances of bamboo hardened in the fire and stakes dried in the fire, and that we were to attack them when we would...

"When day came, we leapt into the water, being forty-nine men...the other eleven men remained to guard the boats... Immediately they perceived us, they came about is with loud voices and cries, two divisions on our flanks, and one around and before us. When the captain saw this he divided us in two, and thus we began to fight. the hackbutmen and crossbowmen fired at long range for nearly half an hour, but in vain [our shafts] merely passing through their shields, made of strips of wood unbound, and their arms...When those people saw this...they fired so many arrows and lances...we could hardly defend ourselves.

"Then they came so furiously against us that they sent a poisoned arrow through the captain's leg. Wherefore he ordered us to withdraw slowly...And those people shot at no other place but our legs, for the latter were bare...Our large pieces of artillery, which were in the ships could not help us, because they were firing at too long a range...And the followed us, hurling poisoned arrows...very close to [Magellan's] head. “

Magellan's Death in the Philippines

Pigafetta wrote: "But as a good captain and a knight he still stood fast...fighting thus for more than an hour. And as he refused to retire further, an Indian threw a bamboo lance in his face, and immediately killed him with his lance, leaving it in his body...All those people threw themselves on him, and one of them with a large javelin...thrust it into his left leg, whereby he fell downward. On this all at once rushed upon him will lances of iron and of bamboo."

"They slew our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Then, seeing him dead, we wounded made the best of our way to the boats, which were already pulling away. But for him, not one of us in the boats would have been saved, for while he was fighting the rest retired."

Seeing that there was no chance in rescuing anything other than his dead body the men fled to their boats, and no European ever laid on eyes on Magellan again. The men tried to trade as "much merchandise as they desired" for the bodies, but the islanders refused. "They intended to keep him as a perpetual memorial."

Santo Niño, Magellan’s Gift and the Oldest Religious Image in the Philippines

The image of the Santo Niño is the oldest religious image in the Philippines. The wooden image, made by Flemish artisans, was brought to the Philippines by Magellan in 1521, just like the Magellan cross. Magellan gave the Santo Niño (the Child Jesus) image to Queen Juana of Cebu as a baptismal gift. [Source: Angels in Stone by Pedro Galende,]

Forty-four years later, in 1565, a large part of Cebu was destroyed by a fire. The fire was set on purpose by the Spaniards as a punishment for hostile activities of the Cebu king Cebuanos. In one of the burned houses, a Spanish soldier found the image of Santo Niño. Remarkably it was unscratched! Since then, the miraculous image has been treated by the Cebuanos as its patron saint. At present, the miraculous image is kept in the Parish convent. A replica, adorned with gold and precious stones and enshrined in glass, is housed inside the Basilica Minor del Santo in present-day Cebu City.

The church was built near the place where the Santo Niño was found in the burned house. On this place the Spaniards built three churches. The first two churches were built out of wood and nipa. These burned down. The present church dates was built 1735. In 1965 it was given the name "Basilica Minor del Santo Niño".

Spain Sets Up Shop in the Philippines

After Magellan’s voyage, Spain sent four more expeditions. Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, commander of the fourth expedition, renamed the islands after the heir to the Spanish throne, Philip, Charles I's son. Philip, as King Philip II, sent a fresh fleet led by the Spanish Conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to the islands in the mid-16th century with strict orders to colonise and Catholicise. In 1565 an agreement was signed by Legazpi and Tupas, the defeated chief of Cebu, which made every Filipino answerable to Spanish law. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Legaspi captained a small fleet of ships led by the “San Pedro” that arrived at Cebu in the Philippines in late April 1865. One of his ships made the critical discovery of the route from the Philippines to Mexico. Other Spaniards, including Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, had made it to the Philippines from Mexico but were unable to get back.

Legazpi arrived with 400 settlers and a group of friars. Some say the Philippines was formally established as a Spanish colony when Legazpi and Sikatuna, the chief on the island of Bohol, signed a treaty with their own blood. Legazpi established the first permanent settlement, called San Miguel, on Cebu. He reached Panay in 1569 and Manila in 1571 and died 1572.

