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The First 30 Years of Spanish Rule in the Phil - Establishing the Legal Framework on Colonization

A historical essay written in honor of Justice Renato C. Dacudao,
an intellectual pillar of the court, who retires on June 19, 2007.

by: J. Mario L. Guariņa III

The Spanish colonization of the Philippines began in earnest with the arrival on the shores of Cebu in April 1565 of an expeditionary force led by a minor Spanish colonial official from Mexico named Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. The new Spanish king Felipe II who had ascended the throne in 1556 gave a fresh impetus to the colonial ambitions of his father Carlos V by ordering the Viceroy of Mexico to make preparations for a new expedition. By 1564, the Royal Audiencia of Mexico gave the instructions that were to guide Legaspi’s mission to the Philippines.

He was ordered to undertake the voyage for the discovery and possession of the so-called Islas del Poniente or Western Islands, which included the islands discovered by Magellan and named subsequently by Villalobos as Felipinas, in honor of the Spanish King. Among his objectives in these lands were to search for spices, spread the Catholic faith and establish settlements where it might be fitting or advantageous to the crown and the propagation of the faith. He was provided with ships, supplies, weapons and men who were paid at the port where they were to depart.

A foothold in Cebu:

With an initial fleet of four vessels and force of 200 soldiers, 150 sailors and five religious, Legaspi established an outpost in Cebu. During the next four years, his contact with the peninsula was maintained through the voyages of his ships which carried spices and dispatches to Mexico and Spain and returned with reinforcements and provisions.

The fledgling colony survived on tribute collected from the native villages in Cebu and nearby islands, overcoming resistance with help from friendlier natives. However, there was a development that nearly spelled the doom of the colony – the Spaniards were being starved in Cebu. Rather than cooperate with them, the natives fled to the mountains, while those who remained simply refused to plant crops or trade with them. It came to a point when Legaspi’s men were reduced to eating rats and cats.

In 1568, a Portuguese fleet dropped anchor in Cebu and laid siege on the settlement. The Portuguese were claiming that the islands lay within the demarcation line intended for Portugal by the Treaty of Zaragosa in 1529. But they were not able to break Spanish resolve to stay. They lifted the siege months later in January 1569 when they themselves ran out of provisions.

Feeling vulnerable to the Portuguese in their present site, Legaspi decided to transfer the colony to Panay which abounded in food.

The expedition moves to
Panay – 1569.

In 1569, the Spaniards crossed the sea to the island of Panay. There, they continued to levy tribute, their companies spread thinly in Panay and neighboring islands for the purpose. Among the conquistadors with Legaspi, the most celebrated were the maistre de campo Martin de Goiti and the young, dashing Juan Salcedo, brother of Felipe de Salcedo and grandson of Legaspi, who explored most of Luzon and whose love affair with Lakan Dula’s niece, Princess Candarapa, became the stuff of which legends were made.

Salcedo left their base camp in Panay in late 1569 with a company of 40 soldiers. He reached Mindoro and its nearby islets, subduing the natives and plundering the rich village of Mamburao with the cutting-edge weapon of their day, the arquebus, and their usual auxiliaries of Pintados, the Visayan natives allied with the Spaniards.

Salcedo returned to Panay in May 1570, there to meet with Legaspi and the maistre de campo Goiti who had also arrived from another expedition to discuss the final leg of their odyssey in the islands – the conquest of Luzon and the thriving community of Manila which, with its 4,000 inhabitants, was under the rule of a Muslim noble named Rajah Soliman. On May 3, Goiti and Salcedo sailed out of Panay in two small ships with a hundred soldiers and accompanied by a fleet of 14 or 15 vessels of the Pintados. They again passed through Mindoro which remained hostile and attacked its principal village whose inhabitants took a refuge behind walls mounted with some columns. But that was all their firepower. The natives were armed with badly tempered lances which could not penetrate a good coat of mail and daggers and arrows which the Spaniards dismissed as weapons of little value. Defeated, they became willing vassals of the Spaniards and paid tribute to them.

The transfer to Manila:

Standing guard at the mouth of a great river that wound its way across the delta to the bay was a fortress of logs with narrow mud walls mounted with artillery. Around it was a mélange of nipa huts. This was Rajah Soliman’s Manila. Twice in as many years it would be burned down in the face of the Spanish onslaught.

