A Brief History of The Philippines

By Tim Lambert

The Early Philippines

The Philippines is named after King Philip II of Spain (1556-1598) and it was a Spanish colony for over 300 years. Today the Philippines is an archipelago of 7,000 islands. However, it is believed that during the last ice age they were joined to mainland Asia by a land bridge, enabling human beings to walk from there.

The first people in the Philippines were hunter-gatherers. However, between 3,000 BC and 2,000 BC, people learned to farm. They grew rice and domesticated animals. From the 10th AD century Filipinos traded with China and by the 12th Century AD Arab merchants reached the Philippines and they introduced Islam.

Then in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan sailed across the Pacific. He landed in the Philippines and claimed them for Spain. Magellan baptized a chief called Humabon and hoped to make him a puppet ruler on behalf of the Spanish crown. Magellan demanded that other chiefs submit to Humabon but one chief named Lapu Lapu refused. Magellan led a force to crush him. However, the Spanish soldiers were scattered and Magellan was killed.

The Spaniards did not gain a foothold in the Philippines until 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi led an expedition, which built a fort in Cebu. Later, in 1571 the Spaniards landed in Luzon. Here they built the city of Intramuros (later called Manila), which became the capital of the Philippines. Spanish conquistadors marched inland and conquered Luzon. They created a feudal system. Spaniards owned vast estates worked by Filipinos.

Along with conquistadors went friars who converted the Filipinos to Catholicism. The friars also built schools and universities.

The Spanish colony in the Philippines brought prosperity – for the upper class anyway! Each year the Chinese exported goods such as silk, porcelain, and lacquer to the Philippines. From there they were re-exported to Mexico.

The years passed uneventfully in the Philippines until in 1762 the British captured Manila. They held it for two years but they handed it back in 1764 under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763.

The Philippines in the 19th Century

In 1872 there was a rebellion in Cavite but it was quickly crushed. However nationalist feelings continued to grow helped by a writer named Jose Rizal (1861-1896). He wrote two novels Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Filibusterer) which stoked the fires of nationalism.

In 1892 Jose Rizal founded a movement called Liga Filipina, which called for reform rather than revolution. As a result, Rizal was arrested and exiled to Dapitan on Mindanao.

Meanwhile, Andres Bonifacio formed a more extreme organization called the Katipunan. In August 1896 they began a revolution. Jose Rizal was accused of supporting the revolution, although he did not and he was executed on 30 December 1896. Yet his execution merely inflamed Filipino opinion and the revolution grew.

Then in 1898 came the war between the USA and Spain. On 30 April 1898, the Americans defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Meanwhile, Filipino revolutionaries surrounded Manila. Their leader, Emilio Aguinaldo declared the Philippines independent on 12 June. However, as part of the peace treaty, Spain ceded the Philippines to the USA. The Americans planned to take over.

The war between American forces in Manila and the Filipinos began on 4 February 1899. The Filipino-American War lasted until 1902 when Aguinaldo was captured.

The Philippines in the 20th Century

American rule in the Philippines was paternalistic. They called their policy ‘Benevolent Assimilation. They wanted to ‘Americanize’ the Filipinos but they never quite succeeded. However, they did do some good. Many American teachers were sent to the Philippines in a ship called the Thomas and they did increase literacy.

In 1935 the Philippines were made a commonwealth and were semi-independent. Manuel Quezon became president. The USA promised that the Philippines would become completely independent in 1945.

However, in December 1941, Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. On 10 December 1941 Japanese troops invaded the Philippines. They captured Manila on 2 January 1941. By 6 May 1942, all of the Philippines were in Japanese hands.

However American troops returned to the Philippines in October 1944. They recaptured Manila in February 1945.

The Philippines became independent on 4 July 1946. Manuel Roxas was the first president of the newly independent nation. n Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989) was elected president in 1965. He was re-elected in 1969. However, the Philippines was dogged by poverty and inequality. In the 1960s a land reform program began. However many peasants were frustrated by its slow progress and a Communist insurgency began in the countryside.

On 21 September 1972 Marcos declared martial law. He imposed a curfew, suspended Congress, and arrested opposition leaders.

The Marcos dictatorship was exceedingly corrupt and Marcos and his cronies enriched themselves.

Then, in 1980 opposition leader Benigno Aquino went into exile in the USA. When he returned on 21 August 1983 he was shot. Aquino became a martyr and Filipinos were enraged by his murder.

In February 1986 Marcos called an election. The opposition united behind Cory Aquino the widow of Benigno. Marcos claimed victory (a clear case of electoral fraud). Cory Aquino also claimed victory and ordinary people took to the streets to show their support for her. The followers of Marcos deserted him and he bowed to the inevitable and went into exile.

Things did not go smoothly for Corazon Aquino. (She survived 7 coup attempts). Furthermore, the American bases in the Philippines (Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base) were unpopular with many Filipinos who felt they should go. In 1992 Mount Pinatubo erupted and covered Clark in volcanic ash forcing the Americans to leave. They left Subic Bay in 1993.

In 1992 Fidel Ramos became president. He improved the infrastructure in the Philippines including the electricity supply. Industry was privatized and the economy began to grow more rapidly.

However, at the end of the 1990s, the Philippine economy entered a crisis. Meanwhile, in 1998 Joseph Estrada, known as Erap became president. Estrada was accused of corruption and he was impeached in November 2000. Estrada was not convicted. Nevertheless, people demonstrated against him and the military withdrew its support. Estrada was forced to leave office and Vice-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo replaced him. She was re-elected in 2004.

The Philippines in the 21st Century

Today the Philippines is still poor but things are changing rapidly. After 2010 the Philippine economy grew at about 6% a year. It is rapidly industrializing and growing more propserous. Meanwhile, In 2016 the Philippines launched its first satellite. It was called Diwata-1. In 2024 the population of the Philippines was 114 million.


Last Revised 2024