The Spanish accomplished little in the Philippines. They introduced Catholicism, established a Walled City in Manila but ultimately they were disappointed because they couldn't find spices or gold (gold was only discovered in large quantities after the Americans arrived). The primary purpose of the Philippines was to trade New World silver for Chinese silk.

The Spanish were able to gain control of the coastal areas of the northern and central islands, but not the southern islands, where Islam was deeply rooted, and the jungle interior and highlands, where indigenous tribes, including headhunters, were able to repel Spanish incursions. The most high-status and affluent groups of people were Chinese entrepreneurs, lured by business opportunities, and Spanish officials. They intermarried with the local population, producing a new and distinctive culture.

The Philippines was administered by the Viceroyalty of New Spain in present-day Mexico but in many ways the Philippines was ruled by Catholic church. Most Filipinos had little contact with the Spanish other than through the church. Their acceptance of Christianity acted both to pacify the population and bond them with the Spaniards. The church also acted as an administrative body.

The Spanish introduced the idea of land holding to native people—many of whom previously had limited notions about private property—and took control of large swaths of land owned for centuries by native groups. This way many native Philippine people came to live on land that was owned by the Spanish or people with close ties to the Spanish and they became tenants or paid laborers.


Life in the Spanish Philippines

Manila was the heart of the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Much of the international trade conducted by Spain in Asia was linked to Manila somehow and most of the rich and powerful had their homes here.

The Spaniards in Manila lived in the walled city of Intramuros. The governor, administartors, friars, merchants, military officials, priests and soldiers from Spain and some of their families all resided within the walls. Outside the walls was a a polyglot community of Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and other foreigners. Those that profited the most from trade and other economic activities, primarily the Spanish elite, wore fine silks, traveled around un elegant coaches, wore gold chains and gem-stubbed rings and were looked after by an army of servants.

What went on the Philippines was similar to what happened in Latin America. The Spanish seized land and established huge plantations which made rich men out of landowners. Some of the indigenous people mixed with the Spanish, some were overwhelmed by them. Both groups adopted Catholicism.

Other groups like the Igorot resisted. The Spanish burned Igorot villages, destroyed their crops and raped their women, yet in 350 years of Spanish occupation the Igorot were never conquered.

The Spanish were not as harsh on the local people of the Philippines as they were in Latin America but they did make an effort to stamp out traditions and customs they regarded as “works of the devil.” Large Numbers of people were untouched by the Spanish occupation.

Friarocracy of the Philippines

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). *

Controversies over visitation and secularization were persistent themes in Philippine church history. Visitation involved the authority of the bishops of the church hierarchy to inspect and discipline the religious orders, a principle laid down in church law and practiced in most of the Catholic world. The friars were successful in resisting the efforts of the archbishop of Manila to impose visitation; consequently, they operated without formal supervision except that of their own provincials or regional superiors. Secularization meant the replacement of the friars, who came exclusively from Spain, with Filipino priests ordained by the local bishop. This movement, again, was successfully resisted, as friars through the centuries kept up the argument, often couched in crude racial terms, that Filipino priests were too poorly qualified to take on parish duties. Although church policy dictated that parishes of countries converted to Christianity be relinquished by the religious orders to indigenous diocesan priests, in 1870 only 181 out of 792 parishes in the islands had Filipino priests. The national and racial dimensions of secularization meant that the issue became linked with broader demands for political reform. *

The economic position of the orders was secured by their extensive landholdings, which generally had been donated to them for the support of their churches, schools, and other establishments. Given the general lack of interest on the part of Spanish colonials — clustered in Manila and dependent on the galleon trade — in developing agriculture, the religious orders had become by the eighteenth century the largest landholders in the islands, with their estates concentrated in the Central Luzon region. Land rents — paid often by Chinese mestizo inquilinos, who planted cash crops for export — provided them with the sort of income that enabled many friars to live like princes in palatial establishments. *

Central to the friars' dominant position was their monopoly of education at all levels and thus their control over cultural and intellectual life. In 1863 the Spanish government decreed that a system of free public primary education be established in the islands, which could have been interpreted as a threat to this monopoly. By 1867 there were 593 primary schools enrolling 138,990 students; by 1877 the numbers had grown to 1,608 schools and 177,113 students; and in 1898 there were 2,150 schools and over 200,000 students out of a total population of approximately 6 million. The friars, however, were given the responsibility of supervising the system both on the local and the national levels. The Jesuits were given control of the teacher-training colleges. Except for the Jesuits, the religious orders were strongly opposed to the teaching of modern foreign languages, including Spanish, and scientific and technical subjects to the indios (literally, Indians; the Spanish term for Filipinos). In 1898 the University of Santo Tomás taught essentially the same courses that it did in 1611, when it was founded by the Dominicans, twenty-one years before Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for publishing the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. *