Goiti entered Manila Bay in June 1570. He soon met with Soliman and had a blood compact with him. But their friendship was short-lived. Wary of the Spaniards’ intentions, Soliman mistook sounds of gunfire as the start of hostilities and attacked the Spaniards. His city was overran instead and razed to the ground.

Goiti’s presence was meant only to be a reconnaissance. He quickly set sail for Panay after the incident, passing by Mindoro where he learned of the arrival of three new ships from Mexico. Among the 200-odd members of the expedition were, for the first time, mujeres y hombres casados – the true settlers. There were also new instructions from the king for the islands to be settled and divided among those who conquered or subdued them.

The institution of the encomienda or repartimiento, the heart of the Spanish system of colonization, was in place.

Legaspi went back to Cebu to establish a Spanish settlement patterned after villages in Spain. He named it El Santisimo Nombre de Jesus which became the nucleus of the modern City of Cebu. He left 50 men and a friar in Cebu under the treasurer of the exchequer Guido de Lavezares and six soldiers and a friar in neighboring Masbate. He then returned to Panay to make preparations for the transfer of the rest of the colony to Manila. He left another six soldiers and a friar in Panay.

In April 1571, Legaspi sailed to Manila with a fleet of 4 ships accompanied by 23 outriggers of the Pintados. As the Spaniards entered the bay for a second time, the natives themselves set fire to their homes before fleeing to Tondo where Lakan Dula was chief.

It was a bloodless day on May 19, the feast day of Santa Potenciana, when Legaspi landed to take control of Manila in the name of the Spanish king. Within the week, Legaspi announced that, in accordance with the command of the king, he would give home lots and repartimientos to all those who would settle in the place, prompting virtually the whole force who came with him – captains, soldiers and gentlemen – to stay and be its first residents. All in all, they numbered some 250 men – the soldados-ciudadanos.

On the ashes of a large native village, he proclaimed, on June 3, 1571, the new Spanish City of Manila, making it the capital of the colony that he had called Nuevo Reyno de Castilla. On June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, two alcaldes ordinarios, one alguacil mayor, 12 regidores and one escribano were appointed to constitute the municipal government of Manila. Three years later, on June 21, 1574, the king would issue a royal decree confirming the titles given by Legaspi of Insigne e Siempre Leal Ciudad to Manila and Nueva Reyno de Castilla to the island of Luzon.

The conquest of Luzon

Now ensconced in Manila from where he directed operations for the further conquest of the islands, Legaspi began to assign repartimientos to his soldiers. The first reported beneficiary of his largesse was Goiti who was an able military commander. Legaspi had issued a call to all other villages to make peace with him but was met with defiance by a nearby village of Butas in alliance with Macabebe warriors.

On June 3, 1571, the day Manila was founded, the Spaniards’s first major pitched battle with the natives, at Bangkusay off the coast of Tondo, took place. With a force of only 70 soldiers and their native auxiliaries, Goiti routed the much larger force of two thousand natives who were scattered by the musket fire of the Spaniards and the deadly assault of the Pintados. The battle extended to the shore resulting in the capture of the native fort and a large booty of gold and prisoners which Goiti divided among his soldiers, reserving the king’s usual share in the gold called the fifth. Pampanga, fated to be the principle source of grain for the colony, was also shelter to many of those who opposed the Spaniards. After the victory at Bangkusay forced the villages around Manila into submission. Goiti sailed up the densely populated rivers of Pampanga with 100 soldiers and a number of auxiliaries subduing the natives who hid futilely behind their wooden forts. As he was going from village to village in Pampanga, news reached him of the arrival at Panay of two ships with a reinforcement of 100 soldiers. Legaspi dispatched him to bring these ships to Manila which he did, passing by Cebu to fetch his own wife who must have arrived with the 1570 expedition. When he returned, Legaspi awarded him with a repartimiento of natives along a river called Bonbon.

On the day of Goiti’s arrival in Manila, August 15, Salcedo started his own epic trek across Luzon to the Bicol region with 100 soldiers. He first went to subdue the hostile natives in Cainta near Laguna de Bay and skirted the bay where some 24 to 26,000 natives lived in scattered villages. Then he crossed over to the opposite coast with sixty men and, amid rumors of gold, reached Paracale at Camarines. His expedition suffered much in the long march to the eastern coast of Luzon, and after ascertaining the existence of gold mines there, went back to Manila.

