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The History of the Philippines-Spanish Colonialism

By Alison Kroulek  
Monday, December 24, 2007
The history of the Philippines after it was “discovered” by the Spanish in 1521 is a history of foreign domination and struggle for independence. Spain, Japan and America have all ruled the Philippines, and the country only achieved independence in the 20th century. However, the country has been the site of many events of great historical importance for the rest of the world, starting with its discovery by the Spanish and the death of Ferdinand Magellan.


In 1521, the explorer Ferdinand Magellan and a Spanish fleet landed on Cebu. He claimed the islands for Spain and converted King Humabon of Cebu and his queen to Christianity. However, he also made the unfortunate and fatal mistake of becoming embroiled in local politics. He and his fleet attempted to help King Humabon quell a rebellious chiefdom, Lapu-Lapu, and Magellan was killed in the fighting.[1]

            In 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi founded the first permanent settlement and the Spanish seriously began occupying the Philippines. Their rule led to major changes in both culture and the economic structure of the islands. The Spanish brought with them Catholic missionaries, and over time the majority of the population was converted. They also enforced a feudal economic system known as the encomienda, which forced native villagers to pay tribute to a Spanish encomendero. Theoretically, the encomendero was supposed to provide religious instruction and protection, but abuse of the system was common.[2] The native concept of holding land in common was foreign to the Spaniards, who transferred ownership to village chiefs (datus) and made the other villagers mere tenants.[3] Also, the datu’s position ceased being hereditary-instead, datus were appointed to serve at the pleasure of the Spanish.[4] The encomienda system combined with the power and land grants given to religious officials led to a major class divide in the Philippines that still persists today. Both encomenderos and friars formed a landed societal elite not found in the early native barangays.[5]

            Although there were many small uprisings against Spanish rule over the years,[6] the most organized and widespread was the Katipunan Rebellion in 1896. The rebellion was prompted by resentment of Spanish rule and the power of the clergy.

Since Spain first colonized the Philippines, the clergy had obtained much land and power in the Philippines. They also controlled the education system, and in order to maintain their supremacy over the native Filipinos they limited what the Filipinos were allowed to learn. For example, scientific subjects and foreign languages were not offered.[7] Even after a public education program was instituted in 1863, less than 20 percent of students could read or write Spanish.[8] However, Spain had opened Philippine trade to foreign countries in 1834, and some Filipino families gained enough wealth from foreign trade to send their children to school in Europe. In Spain, a community of educated Filipinos began a literary reform movement known as the Propaganda movement. The Propagandists were initially only reformers, not revolutionaries, but Spain lashed out in fear at them anyway. For example, one of the most celebrated Propagandists was Jose Rizal. In 1892, Rizal returned to his homeland and founded the Liga Filipina. This organization was expressly loyal to Spain, but Rizal was still arrested and exiled to Mindanao.[9] Outrage over his arrest led Andres Bonifacio to form the Katipunan, a secret society that aimed to free the Philippines through armed revolution. In time, the organization would boast 30,000 members. [10] In 1896, the secret society was discovered by the Spanish, igniting open rebellion. Although Rizal had never advocated revolution against Spain, he was tried and executed on December 30, 1896. Although the rebels were not as well-trained as the Spanish troops, they had successful victories in the province of Cavite.[11] The rebellion was marred by divisions between fighters loyal to Bonifacio and fighters loyal to Emilio Aguinaldo, the commander in Cavite. The rebels fought each other in addition to the Spanish until Aguinaldo had Bonifacio executed. However, even after the internecine fighting ended, neither the Spanish nor the rebels were able to completely defeat the other. [12] A truce was declared in 1897, and Aguinaldo was exiled to Hong Kong.

Although this rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it laid the groundwork for events to come. The island nation would play an important part as one of the battlefronts of the Spanish-American War, ending the Spanish era and beginning a new era of US rule and influence.

[1] http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/fw2.html

[2] http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-encomien.html

[3] http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/fw2.html

[4] Philippines." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10 Sept. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-23714>.

[5] http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/fw2.html

[8] "Philippines." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10  Sept. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-23715>.

[9] "Philippines." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10  Sept. 2007  <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-23715>.

[10] http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/fw3.html

[11] http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/fw3.html

[12] http://www.ualberta.ca/~vmitchel/fw3.html

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