The friarocracy seems to have had more than its share of personal irregularities, and the priestly vow of chastity often was honored in the breach. In the eyes of educated Filipino priests and laymen, however, most inexcusable was the friars' open attitude of contempt toward the people. By the late nineteenth century, their attitude was one of blatant racism. In the words of one friar, responding to the challenge of the ilustrados, "the only liberty the Indians want is the liberty of savages. Leave them to their cock-fighting and their indolence, and they will thank you more than if you load them down with old and new rights." *

China, Trade and the Philippines

The Spanish had initially hoped to turn the Philippines into another Spice Island but they soon found that the island’s soil, terrain and climate were not suited for growing spices. Mining opportunities did not present themselves as they did in Latin America. Trade was stubbled upon sort of by accident.

In 1571, the Spaniards rescued some Chinese sailors whose sampans sunk off the Philippines and helped them get back to China. The next year the grateful Chinese returned the favor in the form of a trading vessel filled with gifts of silk, porcelain and other Chinese goods. This ship was sent eastward and arrived in Mexico in 1573, and its cargo ultimately made it to Spain, where people liked what they saw and a demand for Chinese goods was born.

Manila became the center of a major trade network that funneled goods from Southeast Asia, Japan, Indonesia, India and especially China to Europe. Spain developed and maintained a monopoly over the transpacific trade route. The trade became the primary reason for the existence of the Philippines. Development of the archipelago was largely neglected.

The most important source of goods for the Spanish in the Philippines was China. For a while the Spaniards maintained a trading post on China but for the most part they relied on Chinese intermediaries to bring goods to Manila. About 30 or 40 junks, laden with goods arrived in the Philippines from China a year. Over time the Chinese not only dominated trade but also dominated many of the trades, such as shipbuilding, on which trade was based, and outnumbered the Spanish.

The Chinese were very enterprising, sometimes too much for their own good. A Spanish trader named Diego de Bobadilla wrote: “A Spaniard who lost his nose through a certain illness, sent for a Chinaman to make him one wood, in order to hide the deformity. The workman made him so good a nose that the Spaniard in great delight paid him munificently, giving him 20 escudos. The Chinaman, attracted by the ease with which he made that gain, loaded a fine boatload of wooden noses the next year and returned to Manila.”


Growth of Plantation Agriculture in the Philippines

By the late nineteenth century, three crops — tobacco, abaca, and sugar — dominated Philippine exports. The government monopoly on tobacco had been abolished in 1880, but Philippine cigars maintained their high reputation, popular throughout Victorian parlors in Britain, the European continent, and North America. Because of the growth of worldwide shipping, Philippine abaca, which was considered the best material for ropes and cordage, grew in importance and after 1850 alternated with sugar as the islands' most important export. Americans dominated the abaca trade; raw material was made into rope, first at plants in New England and then in the Philippines. Principal regions for the growing of abaca were the Bicol areas of southeastern Luzon and the eastern portions of the Visayan Islands. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Sugarcane had been produced and refined using crude methods at least as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century. The opening of the port of Iloilo on Panay in 1855 and the encouragement of the British vice consul in that town, Nicholas Loney (described by a modern writer as "a one-man whirlwind of entrepreneurial and technical innovation"), led to the development of the previously unsettled island of Negros as the center of the Philippine sugar industry, exporting its product to Britain and Australia. Loney arranged liberal credit terms for local landlords to invest in the new crop, encouraged the migration of labor from the neighboring and overpopulated island of Panay, and introduced stream-driven sugar refineries that replaced the traditional method of producing low-grade sugar in loaves. The population of Negros tripled. Local "sugar barons" — - the owners of the sugar plantations — became a potent political and economic force by the end of the nineteenth century. *