While Salcedo was away, Goiti launched military campaign in Pampanga. The natives at Betis were reported to be very powerful and refused to submit to the Spaniards. But a native chief who was hostile to them guided the Spaniards into the gates of the fort, surprising its defenders and forcing them to surrender without a fight. With the fall of Betis, all the other villages of any importance in Pampanga came to offer their friendship.

Thus ended, according to the relacion of April 15, 1572, the last of the great wars which were waged in Mindoro and Luzon. But it was just the start of Salcedo’s push to the unexplored regions of Luzon. Shortly after his return to Manila in May, another ship arrived with more men and provisions. With fresh troops, he continued to battle his way across Zambales and Pangasinan, reaching as far north as Laoag. In the ancient settlement of Vigan, he founded the third Spanish city, Villa Fernandina. He then sailed down Cagayan River and crossed the Caraballo Mountains to the west. By the time he arrived in Manila, in late 1572, Legaspi lay buried in the original bamboo and nipa church of the Augustinians. The hoary conquistador died on August 20, 1572.

The islands are divided into

Guido de Lavezares succeeded Legaspi as governor-general by virtue of an appointment from the Royal Audiencia of Mexico. In an early report to the king, in June 1573, he affirmed that the practice of assigning repartimientos began by Legaspi was being continued by him. Legaspi would, in particular, assign two or three thousand natives as an encomienda to four or eight men. It was agreed early on that 8,000 tributarios should be given as an encomienda to the maistre de campo, 4,000 to the captains, 3,000 to men of rank and so on according to position.

The problem was that there were many more colonizers in need of an encomienda than there were natives to be allotted. A year after Manila was founded, a general feeling of dissatisfaction prevailed over the meager distribution of repartimientos. The fact was that towards the end of Legaspi’s administration, large parts of the country were still to be subdued. The two richest encomiendas were Betis and Lubao where 3,000 tribute-paying natives lived. Legaspi did not allot these natives to any encomiendero in the hope of requesting them from the king. After his death, Lanzares appropriated the natives for himself, but the next governor Francisco de Sande revoked his act and transferred the natives to the royal crown. Aside from the royal encomiendas, the king also had a share in the tribute from the private encomienda leaving a usually tidy sum for the encomendero to live the life of a hidalgo or gentleman in the islands.

In effect, the Spaniards were economically divided into those with encomiendas and those with none. To the latter category belonged most of the common soldiers. And they were a sorry lot. The only provisions they were entitled to get from joining an expedition were received at the port of embarkation. Upon arrival at the islands, the soldiers did not receive any more stipend from the crown. They were so poor that they had to ask for food at the houses of friends and beg for medicines when they got sick. One of the measures taken by the colony as the use of the fing’s fifth of all the gold discovered in the islands. For a considerable period, the fifth was reduced to a tenth. The difference was given to the support of the soldiers.

The demographic profile
of the colony

In the first eight years of the colonization, the total influx of Spaniards was estimated to be 700 soldiers. But the rate of attrition kept the actual population figure lower at every point of time during the formative period. The viceroy of Mexico notified the king in 1573 that he had been annually sending men and ships to the islands – but sea and land and climate have their effects and the people are actually but little increased in numbers.

Verily, the first Spanish colonists in the islands were all male. The instructions to Legaspi specifically prohibited him from bringing women in the expedition. It was on the ships in 1570 that women must have started to arrive in numbers. Those send in 1575 and 1580 were married couples who were supposed to devote themselves to the sowing and raising of crops and keep the population of Filipinas, as the colony was already called, viable.

In the first generation after Legaspi, however, the land grants remained largely idle and uncultivated. The Spaniards coming to the islands were hidalgos and not tillers of the soil. Despite repeated calls by the colony for farmers and settlers, they did not come in appreciable numbers. By 1588, only a few large farms were being worked. There was no planting of European crops and raising of livestock.

