Philippines - History

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4 pictures of historically significant people.

Pre-Colonial Period
Spanish Colonization
The Philippine-American War
American Colony and Philippine Commonwealth
The Japanese Occupation and Filipino Resistance
Independence and Constitutional Government
Martial Law and Aftermath
The People's Power Movement
Return to Democracy

Pre-Colonial Period (23,000 BC - 1519 AD)

The Philippines are a collection of over 7000 islands in the South Pacific. The pre-colonial period of the islands is marked by successive waves of migration. The Aeta people seem to have been the first arrivals, coming from the Asian mainland some 25,000 years ago. The Aeta were hunter-gatherers who lived in temporary shelters. Between 3000 BC and 1000 BC, the Indonesians were the second group of immigrants to migrate to the island, engaging in dry agriculture and hunting and fishing to support themselves. The Malays were the third group of immigrants to settle in the Philippines, arriving in several waves between 200 BC and the thirteenth century AD. The Malays were more advanced than the Aeta or the Indonesians, using metal tools, engaging in more advanced forms of agriculture and domesticating animals for food production. The Filipino people emerged as these groups and other Asian arrivals intermarried and assimilated different cultural traditions.

Although the population of the Philippines was small when the Spanish arrived in 1521, the Spanish did not "discover" the Philippines. Starting in the eighth or ninth century, trade between China and the Philippine islands had already been established. Archeological evidence, including porcelain, jewelry and textiles, proves that there was active trade with the outside world. Remnants of contact with the Chinese also persist in the Tagalog language (the primary language spoken in the Phillipines).
Similarly, many Filipino traditions, religious concepts and terms, legends, and artistic elements are of Hindu and Indian origin. Most significantly, writing found on certain pieces of Philippine pottery bear writing similar to Indian Pali or Sanskrit. It is believed that these elements are a product of trade relationships with Southeast Asian islanders who had direct contact with India.

Finally, Arab influence was also felt in the Philippines. In the fifteenth century, Islam spread to the southern part of the island of Mindanao, and to the islands of Maguindanao and Sulu; this religion was adopted in the fifteenth century from neighboring islands where Islam predominated. Given the diverse nature of the interacting groups and cultures of Philippine archipelago, it is difficult to characterize the pre-colonial Philippines as having any uniform character; however, the diverse ethnic and cultural mix did contribute unique characteristics that would become common to Filipino culture.

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Spanish Colonization (1521 - 1898)

Drawing of Ferdinand Magellan
Ferdinand Magellan

In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set sail for the east in search of an alternate path to the spice islands of Southeast Asia. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Arabs controlled the Middle East and Mediterranean trade routes from Asia to Europe; as a result, the Spanish and Portuguese were seeking other routes that would give them direct access to the profitable Southeast Asian spice trade. Magellan set foot on the Philippines on March 17, 1521, at Limasawa, Leyte. On March 31, the first Catholic mass was celebrated, followed by the baptism of a local chief and about 800 of his subjects. On April 27, 1521, however, Magellan's visit was cut short when a local chief named Lapu-lapu killed him in battle. Magellan had departed Spain with five ships and 237 crewmembers; one ship and eighteen men would survive the trip back to Spain. Despite the high cost of the voyage, the Spanish spent the next forty years trying to establish an outpost in the Southwest Asian Spice Islands. In 1542, Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, commander of the fourth voyage back to the archipelago, named the islands for Prince Philip, heir to the Spanish throne - the West has known the islands as the Philippines ever since. Despite making several voyages back to the Philippines, Spain didn't establish a permanent foothold in the islands until 1565, when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi established a settlement at Cebu. In 1572, Legazpi moved his base of operations to Manila.


The Catholic Church played a critical role in allowing Spain to gain a foothold in the Philippines. Spanish missionaries were quick to learn local languages, and Catholic rituals were interpreted in accordance with natives' indigenous beliefs and values. As a result, a kind of folk Catholicism developed in the Philippines; 80% of the Philippine population still practices Catholicism. While Catholic missionaries were able to spread Spanish authority throughout the archipelago, Islam continued as the primary religion in southern Mindanao.

In order to support their colonial venture in the Philippines the Spanish collected a head tax, imposed forms of forced labor, and mandated the compulsory sale of agricultural products to the government. Since subsistence agriculture was the norm in the Philippines, these measures had an adverse impact on the population; rebellions were common, but the Spanish used "divide and conquer" techniques to prevent the emergence of a widespread revolutionary movement.

