Why was the Philippines’ last nineteenth-century period as a Spanish colony so complex and so bloody for Spanish interests? To answer this question, it should first be pointed out that it was a posession with highly complex territorial and demographic characteristics. It was made up of a group of independent islands, geographically classifiable into three groups: the island of Luzon (north), the Bisayas group (central part) and the island of Mindanao (south), populated by inhabitants who were neither racially nor linguistically homogeneous. Moreover, at the time of the Spanish arrival, there was no centralised power, but the islands were divided among several thalassocracies that often fought each other, ruled by various data, rajahs or sultans.
Spain Insuring the Glory of the Philippines by Juan Luna y Novicio
These factors made colonisation of these lands extremely difficult. Moreover, during the three centuries of Spanish rule (1565-1898), they were generally undervalued by the governments in Madrid and by mainland Spaniards. This meant that it was always poorly budgeted and garrisoned, especially considering its enormous size. Nevertheless, practically until the arrival of the 19th century, a more or less stable colonisation was achieved through the policy of the sword and the cross, which was also carried out in America. The Christianisation of these lands, as in the Americas, acted, on the one hand, as a legitimising basis for their conquest and colonisation and, on the other hand, as a glue that united all peoples. However, this was never to be achieved in Mindanao, as there had already been a large Muslim community, very reluctant to both conversion and Spanish domination. In fact, the major problems from the beginning were always the constant piratical attacks, mainly from the Muslims of Mindanao and Jolo, as well as the endemic problems of banditry.
But it was from the 19th century onwards that the problems became more acute. Why? Firstly, because at that time, both the great Western powers and Meiji Japan were already aspiring to possess colonies in the Pacific, and the Philippines was a highly succulent target for their interests. They would therefore secretly seek to influence, advise and even finance insurrectionary movements against Spain.
José Rizal, Marcelo Hilario del Pilar y Mariano Ponce
On the other hand, with the advent of liberalism and the beginning of independence movements in Spanish America, various demonstrations against Spanish rule also began to appear in the Philippines. As early as 1823, there was a first uprising, that of Andrés Novales, which was followed by other uprisings in 1848, 1852 and, above all, in 1868. Although all of them were successfully put down, it was precisely after the September Revolution, and with the arrival in Spain of some sons of wealthy Filipino families (sent to study in the universities, mainly in Madrid and Barcelona), that the so-called ilustrados, such as José Rizal, appeared on the scene. The Filipinos, imbued with liberal ideas, began to feel attracted to Freemasonry, and above all, they understood that their people were not inferior to the Spanish. This realisation led them, from the second half of the 19th century onwards, to question the Spanish colonial system.
This situation became more acute from the 1970s onwards, with the progressive discontent of the Filipino population due to the indignation of the intellectual minority, who despaired at the lack of liberal reforms for the Philippines, the oppression of the indigenous clergy and the hostility towards the enormous power and influence of the Spanish religious orders (“frailecracy”). This led to progressive anti-clericalism in the Philippines. And finally, the shooting of three Filipino clergymen (“Gomburza”) after the Cavite Mutiny, a new uprising in 1872.
All this created the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of new movements, both reformist and pro-independence. Perhaps the first wave of mobilisation came from the reformists, led by Jose Rizal, who shaped the political ideology that would lay the foundations of Philippine nationalism. On the one hand, he published his successful novels of denunciation (Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo), and on the other hand, in 1889, he founded the Liga Filipina as a civic, peaceful and reformist movement against the Spanish Administration. However, although it was deeply rooted among intellectuals, it did not take root among the popular classes. And since it did not succeed in modifying Spain’s immobile policy in the archipelago, a faction within the association was formed in favour of a more revolutionary policy that pursued, as its ultimate goal, Philippine independence through armed insurrection.
This was the origin of the Katipunan, a secret Masonic society founded in 1896, which, under the two-headed leadership of Andrés Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, would end up leading the so-called Tagala Revolt that would put the Spanish Administration in check. The Katipunan did manage to mobilise the peasantry and the lower classes with great success. In addition, the execution of Rizal by the Spanish administration, accused of promoting the insurrection, contributed to the spread of the war throughout the Philippine archipelago.
Filipino Ilustrados in Madrid
However, the actions of the various military commanders managed to put a stop to it. First, in the figure of General Blanco, who, with few forces, managed to stop the first insurrectionary advance; then with Polavieja who, with his more aggressive strategy, the arrival of peninsular reinforcements and thanks to the successful formation of the Lachambre Division, managed to reduce the revolutionary fire. And finally, with the more conciliatory Primo de Rivera, who achieved the Biak-na-Bató pact (1897), putting an end to the conflict.
However, the worst was yet to come, for shortly afterwards, in 1898, the United States began its attack which, allied with the Filipino pro-independence forces, would end up defeating the Spanish and putting an end to the long Spanish colonial rule.