There was no reason for the colonists to work with their lands when manual labor was supplied by the natives. The encomiendas were of tribute and services. Under the system, the natives rendered compulsory labor ranging from cutting wood in the forest, manning the oars of ships and galleys and doing menial work in the parishes and houses of the encomienderos. There were also paid local hands who kept the quitodian aspects of colonial living possible – carpenters, metal workers, weavers, artisans. Among themselves, the Spaniards shared the highest occupations of soldiery, governance and trade.

The objective and methods of
Spanish colonization

The principal source of wealth of the Spaniards in the colony was, without comparison, the tribute collected from the encomiendas. It was the motive power that drove Spanish colonization across three continents and ultimately spelled its moral downfall. The encomienda was nothing more than a device to exact produce and labor services from the natives. But to acquire and enjoy the privilege, the conquistadors were ready to sail halfway around the world, spending their own fortunes and undergoing unimaginable hardships and trials. The encomienda system was a unique feature of Spanish colonization. We do not see it copied by any other colonial power. We shall see why.

In order to underwrite the colonial enterprise, the Spanish crown starting with the reyes catolicos Isabel and Fernando would approve a series of agreements with explorers, adventures and soldiers, mostly Spaniards, whose military tradition as a result of the reconquista was the best in Europe at the time and who saw in the new world further opportunities to power and personal aggrandizement. In these contracts called the capitulaciones, the Spanish rulers promised to these adventurers political and economic concessions and privileges in the new lands in exchange for their services and often their expenses in these ventures.

The first of the capitulaciones was entered into with the discoverer Cristobal Colon in 1492. Desirous of exacting tribute from the natives for himself, Colon introduced the encomienda in the Antilles. He allotted the natives among the colonists who then exacted personal services from them. Isabel was displeased by this move and instructed her new governor Ovando in 1502 to suppress the practice and direct the natives to pay tribute directly to the crown. The attempt failed to overcome the resistance of the colonists who needed the labor of the natives to exploit the precious metals and other resources of the islands. The decade after the introduction of the encomienda witnessed the wholesale exploitation of the natives and the first series of revolts against Spanish authority.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, 1511, from his pulpit in Santo Domingo, the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos started his diatribe. As he echoed John The Baptist’s lamentation yo soy la voz que clama en el desierto, the colonists were provoked into thinking if the natives were men with souls on whom war should not be made nor injustices committed. The conflicting points of view were brought to the attention of Fernando who convened a council of theologians and jurists to consider whether the repartimiento was in conformity with divine and human law. The conference resulted in the promulgation of the Leyes de Burgos in 1512 considered the first significant body of colonial legislation designed for the protection of the indigenous people.

The Leyes de Burgos did not abolish the encomienda, but introduced regulations that sought to humanize the institution. Implicit in its passage was the recognition of the thesis that the Spanish crown had the right to conquer and hold its overseas possessions. The just title that Spain had over its colonies was deduced from the Alexandrine bulls Inter Caetera bestowing on the reyes catolicos and their successors a delimited expanse of the New World and charging them with the duty to evangelize it. In order to spread the Catholic faith, the Spanish crown would have to colonize and possess the new lands.

And with what consequences. The century-and-a-half-long process of bringing the Americas under Spanish control visited the native populations with one of the worst demographic crashes in human history, a phenomenon that was replicated in the Philippines during the same period. The repression and ill-treatment of the natives persisted through the fall of the Incas in Peru and other native societies in Central America and the Antilles.

The judgment of a growing number of theologians and jurists was unforgiving. Among them were the Dominican priest Bartolome de Las Casas and the theologian Francisco de Vitoria whose teachings formed the basis of modern international law. Shocked by what they saw and heard, they were already calling into question the very right of Spain to be in the Americas. In this debate, the Spanish crown continued to assert its title to the New World on the basis of the papal donation, while slowly instituting measures to soften the harsh impact of the colonization and give a religious face to the conquest. It was in this climate of changing theological and political perspectives that Felipe II, at mid-century, came to the throne.

Under Felipe II, the colonization entered a new phase. It was no longer a conquista, but a pacificacion, an enterprise in which the vanguards were no longer men of the sword, but of the cloth. The peaceful incursion of the missionaries into the still unexplored regions of the New World became the dominant theme of Felipe’s historic Ordenanzas Para Nuevos Descubrimientos, Conquistas y Pacificaciones promulgated in 1573.