Chinese and Chinese Mestizos in the Philippines

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, deep-seated Spanish suspicion of the Chinese gave way to recognition of their potentially constructive role in economic development. Chinese expulsion orders issued in 1755 and 1766 were repealed in 1788. Nevertheless, the Chinese remained concentrated in towns around Manila, particularly Binondo and Santa Cruz. In 1839 the government issued a decree granting them freedom of occupation and residence. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, immigration into the archipelago, largely from the maritime province of Fujian on the southeastern coast of China, increased, and a growing proportion of Chinese settled in outlying areas. In 1849 more than 90 percent of the approximately 6,000 Chinese lived in or around Manila, whereas in 1886 this proportion decreased to 77 percent of the 66,000 Chinese in the Philippines at that time, declining still further in the 1890s. The Chinese presence in the hinterland went hand in hand with the transformation of the insular economy. Spanish policy encouraged immigrants to become agricultural laborers. Some became gardeners, supplying vegetables to the towns, but most shunned the fields and set themselves up as small retailers and moneylenders. The Chinese soon gained a central position in the cash-crop economy on the provincial and local levels. *

Of equal, if not greater, significance for subsequent political, cultural, and economic developments were the Chinese mestizos. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they composed about 5 percent of the total population of around 2.5 million and were concentrated in the most developed provinces of Central Luzon and in Manila and its environs. A much smaller number lived in the more important towns of the Visayan Islands, such as Cebu and Iloilo, and on Mindanao. Converts to Catholicism and speakers of Filipino languages or Spanish rather than Chinese dialects, the mestizos enjoyed a legal status as subjects of Spain that was denied the Chinese. In the words of historian Edgar Vickberg, they were considered, unlike the mixed-Chinese of other Southeast Asian countries, not "a special kind of local Chinese" but "a special kind of Filipino."

The eighteenth-century expulsion edicts had given the Chinese mestizos the opportunity to enter retailing and the skilled craft occupations formerly dominated by the Chinese. The removal of legal restrictions on Chinese economic activity and the competition of new Chinese immigrants, however, drove a large number of mestizos out of the commercial sector in mid-nineteenth century. As a result, many Chinese mestizos invested in land, particularly in Central Luzon. The estates of the religious orders were concentrated in this region, and mestizos became inquilinos (lessees) of these lands, subletting them to cultivators; a portion of the rent was given by the inquilino to the friary estate. Like the Chinese, the mestizos were moneylenders and acquired land when debtors defaulted. *

By the late nineteenth century, prominent mestizo families, despite the inroads of the Chinese, were noted for their wealth and formed the major component of a Filipino elite. As the export economy grew and foreign contact increased, the mestizos and other members of this Filipino elite, known collectively as ilustrados, obtained higher education (in some cases abroad), entered professions such as law or medicine, and were particularly receptive to the liberal and democratic ideas that were beginning to reach the Philippines despite the efforts of the generally reactionary — and friar-dominated — Spanish establishment. *

Chinese Rebellion in the Philippines

Spanish rule was punctuated by periodic revolts, many of them involving Chinese who lived outside the walls of Manila in a place called the Parian. In 1574, a Chinese pirate named Lin Tao Kien unsuccessfully attacked Manila. In 1574, the governor of Manila was assassinated by Chinese mutineers on his galley. Even though 12,000 Chinese were expelled in 1596, settlers continued to arrive from the mainland.

There were anti-Chinese riots in 1603, 1639, 1662, 1686, 1762 and 1819. The one in 1603 was particularly nasty: some 6,000 armed Chinese set fire to Spanish settlement outside Manila and began marching on Manila itself. A Spanish attack was quickly repelled and Spanish leaders were beheaded and had their heads displayed on stakes. Spanish reinforcements from the south saved for the Spaniards. The rebels were turned back and Parian was set on fire. The Spaniards and their Filipino and Japanese allies then took their revenge and massacred 20,000 Chinese.

The Chinese remained afterwards because the Spaniards couldn’t conduct trade without them.

Muslims Under Spanish Rule

Philippine Muslims regard themselves as descendants of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu. The Royal Sultanate of Sulu was an Islamic kingdom that ruled the islands and seas in the southern Philippines and northern Borneo long before the arrival of the Spanish. The Muslim sultanate of Brunei was a very powerful kingdom in the16th century. It ruled over all of Sarawak, Sabah and Borneo as well as part of the Sulu Islands and the Philippines.

By the 14th century, Islam had gained a foothold in much of coastal Philippines after being introduced by way of Indonesia and Malaysia. The Spanish viewed the Muslims as natural enemies, identified with their Muslim rivals at home, the Moors of Morocco. There was some Muslim-Christian elements to the early conflicts with the Spanish. The “Moro Wars” continued off and on for 300 years after the Spanish arrived.

Mindanao and other predominately Muslim islands in the southern Philippines were never conquered during 381 years of Spanish and American rule. One Muslim told the Los Angeles Times, “We do not consider ourselves Filipinos. Filipinos are those who surrendered to the Spaniards. We never surrendered.”

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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.