According to Lonely Planet: “Legazpi, his soldiers and a band of Augustinian monks wasted no time in establishing a settlement where Cebu City now stands; Fort San Pedro is a surviving relic of the era. First called San Miguel, then Santisimo Nombre de Jesus, this fortified town hosted the earliest Filipino-Spanish Christian weddings and, critically, the baptisms of various Cebuano leaders. Panay Island's people were beaten into submission soon after, with Legazpi establishing a vital stronghold there (near present-day Roxas) in 1569. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

In 1571, realizing that the could not sustain their colony in Cebu in the central Philippines, the Spaniards moved north and began building a fortified city on Manila Bay, which has world class harbor and is accessible to the open Pacific Ocean and Asia. The city quickly attracted merchants who made a major trading center.

Why the Spanish Took Over the the Philippines So Easily

The Spanish and Portuguese were able to establish their large empires in Asia because they encountered virtually no resistance. The Sultans in Malaysia and Indonesia were easy to overcome, Filipinos were just tribal farmers, and the Monghols in India didn't have much of a navy. The Portuguese and Spanish established themselves by building forts and trading out of them. The Dutch later moved in and took possession of many of the Portuguese forts by force, which in turn were taken away from them by the English. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

"Portuguese galleons," historian K.N. Chaudhuri told Severy, "maximized the advantages of Europe's gunpowder revolution and artillery. With an added deck and gunports, the galleon became a floating fortress and floating warehouse." [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Professor Susan Russell wrote: At the time the Spanish arrived “ almost nothing was known of the Philippines, and so our sources of information about pre-Hispanic societies in the country date from the early period of Spanish contact. Most Philippine communities, with the exception of the Muslim sultanates in the Sulu archipelago and Mindanao, were fairly small without a great deal of centralized authority. Authority was wielded by a variety of individuals, including 1) headmen, or datu; 2) warriors of great military prowess; and 3) individuals who possessed spiritual power or magical healing abilities. [Source: Professor Susan Russell, Department of Anthropology, Center for Southeast Asian Studies Northern Illinois University,]

The absence of centralized power meant that a small number of Spaniards were able to convert a large number of Filipinos living in politically autonomous units more easily than they could have, say, converted people living in large, organized, complex kingdoms such as those Hinduized or (later) Theravada Buddhist-influenced kingdoms in mainland Southeast Asia and on the island of Java in Indonesia. The Spanish were unsuccessful in converting Muslim Sultanates to Christianity, and in fact warred with Muslim Filipinos throughout their 300 year colonial rule from 1521 - 1898. Nor did they successfully conquer certain highland areas, such the Luzon highlands, where a diverse array of ethno-linguistic groups used their remote, difficult mountainous terrain to successfully avoid colonization.

Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance)

Our Lady of Guidance (Spanish: Nuestra Señora de Guia) is a 16th-century Roman Catholic image of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception that is widely venerated by Filipino Roman Catholics. Considered to be a form of Black Madonna, the wooden statue is considered the oldest artistic depiction of Mary in the Philippines, and is believed to have been originally brought to the islands by Ferdinand Magellan (along with Santo Niño de Cebú) in the early 16th century. Locally venerated as patroness of navigators and travellers, the image is enshrined in the Nuestra Señora de Guia Archdiocesan Parish in Ermita, City of Manila. The venerated image is often framed the Pandan leaves associated with her primeval discovery by early Filipino pagans. [Source: Wikipedia]

Nuestra Señora de Guia is regarded as the Patroness of Overseas Filipino Workers. Made of molave (Vitex cofassus) wood, the icon stands at about 50 centimetres, and is characterised by dark skin and Chinese facial features. Its head has a wig of long, light brown hair and is dressed in both a manto and a stylised tapis, the traditional wraparound skirt of pre-Hispanic Filipino women. Among its regalia are a marshal's baton; a set of jewels given by Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Rufino Santos in 1960; and a golden crown donated by Pope Paul VI during his visit to Manila Cathedral on 16 May 1971. When the Shrine celebrates the image's feast every 19 May, it prohibits the original statue from being borne in procession in order to preserve it. A replica is instead brought out into the city streets for public veneration whilst the original remains ensconced in its glass alcove above the high altar.

