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Negotiating Empire, Part I: From Magellan to the Founding of Manila, 16th-18th Centuries

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(The following is a post by Joshua Kueh, Southeast Asian reference librarian, Asian Division.)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Magellan expedition (1519-1522) — famed for being the first to circumnavigate the globe — in the Philippines in 1521. It also marks the 450th anniversary of the founding of Manila, on the island of Luzon, as a Spanish city in 1571. In commemorating these milestones, some choose to celebrate Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (anglicized “Ferdinand Magellan”) who pioneered a new route west from Spain to the Spice Islands — Maluku Islands in Indonesia today — for the Spanish Crown. Others lionize the indigenous ruler, Lapulapu, who resisted Spanish domination at the Battle of Mactan (27th April, 1521) where Magellan lost his life. What is not often remembered is the negotiated nature of early contacts and the colonial order that arose out of this exchange. This post (part one of two) looks at how the establishment of a Spanish presence in the Philippines during the 16th-18th centuries had to serve various interests: Spanish authorities, Chinese intermediaries, and prominent natives (principales), among others.

17th century map of the Philippines, with 12 small illustrations of people, lands, and regional maps on each side.
Map of the Philippines drawn by the Jesuit Father Pedro Murillo Velarde (1696-1753) and published in Manila in 1734, with engravings by Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay (1701-1771), an artist from the Philippines, showing the different people groups in the archipelago as well as maritime connections from the isles to other parts of Asia, New Spain, and Spain. “Carta hydrographica y chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas: dedicada al Rey Nuestro Señor por el Mariscal d. Campo D. Fernando Valdes Tamon Cavallo del Orden de Santiago de Govor. Y Capn.” 1734. Available freely online. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

From the outset, the realization of Spanish aims rested heavily on local interests. On March 17, 1521, Magellan and his crew first came into contact with inhabitants of the Homonhon Island, which would later become part of the archipelago known as the Philippines. They soon proceeded to Limasawa, where the first Catholic mass in the Philippines was celebrated. Antonio Pigafetta (1480?-1534?), an expedition member, wrote in “A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation” that two indigenous leaders participated in the mass: Rajah Colambu, ruler of Limasawa, and Rajah Siagu, ruler of Butuan, both of whom kissed the cross and prayed with the crew. Next, the expedition headed to Cebu, where the king and queen of the island and their subjects showed signs of embracing the Catholic faith.

On the surface, the acceptance of Catholicism affirmed the narrative of a superior Spanish civilization and its deity. However, Pigafetta’s account points to a larger political context of inter-group rivalries. It seems that accepting Christianity had partly to do with gaining advantage in a competitive political environment. Pigafetta relates how Magellan offered weapons to those who would become Christian, and an episode in which a king, in the context of contemplating conversion, complained about local notables who would not obey him. Magellan responded by threatening said leaders with loss of life and property.

Local leaders had to weigh Magellan’s intentions. Pigafetta tells of a Muslim merchant from Siam who warned a local ruler about the newcomers, saying they were “those who had conquered Calicut, Malacca and all Upper India.” Avoiding conflict with Magellan would have been in the interest of some rulers. When appeasing the outsiders was not seen as advantageous, the narrative of Spanish exceptionalism ruptured and had terrible consequences.

The chief of Mactan Island, Lapulapu, saw no reason to accede to the Spanish Crown. He had a sizable force and was not intimidated. When Magellan threatened violence for Lapulapu’s rejection of Spanish demands, a battle ensued and Magellan and several crew members lost their lives, as recorded in Pigafetta’s account. Afterward, the expedition traveled through the Indian and Atlantic oceans, incurring more losses, and limped back to Spain in 1522. Of the five ships and 270 men that departed in 1519, only one ship returned with 18 men. It was only 50 years later that Spain finally managed to establish a foothold in the Philippines with the founding of Manila in 1571, but that too was heavily conditioned by local interests.

A 16th century printed book with blocks of texts on both pages and commentaries on margins.
Passages relating Magellan’s demands and threats and the ensuing response from the leader of Mactan, Lapulapu, in Antonio Pigafetta (1480?-1534?), “Journal of Magellan’s Voyage.” 1522-1525. The Venetian Pigafetta’s work is an eyewitness account and the main source of information on Magellan’s voyage. Available freely online. The Library of Congress has an English translation of the work printed in 1577.

The bringing of Manila under Spanish rule in 1571 illustrates Spain’s dependence on regional trade networks and political conditions in the area. The Spanish expedition that eventually succeeded in setting up Spanish rule in Manila arrived in 1565 on Cebu. For six years, the Spaniards, led by Miguel López de Legazpi, struggled to keep the expedition from failing by relying on local alliances for sustenance. In 1569, Legazpi wrote: “The Philippines ought to be considered of little importance because at present the only article of profit that we can get from them is cinnamon.” To succeed, the Spanish had to find another source of wealth.

This alternative was the China trade, but the Spanish had no way of accessing it. It took initiative by merchants from Mindoro and Luzon, islands north of Cebu, to plug the Spanish into what would become the commerce that would sustain their presence in the Philippines. These merchants learned from a native that the Spanish were rich in silver, a commodity and currency that was in high demand in China. They seized the opportunity to act as middlemen between the Spanish and the China trade centered in Luzon, going to Cebu with two junks laden with Chinese goods. For five years, the Spanish were dependent on these merchants for commerce with China via Luzon. Even though the Spanish quickly grasped the importance of trade with the Chinese, it was not until 1570 that they began to break this reliance.

