Published Date

April 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 24: What Lies Ahead for the Philippines? (1945)

The written record of the Philippine Islands starts with the coming of the Spaniards. Not that the country had not had a history and a culture and a literature before! But the Spaniards, in their religious zeal, destroyed the earlier records as completely as possible. Therefore much of what is known about pre-Spanish days—and there is still much to be uncovered—comes from the records of other countries which were in touch with the islands.

Centuries before the influence of the West was felt in the Philippines, the culture of India, China, and southeastern Asia had reached that country through the early settlers. From the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, the Philippine Islands were part of a great Hindu-Malayan empire ruled from Java and Sumatra in the neighboring islands to the southwest.

Mohammedanism swept over this area of the world in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Moslems came into the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao and converted the people. Their descendants, the Mores, have remained devout Mohammedans to this day.

By the time the Spaniards came to the islands, therefore, the Filipinos had developed a way of life and a distinct culture that were suitable and satisfactory to them. They had a calendar, weights and measures, a system of writing, some elements of law, some religious ideas showing both Hindu and Mohammedan influences, and had some skill in metalworking, pottery making, and weaving.

Magellan, on his voyage around the world, “discovered” the islands in 1521, nearly a half century before the first permanent settlement (St. Augustine, Florida) was established by Spain in the United States. Numerous other Spanish expeditions followed, and one of them gave to the islands the name “Las Filipinas” in honor of Philip II of Spain.

The islanders were no match for the armed men from the West. They were divided both geographically and politically. Their government was a simple system, made up of many barangays (originally family groups each with a headman). There was little unity among these clans.

By the end of the sixteenth century, most of the country except the southern islands had been conquered. The subject peoples were converted to the Catholic faith and for the next three hundred years came under the direct rule of Spanish governors and the all-pervading influence of Spanish priests.


Was Spanish rule good or bad?

The Philippine colony was governed by Spaniards, by laws made in Spain, and for the sole good of the mother country and its representatives in the colony. Filipinos held only minor offices. They were not given the benefits of public education and their rights and wishes were almost completely ignored. Such laws as did exist for their protection were not enforced.

Benefits of Spanish rule should; however, be acknowledged. Spain brought its language, its literature, its laws, and its religion to a Far Eastern country. Many of the clergy tried to help the people in their social and economic development. They taught many children to read and write in the local dialects, the better to teach them the Christian religion. They introduced new crops, such as corn and cacao, and improved sugar and coffee production. They taught many trades, including printing Manila had printing presses before the end of the sixteenth century. They established higher schools for the children of the wealthier caciques (a class which developed mostly as a result of intermarriage between Spaniards and leading Malay families). The University of Santo Tomas, in Manila, was founded as early as 1611—and 340 years later was made into an internment camp for American civilians in the Philippines after the Japanese occupation.

One of Spain’s greatest contributions to the development of the country was the one it least wanted—the unification of the people under its control. The Filipinos were united, first of all, through a common religion. But, more important, they were united by a common hatred of the Spanish conqueror and all he stood for.

In spite of all the good they had done, even the Spanish religious orders began to assume an excessive control over the people’s lives. This alienated many Filipinos and brought the church orders into sharp conflict with Spanish officials who resented their growing political power. Some of the church lands remain to this day as centers of social unrest. The Aglipayan or Independent church of the Philippines, formed at the time of the final revolution against Spain, was an added protest against the all-Spanish nature of religious as well as political control.

Were the Filipinos contented?

Before our own American Revolution, the Filipinos had risen a half-dozen times against their Spanish overlords, and there were numerous lesser rebellions. Because the Filipinos had been unable during the nineteenth century to secure reforms peaceably, a secret society of the common people, the Katipunan, was formed in 1892. Revolution finally broke out in August 1896, and it was inflamed still further by the execution of Jose Rizal, the Filipino leader and national hero.

There are many heroes in Philippine history, but none stands out like Rizal. He was the embodiment of the people’s pride and of their desire for freedom. One of the small number of Filipinos able to secure a good education and to study abroad, he came back to his native land anxious to improve the condition of his people and the government which Spain imposed upon them. His books, such as The Social Cancer and Filibusterism, were not only outstanding for their social and political significance when they were written, but are still classed among the world’s great literature.

For having formed an illegal organization—the Philippine League—and for “inciting his people to rebellion” by his writings, Rizal was condemned to death by a military court. He was executed in December 1896, at the age of 35.

For a year thereafter the uneven struggle between the Filipinos and their Spanish overlords continued. Then a peace was arranged, the revolutionary leaders having been led to believe that Spain would make the desired reforms in government. But Spain had no such intentions.

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