The Spanish Period-Part 3


When the Spaniards came to the Philippines in the 16th century, the ancestors of the Filipinos had long by then al-ready established lucrative trading relationships with Chi-na, Japan, Siam, India, Cambodia, Borneo and the Moluc-cas. When the colonial government established itself in Manila they continued trade relations with these countries. Manila be-came the center of commerce in the East when they established the Manila-Acapulco trade route called the ‘Galleon Trade’ in 1565 which lasted through to the 19th century, ceasing altogether in 1815. This trade brought silver from Mexico (New Spain), which was used to purchase Asian goods such as silk from China, spices from the Moluccas, lacquer ware from Japan and Philippine cotton textiles. The goods were then exported to Mexico and ultimately Europe by way of Manila.

Over time, however, the authorities of the colony diminished trading activities with others by eventually closing the ports of Manila to all countries except Mexico. The reason for this was that the Galleon Trade was a government monopoly.

Until 1593, three or more ships would set sail annually from each port. But after that year, only two galleons were used: One sailed east across the Pacific Ocean from Acapulco to Manila with some 500,000 pesos worth of goods, spending 120-days at sea; the other sailed west in the opposite direction from Manila to Acapulco with some 250,000 pesos worth of goods spending 90-days at sea.

Trade served as the fundamental source of income for Spanish colonists in the Philippine Islands. A total of 110 Manila galleons set sail in the 250-years of the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. The Manila trade was becoming so lucrative that the merchants of Seville (image, right) in Spain who controlled it, petitioned King Philip II to tighten further the monopoly of the Casa de Contratación, which was based in that city. This led to the passing of a decree in 1593 that set a limit of two ships sailing each year from either port, with one kept in reserve in Acapulco and one in Manila.

With such limitations imposed, however, it was essential to build the largest possible gal-leons, which were the largest class of ships known to have been built anywhere up to that time. These new class of ships could also accommodate a good number of passengers. An “armada” or armed escort of smaller galleons, was also approved. Since the volume of the much sought after goods and commodities from each port was limited to sailing of one ship per year, the merchants could now demand much higher prices.

Being able to carry passengers on board and with escorts for protection and safety, weal-thy Filipino families were afforded the opportunity to travel freely to other parts of the world. Sons of the wealthy went off to study in universities across Europe and in doing so imbibed on the liberal environments they could not find back home.    


While the Mexican War of Independence of 1815 put a permanent stop to the galleon trade route in the Pacific, enough time had passed since its inauguration to allow modern, liberal ideas to filter into the Philip-pine colony when young expatriates returned home after their studies. They were collectively called the ‘Illustrados’ (the ‘Enlightened Ones’), and eventually inspired the movement for indepen-dence from Spain.

Because the Spaniard overlords were so engrossed in making profits from the Galleon Trade, they neither had any time nor were inclined to develop further the rich natural resources of the archipelago that would improve the lot of Filipinos as a whole much less take notice of a growing undercurrent of resentments fueled by the long-standing inequi-ties, excesses and abuses the powerful encomenderos and the Spanish friars continued to saddle the population across the colony.

The Illustrados themselves were also a result of changes that the Spanish government had been slowly implementing, but the group could not really push very hard for the reforms they wanted and they did not succeeded in easing the burden and sufferings of their fellow Filipinos. Yet, from this group arose another faction called the ‘Intelligentsia’ (the ‘Think-ers’) who also wanted reforms. They were more systematic and but also employed peace-ful means.

Nevertheless, the executions of Gomburza was the spark that ignited even stronger feel-ings of anger and resentment among the general population in the islands. They questioned colonial authorities and their practices and increasingly demanded reforms. The martyr-dom of the three priests also inspired the organisation of the Propaganda Movement foun-ded by an even smaller group of the Intelligentsia who sought to inform Spain through the power of the pen and the press the abuses of its colonial government. Its most prominent members included Jose Rizal, Graciano Lopez Jaena and Marcelo H. del Pilar.

The Propaganda Movement never demanded for Philip-pine independence because its members believed that once Spain realized the pitiful state of its ‘Jewel in the East’, this would compel the King and the Spanish Cortez (parlia-ment) to implement the changes that Filipinos were seek-ing.

The Movement, however, did not succeed in its pursuit of reforms. The colonial govern-ment did not agree to any of its demands. At that time, Spain itself was experiencing in-ternal problems and explains why it failed to heed the petitions of the Filipinos. The friars, on the other hand, were at the height of their power and displayed even more arrogance in flaunting their influence. They had neither the time nor the desire to listen to the cry of the people.

The 19th century was fast closing and it all came to a boil with the arrest and execution of Rizal – the Movement’s most erudite member, in the field of Bagumbayan (now called the Rizal Park) by firing squad at the close of December 1896. Following that event, the senti-ment for peaceful reform dissipated quickly. The firebrand Andres Bonifacio and other ra-dical members of the secret organization he founded in 1892 known as the ‘Katipunan’ had decided that the time for armed struggle and revolution had finally come. They were con-vinced that only through the smoking barrels of guns and cannons and the sharp slash of swords spilling Spanish blood would their patria adorada the Philippines be finally rid of their colonial oppressors.

The thin line separating war from peace had been crossed irreversibly. 

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