In a nutshell, the Ordenanzas envisioned the influx of the colonizers through the unoccupied fringes of a region or territory. From there, they would seek contact with the natives by way of commerce and trade. They would be led in their efforts to establish amicable relations with the natives by the priests and men other than soldiers who would make it known that they had come, not to engage in war but bring the Christian faith to them. The overall objective was still the same, to draw to the fold of the Church and to obedience to the crown all the natives of the territory, but the method was evangelical. The colonizers would respect the free will of the natives and use only force as a matter of self-defense.

In this sense, the Ordenanzas were a critical leap forward in the ideology of the colonization hewing more closely to Las Casas than Vitoria. To Vitoria, the natural right of the Spaniards to travel to other lands and preach the faith is founded on the social instincts common to all men to communicate with one another. If the natives would impede them in the exercise of the right, ignoring reason and persuasion, the Spaniards would be justified in engaging in war. The thinking is reflected in the 1556 Instructions of the king to Andres de Mendoza, viceroy of Peru. In this document, the charge given to the colonists to interact with the natives in peace was underpinned by an implicit right to enter their lands by force if the missionaries were prevented from preaching the faith. But, as Las Casas reasoned, if the Spaniards were to penetrate the heathen lands, they should only employ essentially persuasive means to turn the indigenous people to the faith. In the Ordenanzas, inspired by the philosophy of Las Casas, not even the refusal of the natives to accept the faith would be a ground for a just war, where they did not otherwise cause harm to the Spaniards. The Spanish colonial enterprise had completely become a mission of peace. Within the framework of the Ordenanzas, war as an instrument of colonization was decreed only in exceptional cases. In Filipinas, the governor-generals were periodically authorized to engage in a campaign of force against such groups as the Moros and Igorots. By and large, the further spread of Spanish power in the New World was to be in the shadow of the cross.

Abuses in the encomiendas

Since the crown was depending on the initiative and expenses of its explorers, the encomienda served as the means by which they were ultimately recompensed. The encomenderos were supposed to provide order and religious instruction to the natives - justicia y instruccion - and only after meeting these needs were they allowed to collect the tribute as grants to them for their trouble and expense in executing these tasks.

Unfortunately, the encomenderos did not bother about the procedural niceties. Early on, the missionaries bore witness to the extortions that the soldiers were committing on the natives. The most graphic accounts of the early abuses of the Spaniards in the islands were written by Bishop Domingo de Salazar, a suffagan of the Archbishop of Mexico who arrived in the islands in 1581 to assume his post as first bishop of Filipinas. The native chiefs of the villages of Tondo and Capaymasilo and many more from as far as Mauban, finding that they had an ally in Salazar, came to him with their grievances. Moved by their remonstrance, he sent his first lengthy memorial to the king in 1582, in which he narrated the distressing events that were happening in the encomiendas.

In the wake of severe protests from the ecclesiastics, the king had to remind the encomenderos that it was not right for them to compel the natives to pay tribute if they had not provided them with spiritual and temporal benefits. By 1590, Salazar was still lamenting the gross perversions of the pacification campaign: In the places where the name of God has never entered nor that of your majesty – in other words, where there was neither justicia nor instruccion - the natives must feel resentful that each year a dozen soldiers with arquebuses come to their houses to take their property…These soldiers afflict, maltreat and torment them, and to leave them, until they return another year to do the same. What else can these natives think of us but that we are tyrants and that we come only to make our gain out of their property and persons?

The Audiencia de Manila :
1583 and 1595

Bishop Salazar earned his niche in the history of the colony not only for his denunciation of the encomienda abuses. He was also instrumental in bringing about the establishment of a royal audiencia in Manila that substituted the collegial rule of the oidores for the absolute rule of the governor-general. His call for the audiencia was the outgrowth of his disenchantment with administration of the encomiendas which came to a head under Governor Ronquillo.

The Audiencia de Manila was created by royal edict issued in May 1583. It was the tenth established in the colonies. Headed by a president who was the governor-general and three oidores, the audiencia existed primarily as a judicial tribunal. But the oidores were also empowered to act with the governor in the issuance of legislative ordinances pending confirmation by the king, and in numerous administrative matters where they often served as a counterpoise to the governor.