Andres Bonifacio

The Spanish also used Manila as a trade port, connecting markets in China with their colonies in Mexico and South America. Because of these contacts with China, the Chinese population of the Philippines increased rapidly. Chinese immigrants played a vital role in the archipelago's economy, acting as mid-level merchants and moneylenders. Since the non-Christian Chinese were viewed as "infidels" by Spanish authorities, they were forced to live in segregated ghettos in Manila. Through the centuries, however, the Chinese eventually intermarried with Spanish or indigenous peoples, adding even more diversity to the Philippines' cultural mix.

As Spain's colonial possessions in the Americas gained independence in the early nineteenth century, the Spanish were forced to re-evaluate their economic policies in the Philippines. In 1834, the port of Manila was opened to world trade. In addition, the production of cash crops increased greatly during the nineteenth century. As a class of wealthy landowners and merchants emerged, young Filipinos began traveling to Spain and other parts of Europe to complete their studies. These expatriate scholars soon formed the core of a new reform movement called the Propaganda Movement, which lasted roughly from 1880 to 1895. This movement called for the annexation of the Philippines, Filipino representation in the Spanish legislature, freedom of the speech and the press, and Filipino equality before the law. Intellectuals such as Jose Rizal and Marcelo del Pilar became the leading figures in this reform movement.

When calls for reform were ignored by Spanish officials, a secret, revolutionary group called the Katipunan gained popularity. The Katipunan was founded by Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto in 1892. The group was especially adept at recruiting peasants and members of the working class. While Jose Rizal, a key figure of the Propaganda Movement, opposed the Katipunan's calls for Philippine independence, the Katipunan viewed Rizal as the key figure of Philippine resistance; Rizal's imprisonment in 1892 and subsequent execution in 1896 emboldened the resolve of the revolutionary group. As the war for independence gained momentum, members of the Philippine elite became active in the Katipunan. This became significant when General Emilio Aguinaldo, a wealthy landowner, took control of the Katipunan and had Andres Bonifacio executed. Aguinaldo modified the goals of the group to include the possibility of Philippine integration into the Spanish empire in exchange for church lands. This move prompted some to suggest that Aguinaldo and other elites were willing to betray the original goals of the Katipunan as long as the elites' self-serving interests were met. The war against the Spanish continued, however.

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The Philippine-American War (1899-1902)

In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain. After defeating Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, the United States purchased the Philippines, Cuba and several other islands from Spain. Although Aguinaldo and the Philippine rebels saw this conflict as an opportunity to gain independence, it soon became apparent that the US intended to maintain a presence in the Philippines. Having fought the Spanish since 1896, the Kapitunan was not willing to surrender its goal of Philippine independence.

On February 4, 1899, fighting broke out between Filipino and American troops. Although Filipino forces were ill equipped to fight a conventional war against American forces, a protracted guerrilla war began. In an attempt to quell guerrilla resistance, Americans started relocating entire villages to keep them under surveillance. Retaliatory measures were also very harsh; if an individual in a village was suspected of being responsible for an attack on American forces, the entire village would be burned to the ground. While it is estimated that 20,000 Filipino soldiers died fighting the Americans, several hundred thousand civilians perished due to disease, starvation or other war-related causes. Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in March of 1902, and organized resistance to American occupation soon ended. However, scattered pockets of Philippine resistance persisted for the next decade.

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American Colony and Philippine Commonwealth (1901-1941)

Manuel Quezon

In 1902 the United States passed the Philippine Organic Act, which established a government consisting of a bicameral legislature, and appointed a Governor-General as the chief executive of the Philippines. The first elections to the Philippine assembly were held in 1907; the Nacionalista Party, headed by Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmena, won the election and would dominate Philippine electoral politics until World War II. In 1935, the Philippines were granted commonwealth status. The new Philippine Constitution of 1935 called for the creation of a judicial branch and an elected president.

The United States established a system of universal education based on the American model; English was the primary language of instruction. Rates of literacy increased dramatically, and there were significant improvements in public health during the period of American administration. Improvements in infrastructure and communications were also dramatic. Critics, however, point out that while the country's landed elites benefited greatly from American rule, little was done to address the problems of the peasant masses. The most common arrangement for tenant farmers was a sharecropping system, which often left cultivators deeply in debt. In addition, improvements in public health had led to a dramatic increase in population, thus putting additional economic pressure on tenant farmers' ability to support their families. The failure to enact significant social changes or land reform became a recurrent cause of violent discontent, revolt and insurrection.