In May of 1570, an expeditionary force of 90 Spaniards and 300 Visayans, inhabitants of islands in the central Philippines, set out to take Manila. Antonio de Morga, a Spanish high official in Manila from 1595 to 1603, writes in “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” that these forces sailed under the guidance of a Luzon native chief named Maomat. Though Maomat’s intentions are unstated, his actions suggest he opposed the regime in Manila. Given the Spanish reliance on Visayan troops and intelligence from a local ruler, the conquest of Manila was hardly just a Spanish victory, but also one for those who were native to the Philippines and fought equally as hard to topple the regime. Were it not for their indigenous partners, Spanish success could hardly have been assured. The establishment of a Spanish presence in Manila was a collaborative effort and was shaped by the interests of local actors.

On June 24, 1571, Manila became a city under Spanish sovereignty. However, that rule was predicated on the support of Chinese and native intermediaries — traders, contractors, and principales (native leaders) – for the spread of Catholicism and the economic basis of the colony.

The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade was the economic lifeblood of Manila, without which the Spanish presence would probably have been much more limited and perhaps short-lived. Wealthy Chinese merchants in Manila linked Chinese markets for silks and ceramics with Spanish silver from the Americas. Supplying goods and credit to Spanish taking part in the trans-Pacific commerce, they participated in the famed galleon trade. The galleons shipped perhaps 50 tons of silver annually from Acapulco to Manila, at times more, making them the richest prize sailing the Pacific. The galleon trade dominated economic life in Manila for the better part of two centuries before the transition to a cash crop economy in the mid-1700s.

Detail of a map of the Philippines.
Detail from the hydrographical and chorographical chart of the Philippine Islands shown in Image 1. Pictured is a Manila Galleon sailing across the Pacific to New Spain. Its cargo would have been mainly Chinese silks and ceramics heading to the New Spanish port of Acapulco, and chiefly silver on the return to Manila. A Chinese junk is also featured in this map. Chinese shipping carried Chinese goods and labor to Manila, and silver from the Americas back to China where it fetched the highest prices in the world. Manila was a lynchpin in the global silver trade. “Carta hydrographica y chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas : dedicada al Rey Nuestro Señor por el Mariscal d. Campo D. Fernando Valdes Tamon Cavallo del Orden de Santiago de Govor. Y Capn.” 1734. Available freely online. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Besides their crucial involvement in the galleon trade, Chinese supplied Manila with services and provisions. Working as stone masons, carpenters, pig farmers, vegetable growers, fishermen, tailors, shoemakers, printers and bakers, Chinese came to build and feed the city. Chinese contractors, who bid for licenses to run various niches in the economy, were go-betweens, linking Chinese labor and Spanish authorities. They claimed to protect the interests of both the Crown and workers, and their position provided them power, prestige and wealth. As such, the Spanish presence benefitted them and they perpetuated the colonial order. However, when the demands of rulers were perceived as existential threats, the justifications for maintaining the status quo rang hollow and uprisings broke out, as seen periodically throughout the 17th century. Empire could only exist as long as those who profited from it could remain relevant to those from whom it derived gain.

Finally, native leaders played a crucial role in mediating between the Church and their communities. Given the small number of clergymen in the Philippines during the early Spanish period, principales came to represent the Church when the priest was away, and became deeply invested in propagating the Catholic faith. One such native leader was Don Gaspar Aquino de Belen from Batangas, who worked as a printer in the Jesuit press in Manila from 1703 to 1716. Aquino authored the first Tagalog pasyon, a lengthy narrative in verse relating the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As the scholar Vicente Rafael describes in “Contracting Colonialism,” Aquino’s pasyon, published in 1703, laid the foundation for subsequent Tagalog pasyones, such as the one pictured below, and appeared as an addition to a larger work: Aquino’s Tagalog translation of Tomás de Villacastín’s “La recomendación del alma,” a work focusing on prayers with which to commend the souls of the dying. Aquino’s initiative fortified Catholicism’s discourse on death, and also the role of the principal as a Church authority since it was he who guided those near death to paradise with the proper prayers.

Title page of a 19th century book in Spanish.
In 1703, Don Gaspar Aquino de Belen, an indigenous leader or principal wrote the first pasyon, a long narrative poem recounting the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ in the Tagalog language. It was an original composition and formed the basis for subsequent pasyones like the 19th-century one pictured. “Casaysayan nang pasiong mahal ni Jesucristong Pan︢g︣inoon natin: na sucat ipag alab nang puso nang sino man babasa.” (The story of the Holy Passion of Jesus Christ, Our Lord, which will inflame the heart of anyone who reads it.) 1854. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.
The title page of a 19th century book in Spanish.
In addition to the pasyon, the Library of Congress also has several 19th-century Catholic texts in languages from the Philippines such as this Hiligaynon translation of Saint Alfonso Maria de Liguori’s “Pagduao sa santisimo sacramento sa altar, cag sa mahal na Virgen.” (Visit of the Sacred Sacrament at the altar of the Blessed Virgin.) 1886. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Intermediaries shaped the realities of colonial life and bound society together in the early Spanish period. They were crucial to the functioning and even existence of the Spanish empire in the Philippines.

Continuing the idea of empire as a meeting of interests, Part II of this post will highlight aspects of language translation that attenuated Spanish aims in the Philippines. For more information about Philippine material at the Library of Congress, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-A-Librarian page.

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Comments (2)

  1. Good day,

    Do you have any articles or references that point towards rest houses, inns, or lodges, or any type of precursor to hotels in that time period? Prior to the founding of Hotel de Oriente.

    • Thank you for your question. A Southeast Asian reference librarian will be happy to respond to it in more detail if you wouldn’t mind submitting it via the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian service (

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