The Philippines is shaped by many, many years of rich history. This has contributed greatly to its culture. You may find yourself wondering why some Filipino words sound Spanish, or why a good part of modern Filipino culture can be decidedly American. It’s as curious as for the Filipino penchant for sweetened spaghetti—though trust us on this one; don’t knock it till you’ve tried it! The answer lies in over four hundred years of documented Philippine history that helps us understand the country as it is today.
The Philippines was discovered on March 16, 1521, by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who was in service of the king of Spain. Magellan arrived at Homonhon, Eastern Samar, aboard three ships—Concepcion, Trinidad, and Victoria. This began Spain’s colonization of the Philippines and would last for over 300 years.
Unfortunately, he did not dock at the Philippines to enjoy a beach vacation. Magellan’s aim was to seek alliances among the tribesmen already residing in the area. He made a notable alliance with Datu Zula, the chief of what is now Cebu, and converted the people to Catholicism.
Philippine history reports that neighboring datus from the region did not agree with an alliance with Spain. One of the most outspoken in particular was Lapu-Lapu, the chieftain of neighboring Mactan Island, and a known enemy of Datu Zula.
As a result of these political rivalries, the Battle of Mactan took place. Magellan fought with his men as well as over a thousand Cebuanos. However, they were outnumbered by Lapu-Lapu’s men and were killed in the ensuing battle. The remaining men reboarded Trinidad and Victoria to sail to the Spice Islands, which is part of what is now Indonesia.
Thanks to Magellan’s expedition and the crewmen that were able to make it back to Spain, there was an interest in more expeditions to explore the Philippines. This also started the galleon trade.
On one of these expeditions, Ruy Lopez de Villalobos claimed the islands in the name of King Philip II of Spain, naming it Las Islas Filipinas in 1543.
In 1564, an expedition led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was successful in conquering Cebu City. Legazpi went on to establish another township in Panay.
Meanwhile, Martin de Goiti, under orders from Legazpi, conquered the Kingdom of Maynila in Luzon. Legazpi declared Manila to be the capital city and was appointed as the country’s first governor-general.
During the Spanish era, there were great strides in economic progression in the Philippines. The galleon trade enabled products from Japan, China and India to be sent to Acapulco, Mexico. More Europeans settled in the Philippines and depended on trade for a living.
Eventually, the country started producing agricultural products for export like tobacco. Think of that the next time you have a smoke break!
The Spanish also established a hierarchical government which enabled those in power to keep a close eye on natives. This was known as the encomienda system and was pretty much an earlier version of a CCTV system. Natives were relocated into settlements, where they were expected to abide by the laws of the noblemen.
Thanks to the country’s position as a source of raw materials, many Filipinos gained wealth because of the prosperous economy. However, as much as it was a prosperous time, the Filipinos were subjected to the abuses of the Spanish. Spanish friars held much power and created a regime of fear, which led to an uprising of Filipino nationalism and the desire to start a revolution.
Start of a Revolution
Among those who believed in major reform in the country was the prolific Dr. José Rizal. He’s the guy you can find on the front of a 1-peso coin! Rizal is credited with awakening the consciousness of the masses through his writing. Andres Bonifacio was one of the notable figures moved by Rizal’s novels and founded the Kataastaasan Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (KKK or Katipunan). Its objective was for the Philippines to finally be removed of the Spanish Empire.
As stated in Philippine history, Rizal was arrested and executed for treason on December 30, 1896. On April 25, 1898, a war was officially declared against Spain. The Spanish were defeated in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, thanks to the help of the US Navy led by Commodore George Dewey. Because of the loss of the capital city, Spain was unable to control the rest of the country.
General Emilio Aguinaldo then took charge of the Filipino faction, which succeeded in taking back a good majority of the country from Spanish leadership. Finally, on June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo declared the Philippines as independent from Spain.
The US sought to control the country and said that its objective was to prepare the Philippines for independence eventually. A political structure was developed and put in place.
In 1936, the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established. This was due to legislation passed by the US Congress for a 10-year period of transition to complete Philippine independence. Manuel Quezon was elected President of the Commonwealth along with the country’s first constitution.
The second phase of the American Occupation was marred by Japan’s attack during World War II. In January 1942, Japan occupied Manila. This would be the third occupation by a foreign land in Philippine history.
Because of the attack by the Japanese, Manila was declared an open city in order to spare it from further destruction. The government was moved to the island of Corregidor. Filipinos resisted much of the Japanese forces, particularly in Luzon, which meant that the guerilla movement at the time was successful in deterring them. On September 2, 1945, Japan officially surrendered. The effects of the war are of a great magnitude: over a million Filipinos were killed, and many of the towns and cities stretching over the provinces the Japanese occupied were in ruin.
After this, the official independence of the Philippines was declared on July 4, 1946, with the Treaty of Manila.
The Philippines lived in a period of relative calm and economic prosperity well into the 1960s. In 1965, then-President Diosdado Macapagal lost his reelection bid to Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos’ election would pave the way for another dark chapter in Philippine history.
While a good number of infrastructure projects were initiated by his government, Marcos was accused of widespread corruption and embezzlement of public funds. On September 21, 1972, Marcos declared Martial Law, extending his presidency indefinitely and creating a regime of political unrest marked by numerous human rights violations. Filipinos were plunged into fear and poverty, even as the Marcos family exemplified a lavish lifestyle.
Marcos’ staunch political rival was Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., who was assassinated in 1983 at the Manila International Airport after returning home from exile. This caused an uproar, which pushed Marcos to call for a snap election in 1986. His opponent was none other than Corazon Aquino, the widow of the killed senator.
Marcos won the snap election, but the results were not credible. This frustration led millions of Filipinos to EDSA Shrine in Manila to call for Marcos to step down. In an age before social media and the advent of likes, it was remarkable. This was known as the People Power Revolution, the most peaceful political movement recognized by the world. As a result of this, Marcos fled to Hawaii and Corazon Aquino was sworn in as the 11th President of the Philippines. Aquino was president until 1992, and in the 25 years that have passed, five Presidents have taken her place in turn.
Not everything is smooth sailing in the Philippines in these modern times. Another People Power Revolution was called to oust the 13th President Joseph Estrada, who was convicted on plunder charges. 14th President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was also arrested on anomalies on government projects, as well as cheating during her reelection bid. They have since been pardoned.
The current president of the Philippines is Rodrigo Roa Duterte, former Mayor of Davao City in the Mindanao Region—a first in Philippine history. In the last few years, the country has experienced good economic growth and progression. This is especially in fields of labor export and tourism. There is a bigger movement as well to ensure checks and balances in government to avoid another Martial law regime.
There is a modern sense of nationalism of younger Filipinos as they understand the many rich natural resources the country has to offer. This is shared with the many visitors who come to the Philippines for just a while, and even those who decide to make this small archipelago their sunny home in the Southeast.