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The Japanese Occupation and Filipino Resistance (1941 - 1945)

The Japanese attacked the Philippines ten hours after the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. While Filipino and American soldiers fought bravely to maintain a defense until reinforcements could arrive, they were overwhelmed on Bataan and Corregidor. Despite the defeat of regular troops, armed resistance continued under the United States Armed Forces in the Far East and the Hukbalahap (Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army). The Hukbalahap were active in central Luzon. In addition to fighting against Japanese occupation, the Huks protected peasants from excessive exploitation by landlords. The loyalty they earned from peasants during the Japanese occupation would yield benefits when they mobilized after the war.

The years of occupation were a difficult time for the Philippines. The dislocation created by the war meant many fields went untended, and many of those that stayed in cultivation were forcibly switched from rice to cotton production. Despite decreased food production, many peasants found that they had greater food supplies during the war than they had before the war - a product of the decreased influence of the landlord class in their daily affairs. In addition to the disruption in agriculture, nearly 80% of all buildings and infrastructure in the Philippines were destroyed by the time the war ended.

In 1945, Allied troops liberated the Philippines; this liberation, however, came at great cost - the Americans lost 60,000 men, there were an estimated 300,000 Japanese casualties, and over a million Filipinos lost their lives in the conflict. Aside from the economic and human costs of the war, the period of Japanese occupation also created political divisions that would survive into the postwar period. Prior to his departure for exile in the United States in 1941, Philippine President Quezon asked several government officials to remain in order to cooperate with Japanese officials. He hoped that with the cooperation of the Filipinos, the occupation might be less severe. Following this morally ambiguous example, the Philippine elite, with relatively few exceptions, collaborated extensively with the Japanese. The majority of the Philippine people, however, mounted an incredibly effective resistance to the Japanese. By the war's end, members of the resistance firmly believed that the widespread collaboration and corruption of the country's landed elites disqualified them from being able to assert any governing authority.

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Independence and Constitutional Government (1945 - 1972)

With the Philippines liberated from Japanese occupation, the Philippines began preparing for political independence. In the newly independent Philippines' presidential election of 1946, Liberal Party candidate Manuel Roxas defeated Sergio Osmena, receiving 54 percent of the vote. Although some critics claimed that Roxas had been a collaborator, he received the support of American General Douglas MacAuthur. Roxas was sworn into office on July 4, 1946 and served until his death in 1948. Given the level of economic destruction left in the wake of the war, Roxas faced the difficult task of getting the Philippine economy back running again. In exchange for certain concessions by the newly independent republic, the United States pledged economic aid and assistance to rebuild the country. The terms of this agreements included allowing American citizens the same rights to exploit the country's natural resources as Filipinos, and permitting the US to locate military bases in the Philippines. Critics argued that the terms of these agreements forced the Philippines to surrender a significant share of its newly won sovereignty.

In addition to the task of rebuilding the Philippine economy, the Roxas government was forced to deal with a large rebellion. During the war, the Huks were active in fighting the Japanese occupation. In the 1946 election, several members of the leftist Democratic Alliance were elected to Congress, including Huk leader Luis Taruc. The new government, however, refused to seat the new members because of alleged terrorist tactics used in the elections. This electoral challenge, coupled with the return of landlords to the countryside, sparked a rebellion that spread throughout rural areas of the Philippines. The highpoint of the Huk rebellion came between 1949 and 1951; it is estimated that there were 15,000 insurgents active during this period. While the core of Huk leadership adhered to socialist principles, evidence suggests that peasants were less interested in establishing socialism than they were in improving their economic situation.

In 1953, Ramon Magsaysay was elected president. Magsaysay undertook a series of rural reforms, including the construction of roads, bridges, and irrigation canals, and also established courts for landlord-tenant disputes and made credit available to farmers. These measures, combined with the capture of many Huk leaders, seemed to calm the rebellious situation in the countryside. In 1957, President Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash and his vice president, Carlos Garcia, became president; Garcia was subsequently elected to the presidency in the 1957 elections.
Diosdado Macapagal defeated Garcia in the presidential election of 1961. Under Macapagal's leadership, the Philippines renegotiated the terms of U.S. leases for its military bases in the Philippines. Under the new terms, U.S. use of Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Airbase were to end in 1991.

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was elected to the presidency. During his first term, Marcos initiated significant public works projects that benefited the peasants and enriched his political cronies and political supporters. Although Marcos paid lip service to a land reform program, he did little to implement the program for fear of alienating the landed elites. Marcos was re-elected to the presidency in 1969. While there was widespread agreement that the Philippines would benefit from making revisions to the U.S.-authored 1935 constitution, many political outsiders feared that Marcos was using calls for political reform to subvert the constitution's presidential term limit provision. Opponents who were suspicious of Ferdinand Marcos' political motives were proven right in 1972.

