The Philippines: Historical Overview

Map of the Philippines from 1898.

Source: History of the Spanish-American War, (New York: the Company, 1898), 2. 

The Philippines is an archipelago made up of over 7,000 islands located in Southeast Asia. There are more than 175 ethnolinguistic groups, and over 100 dialects and languages spoken. One of the difficulties of writing a history of the Philippines is that prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, the people that inhabited the archipelago did not see themselves as a unified political or cultural group. In fact, it was not until the late nineteenth century that a sense of a Philippine nation began to develop. 

The first peoples to inhabit the Philippines migrated more than 4,000 years ago from what is today southern China. These peoples did not just populate the Philippines but dispersed throughout Southeast Asia. Historians and anthropologists have been able to trace their early migrations by examining linguistic patterns and have noted the Austronesian origin of most of the languages spoken in the precolonial Philippines and Southeast Asia. Indigenous languages spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, also share Austronesian roots.[1] 

Early settlements of the Philippine archipelago occurred along rivers which kept populations somewhat isolated from one another. Rivers provided natural resources (water and protein via seafood) to sustain small communities. While these settlements were scattered along rivers, they did not develop a political center. Instead, early settlers saw themselves in relation to smaller communities and developed local alliances and allegiances. People were linked to one another through kinship, both biological and fictive, and followed a leader whom they called a datu. Datus emerged as protectors of the group. They used their skills in negotiation and warfare to demand tribute from merchants and maintain their clans. Eventually, these small communities ranging from 30 to 100 households became known as barangays, meaning “boat” in Tagalog, a Philippine language that originates in central Luzon.[2] 

When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the archipelago, specifically to the Visayas region in 1521, he encountered a large network of barangays connected to a broader maritime world in Southeast Asia. Precolonial communities were in contact with other ethnolinguistic groups across the archipelago and beyond through trade and religious exchange. Goods such as rice, spices, aromatics, and other forest products attracted foreign merchants as far as India and China and richly rewarded the datus.[3] In terms of religion, historical evidence shows that precolonial Philippine peoples practiced “animism,” or beliefs and practices that held spirits as immanent to the surrounding world. These religious practices developed through trade networks, which also paved the way for the spread of Islam. Well before the arrival of Christianity, Islam reached the archipelago in the fourteenth century.[4]

It was the Spanish expedition led by Magellan in 1521 that laid the foundations for imagining a Spanish colony in the Philippines. Over the next 50 years, the Spanish crown sent more expeditions to the islands in search of spices and other goods. They named the islands after King Felipe II and aimed to have every datu follow him.[5] In 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived and brought the datu of Cebu in the Visayas to swear allegiance to the Spanish crown. His power over the region was insecure, however. Legaspi then gathered his followers and an army to travel to Maynilad (today known as Manila) to capture the port town from the son of a Luzon datu.[6]

Securing power over local settlements was a long and difficult process occurring over the next century that required both coaxing and coercion. By 1576, the Spanish created many settlements and the population of Spanish men in the region reached over 250.[7] One of their main challenges entailed bringing the indigenous people, who were still living in scattered settlements, under a centralized authority. 

Bringing the indigenous population under Spanish rule took many decades of cajoling and relied on different tactics including developing alliances and enticing people through gifts and promises of salvation. Central to this process were the missionary friars who were a part of four main Catholic orders: Augustinians, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans. These missionary friars were sent to convert the native peoples to Christianity with the promise of Spain’s claim to the archipelago. According to historian John Phelan, “Christianization acted as a powerful instrument of societal control over the conquered people.”[8] Religious conversion through what was called conquista espiritual (“spiritual conquest”) became an important means to subjugate indigenous populations and also persuade them to relocate to political centers in order to facilitate a centralized Spanish rule. 

The Spanish friars referred to the relocation process as reducción. As much as reducción was a process of religious conversion, it was also a militarized endeavor that involved violence when the so-called “indios” resisted.[9] A century after the Spanish Reconquista, wherein the Spanish reconquered the Iberian peninsula from Muslim rule, Spanish friars in the Philippines viewed their missionary duty as a continuation of an earlier struggle. The growing presence of Islam in the southern islands of the archipelago proved that the Spanish were destined to provide the natives salvation. They called converts to Islam “Moros” after the Moors they fought in Spain, which discursively connected their religious mission to their previous war of conquest.  