The audiencia had the authority to keep the ecclesiastics in check. It also exercised oversight powers to secure the better treatment of the natives and their instruction in the Catholic faith. This was, in fact, ordained to be its chief mission in the fulfillment of which it was directly accountable to the king. The president and oidores were directed to exert great efforts to be informed of the crimes and abuses against the natives and punish the guilty with vigor.

The oidores were men of the law, the letrados, magistrates whose judicial functions were well-defined and understood. The source of the emerging difficulties would be in the vagueness and ambiguity with which their relationship with the governor in non-judicial matters was fixed. The charter creating the audiencia did not carve out with sufficient precision the respective spheres of competence of the governor and the oidores, with the result that the oidores engaged the governor in frequent, if not bitter disputes over the civil administration of the colony. The fate of the tribunal was sealed when the oidores antagonized Salazar as well.

One of the principal objections to the audiencia was a practical one. In letters to the king written in 1586, it was contended that the audiencia did not befit a colony that was small and meager in income. The capital town, Manila, had scarcely 70 adult citizens, and in other settlements together, not as many more. On the other hand, the cities and towns of Spain with a larger population and more litigation were successfully governed by only an alcalde mayor or corregidor.

The king abolished the audiencia in August 1589. A new governor Gomez Perez Dasmariñas arrived to take sole control of the colony, reasserting the role of chief judge, but with a legal adviser called an asesor to prepare his decisions and orders. Filipinas was once more reduced to a province under the jurisdiction of the Audencia of Mexico. But the evils of absolutism returned. It was a case of déjà vu. In the very first year of office of the new governor, the need for an audienca as a remedy against one-man rule was again felt.

In 1595, the Audiencia was re-established to function for the next 300 years.


Based on Salazar’s report in 1588, the number of tribute-paying Filipinos and their families stood at 673,600. The amount of the tribute originally fixed at eight reales was increased in 1586 to ten reales in order to allow for the situado, a portion of which was earmarked for the salaries of the soldiers. The military were now entitled to regular pay. The tributary population comprised those effectively brought under Spanish control. Yet it was conceded that there were still large parts of Luzon and Visayas to be pacified. Salazar calculated that with more missionaries, an additional 200,000 people could be reached. In hindsight, the encomienda system had reached its peak – only some 20 years after it was instituted. The available statistics would show that the tribute-paying population of the private encomiendas was on a downward spiral until the last of these grants was terminated near the end of the 18th century.

In 1591, at the height of the system, there were 236 private and 31 royal encomiendas under the tutelage of 140 religious and administratively divided into provinces governed by a dozen alcaldes. Spanish law had forbidden the Spaniards from residing outside the Spanish towns or cities which in Filipinas already numbered six. The only Spaniards allowed to live among the natives were the priests administering their parishes and the alcaldes who were usually found in the cabeceras of the provinces. A sweeping reorganization of the barangays had begun. The natives were being integrated into new and larger pueblos, a process that was to last until the next century and had for its objective the bringing of the natives closer to the parish priest – debajo de las campanas

Glimpses of the Spanish presence in the islands after three decades are afforded by accounts written in 1588 and 1591. Manila, its capital city, was populated by about 300 male adults if we are to include the 200 or more soldiers quartered among the civilians and natives. To this figure should be added the members of the religious community who numbered about 50. The 80-odd civilians were all connected with the colonial government. 50 were married to Spanish women and a few others to natives. There were 15 widows, 8 or 10 girls of marriageable age and some children.

The Spaniards were still spread thinly across the islands. Among the rest of the settlements, Villa Fernandina or Vigan was the smallest with only 5 or 6 adult residents. Dozens more resided in Nueva Segovia in Cagayan, Nueva Caceres in Camarines, Cebu and Arevalo in Panay – mostly encomenderos married to Spanish or native women and with whom an equal number of soldiers were quartered.

Once a settlement of bamboo and nipa, Manila was now rebuilt in stone and brick. The city’s main fort eventually known as Fort Santiago rose from the limestone blocks obtained from the quarries in Pasig. Along the perimeter of what is presently Intramuros, the stone walls were being constructed at a rapid pace. Within, the architectural style of the city was set by stone houses and tiled roofs that won the admiration of all who came. Manila became a city of genteel ambiance and color, the best in Asia at the time.

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