According to the Anales de la Catedral de Manila, the crew of Miguel López de Legaspi discovered along the seaside of what is now Ermita a group of animist natives worshipping a statue of a female figure, later identified as the Virgin Mary. Later accounts claimed the statue was brought by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and was given as a gift to a chieftain of Cebu.[3] Local folklore meanwhile recounts the Spaniards witnessing natives venerate the statue, which was placed on a trunk surrounded by pandan plants. This is remembered today by the placement of real or imitation pandan leaves around the image's base as one of its iconic attributes. The statue is notable for her narrow, almond-shaped eyes, which some consider evidence of a Chinese origin for the statue.

On 19 May 1571 the indigenous kings Rajah Sulaiman III and Rajah Matanda ceded the Kingdom of Maynila to the Spanish, with Legaspi co-consecrating the city to Saint Pudentiana. In 1578, Phillip II of Spain issued a royal decree invoking Our Lady of Guidance to be "sworn patroness" of Manila, making her the city's titular patroness. The statue was initially enshrined at Manila Cathedral until 1606, when the original parish compound was built. Called La Hermita ("The Hermitage"), it was constructed using bamboo, nipa, and molave wood. It was later rebuilt with cement but was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1810.

Spain’s Battle with Islam in the Philippines

The Spanish were unsuccessful in converting Muslim Sultanates to Christianity, and in fact warred with Muslim Filipinos throughout their 300 year colonial rule from 1521 - 1898. Legaspi conquered a Muslim Filipino settlement in Manila in 1570. Islam had been present in the southern Philippines since some time between the 10th and 12th century. It slowly spread north throughout the archipelago, particularly in coastal areas. Had it not been for Spanish intervention, the Philippines would likely have been a mostly Muslim area. [Source: Professor Susan Russell, Department of Anthropology, Center for Southeast Asian Studies Northern Illinois University,]

According to Lonely Planet: ““The indigenous islanders - who by tradition were loath to work together anyway - were no match for the Spanish and their firearms. Spain's greatest challenge came from an old enemy - Islam. To Spain's horror (having recently booted out the Moors at home), the Muslims had a big head start: Islamic missionaries from Malacca had established towns in Mindoro and Luzon almost a century before the Spanish arrived. Legazpi finally succeeded in taking the strategic Muslim settlement of Maynilad (now Manila) in 1571, hastily proclaiming it the capital and building over the kuta (fort) of Rajah Sulayman. This was eventually to become Fort Santiago. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

So began a 300-year-long religious war that still smoulders in Mindanao, the spiritual home of Islam in the Philippines. The Spanish recruited newly Christianised Filipinos to help fight the Moros (as Muslim Filipinos were dubbed), many of whom earned a violent living as pirates. Meanwhile, Spain was courting the Chinese through trade. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain's galleons - many of them built in Cavite near Manila - also specialised in taking spices, silk, porcelain and gold to the New World, and returning with Mexican silver. Moro pirates dodged many a cannonball to claim a share of these riches. “

Introduction of Christianity to the Philippines

Initially, the primary goal of the Spanish in the Philippines was to convert the Filipinos to Christianity. One Jesuit priest wrote, “Lord Philip II...said that for one sole monastery in the Philippines in which the Holy Name of God was conserved, he would expend all the revenues of the kingdoms.”

The Spanish colonizers introduced Roman Catholicism to Luzon and the Visayas, but were unsuccessful in Mindanao, where Muslims staved off Spanish efforts. Catholicism caught n remarkably quick and Filipinos became passionate Catholics.

The relatively peaceful conquest of the Philippines by the Spanish in 1573 is sometimes “credited to the surviving spirit of Las Casas." So as not to repeat the mistakes the Spanish made in Latin America, Philip II ordered his soldiers, administrators and religious zealots not to brutalize the local people. Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566), a Spaniard who born in Seville who came to the New World as a conquistador in 1502, was most influential early supporter of the cause of Indian rights. He acquired his first slave as a university student at Salamance, Spain and later used slaves to run a mine and his own estate in Cuba. He continued to own slaves after he took the holy orders in 1512 and it wasn't until 1514, when he was preparing a sermon, that he suddenly became awakened to his wrong-doing when he read in the Bible: "he that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous, and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted." After this experience he was a changed man. He was convinced that "everything done to the Indians thus far was unjust and tyrannical" and decided at the age of 40 to devote is life to "the justice of those Indian peoples, and to condemn the robbery, evil and injustice committed against them."

