The Philippines, named after Philip II, the king of Spain from 1556 to 1598, is an archipelago of 7,107 islands in Southeast Asia. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan encountered the islands while sailing from Spain in search of a westerly route to the Moluccas, an Indonesian archipelago commonly called the Spice Islands. He claimed the land for Spain on March 17, 1521, and by 1565 the islands became an official Spanish colony.
Magellan's Bold Move
Though a Portuguese courtier, Magellan had a difficult relationship with Portuguese King Manuel I, so he went to the Spanish monarchy with a proposition. Spain and Portugal competed for colonial territory until 1494, when Pope Alexander VI helped them come to an agreement. An imaginary line was drawn down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: everything to the west of that line was available to Spain, everything to the east was available to Portugal. However, Magellan was convinced the Earth was round. He told King Charles I of Spain that if he sailed west from Spain to the Spice Islands, he could prove the islands were actually west of the dividing line and therefore belonged to Spain rather than Portugal. Charles wanted desperately to get in on the spice trade, so he readily agreed to Magellan's plan.
Death in Discovery
Magellan set sail on September 20, 1519. Even though Magellan knew the Earth was round, he'd somewhat underestimated its size. Plenty of expeditions had sailed from Spain to South America. Magellan believed if he found a strait through the continent that led to the other side, the Spice Islands would be just on to the west of South America. On October 21, 1520, he did find his strait -- subsequently named the Straits of Magellan -- and after a perilous crossing became the first European to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It took the expedition another 99 days to cross the Pacific Ocean, landing in the Phillpines on Guam. When the landed on Cebu Island 10 days later, Magellan claimed the land for Spain. Unfortunately, the explorer got involved in a tribal skirmish on neighboring Mactan Island and was killed.
Permanent Settlement Established
In the decades following Magellan's discovery of the islands, Spain sent out several further expeditions, but it wasn't until 1565 that the archipelago was permanently colonized. Miguel López de Legazpi, the first royal governor of the Philippines, arrived with four ships carrying 200 soldiers, 150 sailors and five priests. Aside from searching for spices, Spain's mission was to spread the Catholic faith to the island's inhabitants. In 1568, the Portuguese attacked Spain's settlements, but the Spanish settlers held their ground and eventually the Portuguese ran out of provisions and were forced to move on. In 1570, the Spaniards discovered the city of Manila with its 4,000 inhabitants. On June 3, 1571, the Spanish city of Manila was made the new capital of the Philippines.
Conquest and Conversion
In its early colonization of the Philippines, Spain used the traditional village structures already in place and ruled indirectly through the local leaders. As a result a rural upper class emerged, people who had wealth and prestige locally and were granted privileges not available to the public at large. But this meant a great deal of military force wasn't required to pacify the local population -- in the first eight years of Spanish colonization, only 700 Spanish soldiers set foot on Filipino soil. Traditional communal use of land was replaced with the Western concept of individual, private ownership. Spreading the Roman Catholic faith was the other goal for the Spanish settlers, who saw conversion of the native inhabitants through baptism as a symbol of their allegiance to the Spanish crown.
- Hands on Manila Volunteer Vacations: About the Philippines
- History.com: Magellan Killed in the Philippines
- Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Philippines -- The Early Spanish Period
- Philippines Court of Appeals: The First 30 Years of Spanish Rule in the Phil -- Establishing the Legal Framework on Colonization
- Princeton University: Spice Islands Historic Maps
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.