Once areas were under Spanish control, the colonial government established an encomienda system that required the local population to pay tribute and perform labor for the colony.[10] A Spanish governor, who was also a military captain, effectively had the power to make decisions for the colony. This was due to the fact that the Philippine islands were so far away from the metropole. Yet, the governor’s power was still limited. The fact that he was also a military captain signals how, even after 300 years of rule, the Spanish never fully had control over the local population and therefore depended on military leadership [11]. Under the governor, provinces were established with a gobernadorcillo ruling each town. The gobernadorcillo enforced the law established by the colonial governor. Under the gobernadorcillo was the cabeza de barangay or the head of barangay who collected taxes locally. At times, the gobernadorcillo and the cabeza de barangay used force to obtain the funds they required from the local people. The Spanish colonial government depended on the collection of tribute to maintain their operations and control the Philippine population.  

By the 1850s, the economic prosperity of the native-born population, especially of Chinese mestizos, began to develop into an elite class that rivaled the peninsulares, or the “pure blooded” Spanish in the archipelago (also sometimes known as criollos). By the 1870s, this new elite sent their sons to Manila and Europe for a liberal education and they became known as ilustrados, or “enlightened ones.”[12] Ilustrados began to question the authority of the Spanish friars and publicly critique the poor administration of the Philippine colony. It was this group of elite men that established the Propaganda Movement, based in Manila and Spain, calling for reforms centered on equality between Filipinos, mestizos, and the Spanish.[13] The writings of propagandists, especially that of Jose Rizal, the most famous of the group, inspired the Filipino masses. The views of the majority, however, diverged from those of the elites who advocated mainly for modest reform and representation. The politics of the elite was ultimately considered too moderate from the perspective of a majority who became inspired to revolt against Spain and fight for independence. In 1896, the Philippine revolution began as a radical fight for emancipation from Spanish colonialism and the right to Filipino self-governance.[14] 

In 1898, a major event on the other side of the globe stymied the efforts of the Filipino  revolutionaries. In April of 1898, the US sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana Harbor, Cuba, in support of Cuban revolutionaries. When the ship exploded killing over 200 Americans, the US government assumed the Spanish were responsible and used the event as a pretext for war. US president William McKinley declared war with Spain in August of 1898, and US troops were shipped to the remaining Spanish possessions, including the Philippines, just two days later.[15] The Filipino revolutionaries could not have predicted such a turn of events that would ultimately affect the outcome of their fight for an independent Philippines.

By the time the American military arrived in April of 1898, the Filipino revolutionaries had successfully gained control over all major cities in the archipelago except for the capital city of Manila. There, the Spanish were protected by a fortress constructed for military protection against outside invaders called Intramuros. Knowing that they were losing the war against the Filipinos, Spanish and US military officers pre-arranged a battle in Manila which excluded Filipino soldiers in order to stage the Spanish defeat. The Spanish orchestrated a mock battle in order to save face and lose the war to the Americans rather than to the Filipinos, whom they believed to be an inferior race.[16] The 1898 Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War and officially transferred ownership of Spain’s remaining colonies to the US.[17]

Filipino revolutionaries continued their fight for independence against the US in the Philippine-American war. Over the next several decades of US rule, the US military and colonial officials attempted to establish control, pacify the local populations, and justify US imperialism in the Philippines. This is where our exhibit begins. 


[1] Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 20.

[2] Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines, 27. 

[3] Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines, 23.

[4] James Francis Warren, The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State, (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981).

[5] José S. Arcilla, An Introduction to Philippine History, (Manila: Ateneo Publications, 1971), 11. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines, 53. 

[8] John Leddy Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses, 1565-1700, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959), 93.

[9] John Leddy Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines, 44-45.

[10] John Leddy Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines, 95.

[11] José S. Arcilla, An Introduction to Philippine History, 28. 

[12] Edgar Wickberg, The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850-1898, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965). 

[13] John N. Schumacher, The Propaganda Movement, 1880-1895: The Creators of a Filipino Consciousness, the Makers of Revolution, (Manila: Solidaridad Pub. House, 1973).

[14] Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines, 104.

[15] Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 78.

[16] Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government, 90.

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