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Martial Law and Aftermath (1972 - 1983)

In September of 1972, Ferdinand Marcos staged a fake assassination attempt on his Minister of National Defense. In turn, he used this event as an excuse to declare martial law. Marcos closed the Philippine Congress and arrested 30,000 political opponents, students, labor activists and intellectuals. He assumed near dictatorial powers for the next decade.
Under the Marcos regime, a system of monopolistic practices became widespread. Friends and supporters of the government received support for their ventures, while competitors were openly discouraged. The monopolistic practices in the agricultural sector had a severe impact on the country's peasants. Growers of sugarcane, coconuts and other commodities were forced to sell their produce to government supported monopolies at rates far lower than world market prices. While wealthy Marcos supporters benefited from these practices, poverty in the countryside worsened considerably. As a result, communist insurgency increased during the late-1970's and early-1980's.

In order to maintain his control over the country, Marcos greatly expanded the powers of the military during his rule. Armed forces personnel increased from about 58,000 members in 1971, to over 142,000 in 1983. In exchange for support of the military, commanders were often rewarded with opportunities to exploit the local economies. Since military personnel had an economic stake in quelling peasant discontent, their methods of policing the countryside were especially brutal; death-squad murders were commonplace during the Marcos regime.

Bowing to international pressure, Ferdinand Marcos declared the end of martial law on January 17, 1981. While some controls were loosened, the corrupt Marcos regime continued its dominance of the Philippine economy and military apparatus.

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The People's Power Movement (1983 - 1986)

When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he had his political opponents jailed. On of his most popular political opponents was Benigno Aquino, a skilled politician from Central Luzon. If Marcos had allowed the 1973 presidential elections to be held, Aquino would have won. However, Aquino was among the first people to be jailed when martial law was imposed. Due to pressure placed on the government, Aquino was released from prison in 1980 and allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment. Benigno Aquino and his wife, Corazon, became important expatriate opponents of the Marcos regime during the three years they spent in the United States.

In 1983, Aquino and his wife decided to return to the Philippines to promote true democratization of the country. As Aquino stepped off the plane he was shot and killed as part of a conspiracy by the Philippine military. Benigno Aquino's assassination gave increased weight for calls to end to the Marcos regime. His funeral drew millions of mourners in a massive outpouring of sympathy and defiance. As the democracy movement gained momentum, Aquino's widow, Corazon, became the focal point of anti-government protest, uniting diverse interest groups opposed to the corrupt Marcos regime.

Facing domestic and international pressure, Ferdinand Marcos announced an election to be held in February of 1986, a year before his six-year presidential term was scheduled to end. Corazon Aquino formed a political alliance with Salvador Laurel, another popular opponent of the Marcos regime. Official results claimed that Marcos won the election, but there were widespread accusations of election tampering. On February 22, 1986, General Fidel Ramos, commander of the Philippine Constabulary, demanded that Marcos resign from office. Forces loyal to Ramos established rebel headquarters on military bases close to Manila. When hundreds of thousands of civilians turned out to support the rebels, government troops defected and joined in supporting Marcos' ouster. On February 25, 1986, the same day as his inauguration ceremony, Marcos boarded a plane and headed into exile. The bloodless coup, known as the People's Power Movement, swept Corazon Aquino into power.

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Return to Democracy (1986 - present)

Fidel Ramos

Corazon Aquino and her supporters successfully re-established democratic institutions in the Philippines, as a vibrant multi-party system emerged. Economic reform, however, was far more problematic; the Philippines were saddled with a huge foreign dept that sapped the economy's strength, and attempts at agrarian land reform were met with opposition in the Philippine Congress. Aquino also had difficulty placating the military, surviving seven coup attempts in her six-year term of office.

In 1992, Aquino's Defense Minister, Fidel Ramos, succeeded Aquino as president. Under Ramos' administration, the Philippine economy recovered to some extent, and the Ramos government was able to negotiate a peace treaty with the Islamic Moro National Liberation Front, a group that had been fighting for a separate Muslim state on Mindanao for almost twenty-five years.

Corazon Aquino

In the 1998 presidential election a popular movie actor named Joseph Estrada won the presidency. Although he had little experience in public office, his public notoriety catapulted him into the presidency. In 2000, Estrada faced charges of corruption, and a messy impeachment proceeding was convened. Although Estrada was acquitted by the Philippine Senate, he resigned in January of 2001 and was replaced by his vice president, Gloria Arroyo. Under Arroyo, the Philippines have been forced to face the challenge of terrorism as mounted by separatist Islamic groups in the Southern Philippines.

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