Spanish Missionaries in the Philippines

Different missionary movements within the Catholic Church moved into different parts of the Philippines. By the mid 17th century the Augustinians had settled in southern and western Luzon and on Panay and Cebu islands. The Dominicans settled in northern Luzon. The Franciscans in southern Luzon and the Jesuits were on Leyte, Bohol, Negros and Marinduque.

David Gutierrez wrote in the History of the Order of St. Augustine: “The period between about 1500 and 1750 brought a dramatic change in world history. During this time, Christianity became the first religion to spread around the world. Why did this happen? One reason was the energy unleashed by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. In particular, much Catholic missionary work grew out of the Counter-Reformation. Religious Orders were dedicated to making converts to Catholicism. The second major reason for the spread of Christianity was the Age of Exploration. By the 1500s, Europeans were travelling by sea to almost every part of the globe. Missionaries followed the European conquerors, traders, and colonists. [Source: David Gutierrez, History of the Order of St. Augustine, August 9, 2012]

The power of religious orders remained one of the great constants, over the centuries, of Spanish colonial rule. Even in the late nineteenth century, the friars of the Augustinian, Dominican, and Franciscan orders conducted many of the executive and control functions of government on the local level. They were responsible for education and health measures, kept the census and tax records, reported on the character and behavior of individual villagers, supervised the selection of local police and town officers, and were responsible for maintaining public morals and reporting incidences of sedition to the authorities. Contrary to the principles of the church, they allegedly used information gained in confession to pinpoint troublemakers. Given the minuscule number of Spanish living outside the capital even in the nineteenth century, the friars were regarded as indispensable instruments of Spanish rule that contemporary critics labeled a "friarocracy" (frialocracia). [Source: Library of Congress]

Augustinians Establish Themselves in the Philippines

David Gutierrez wrote in the History of the Order of St. Augustine: “In the Order of St. Augustine in the 16th century, it was the Augustinian Province of Castile that aggressively moved and participated in the missionary activity of the Church. In the year 1527, when Juan Gallego was elected as Provincial of the said circumscription, he took the initiative to promote missionary activity. For this reason he was also known as the creator of the missionary ideal in the Order. Though he was tasked to lead the first Augustinian missionary to Mexico, he was not able to carry this out for he died in 1534. [Source: David Gutierrez, History of the Order of St. Augustine, August 9, 2012 =]

“After some time of studies and application to obtain the necessary permission, seven religious men (Augustinians) were appointed to initiate this new endeavour. They were “all men of great intelligence and talent and almost all of recognized holiness.” They embarked at Seville on March 3, 1533 and arrived in Mexico on June 7 of the same year where they were welcomed as guests by the Dominicans for more than a month until they had their own house. Mexico served as a base of operations for missionaries in this century, and what have been mentioned about evangelizing, humanitarian and cultural work in Mexico also applies to the Augustinian missions in Latin America and the Philippines. =

“On first attempt on November 1, 1542, the Augustinians travelled from Mexico to the Philippine Islands. They stayed for a short time and did not establish any missions at that time. On September 24, 1559, King Philip of Spain wrote a letter to Andres de Urdaneta, a former captain in his father’s service and later an Augustinian friar, asking him to take part in the expedition which was to sail from Mexico “to discover the islands of the setting of the sun.” The King added: “according to the great knowledge which you say you have about the things of that land, and understanding as you do about navigation, and being a good cosmographer, it would be of great importance that you should set out in those aforesaid ships, to see what you may discover for your expedition and for the service of our Lord.” With this letter, the king sent another to the Provincial of the Augustinians in Mexico informing him of the content of the letter to Urdaneta. The king also expressed his wish that the Provincial send other Augustinians along with Urdaneta, that they might start Christianizing the islands that they would discover. Thus, the first five famous Augustinians joined the expedition and set sail for the Orient. =

“They all arrived to the island of Cebu on April 27, 1565. On May 5, they began the construction of the first foundation which the missionaries dedicated to the Child Jesus, in honor of the statue of our Saviour which Pigaffeta, the historian of Magellan’s expedition, had given to the ruler of Cebu and his wife in 1521, and which the Augustinians found upon their arrival. As to date, the Augustinians have been in the Philippines for 470 years. Jürgen Moltmann once said: “Historical awareness differentiates between the present past and the past present, and puts us in the position to discover the future in the past, to pick up past possibilities again to link them with the present future.” =

'Christianization' Strategies Employed by the Spanish in the Philippines

Professor Susan Russell wrote: “In little more than a century, most lowland Filipinos were converted to Roman Catholicism. There are a number of reasons why Spanish missionaries were successful in this attempt: 1) Mass baptism - the initial practice of baptizing large numbers of Filipinos at one time enabled the initial conversion to Christianity. Otherwise, there is no way that such a small number of Spanish friars, or Catholic priests, could have accomplished this goal. It is said that many Filipinos associated baptism with their own indigenous 'healing rituals', which also rely on the symbolism of holy water — very typical of Southeast Asian societies. [Source: Professor Susan Russell, Department of Anthropology, Center for Southeast Asian Studies Northern Illinois University, ]

“2) Reduccion policies - in areas where Filipinos lived scattered across the landscape in small hamlets, the Spanish military employed a resettlement policy that they had used successful in Central and Latin America. This policy was called reduccion, and essentially meant a forced relocation of small, scattered settlements into one larger town. The policy was designed for the convenience of administration of the Spanish colony's population, a way for a small number of armed Spanish constabulary to control more easily the movements and actions of a large number of Filipinos. It was also designed to enable Spain to collect taxes from their Christianized converts. Throughout Spanish rule, Christianized Filipinos were forced to pay larger taxes than indios, or native, unChristianized peoples. The reduccion policy also made it easier for a single Spanish Catholic friar to 'train' Filipinos in the basic principles of Christianity. In reality, the policy was successful in some areas but impossible to enforce. Spanish archives are full of exasperated colonial officials complaining about how such settlements were 'all but abandoned' in many cases after only a few weeks.

“3) Attitude of the Spanish clergy in the early phase - Spanish friars were forced to learn the native language of the peoples they sought to convert. Without schools that trained people in Spanish, the Spanish friars had no choice but to say Christian mass and otherwise communicate in the vernacular languages of the Philippines. There are over 200 native languages now; it is unknown how many existed in the beginning of Spanish rule. In the first half, or 150 years of Spanish rule, friars often supported the plight of local peoples over the abuses of the Spanish military. In the late Spanish period, in contrast, Spanish priests enraged many Filipinos for failing to a) allow otherwise 'trained' Filipino priests to ascend into the higher echelons of the Catholic Church hierarchy in the Philippines; b) return much of the land they had claimed as 'friar estates' to the Philippine landless farmers; and c) recognizing nascent and emerging Filipino demands for more autonomy and a greater say in how the colony was to be managed.

4) Adaptation of Christianity to the local context - Filipinos were mostly animistic in their religious beliefs and practices prior to Spanish intervention. In most areas they revered the departed spirits of their ancestors through ritual offerings, and also believed in a variety of nature spirits. Such beliefs were central to healing practices, harvest rites, and to maintaining a cosmological balance between this world and the afterlife. Spirits were invisible, but also responsible for both good and bad events. Spirits could be blamed for poor harvests, illness, and bad luck generally. Yet Filipinos believed that proper ritual feasting of the spirits would appease them, and result in good harvests, healthy recovery of the ill, and the fertility of women.

The legacy of Spanish conquest and colonial rule in the Philippines, as is true of all colonial attempts to 'master' or manage indigenous populations, is mixed. On the one hand, Spanish clergy were very destructive of local religious practices. They systematically destroyed indigenous holy places and 'idols', or statues and representations of indigenous spirits, gods or goddesses. They also tried to stamp out all examples of native scripts and literature for fear that Filipinos were using exotic symbols to foment rebellion. The Spanish also imposed new 'moralities' on Filipinos by discouraging slave holding, polygamy, gambling, and alcohol consumption that were a natural part of the indigenous social and religious practices. At the same time, Hispanic rule left a legacy of syncretic, rather than totally destructive, elements. Spanish clergy introduced some very European features of Catholic practice that blended well with indigenous ritual practices. Spanish Catholic priests relied on vivid, theatrical presentations of stories of the Bible in order to help Filipinos understand the central messages of Christianity. Today, this colonial legacy lives on whenever Filipino Catholics re-enact through religious dramas the passion of Christ, or Christ's martyrdom, during Holy Week.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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