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History of the Philippines

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The Philippines, a group of over 7,000 islands with combined land area encompassing 300,000 square kilometres, grew into a nation under more than three centuries of Spanish conquest and 42 years of American rule. It is the first country outside the New World that closely witnessed the United States’ rise to power following the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Situated 800 kilometres southeast of mainland Asia, the archipelago, named after King Philip II of Spain, was discovered in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan, the same explorer who had discovered the Pacific Ocean in search of the so-called “Spice Islands” and is now widely considered the first navigator to have cruised around the planet.

Ironically, the Filipinos, after having been subdued for centuries by foreign colonizers as a result of Magellan’s voyage, would emerge as the best seafarers in the world, manning a third of all international vessels today. Some 7.8 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and Filipino migrants would help rebuild cities in many countries and bring back over US$10 billion in annual remittances to their families in the Philippines.

The country’s geographical location and long exposure to foreign influences has placed the Philippines on a unique cultural base in Asia. It is now the only predominantly Catholic country in the region, with 70 million out of its total population of 85 million (as of 2005) confessing to be Catholic. There are also large numbers of Protestants and Born-Again Christians in the country while the Muslim population is concentrated in southern Mindanao.

Early Trade

The first inhabitants of the Philippines were the Negritos who traveled from mainland Asia over a land bridge that is now underwater. Migrants from other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia later followed and established a Malayan culture that flourished before the Spaniards came. Chinese and Arab merchants helped establish markets at the community level.

A sultanate system, first established in the southern island of Sulu in the 14th century, is believed to have reached the islands of Luzon and Visayas, giving way to the rise of the Islamic faith. The Spaniards would later drive the Muslims to the south and establish Catholicism as the main religion in the north and central parts of the country.

Local villages, known as barangay, traded agricultural and fishery products with each other. The Igorot tribe in Northern Luzon carved the marvellous Banaue Rice Terraces from the mountains, a proof of their advanced agriculture technology. Communities near the shore exchanged goods with Chinese and Arab merchants, who came aboard large ships. These communities traded slaves, gold, beeswax, betel nuts, pearls, and shells for porcelain, silk, iron, tin and semi-precious stones.

The Philippine islands were a part of an extensive trade route used by Chinese merchants as early as the 10th century. By the time Magellan arrived in the islands, regular trade and cultural contact between Chinese traders and local chieftains were firmly instituted. Many Chinese merchants settled in the country and shared their crafts with the natives. Some historians claim that an Italian Franciscan priest, named Father Odorico, was actually the first European to have reached the Philippines in 1324 when his ship bound for China took refuge from a storm in Bolinao Island in northern part of Luzon.

Aside from the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Cordillera Mountains, early settlers did not leave any giant monument, and this is what makes conservative historians doubt the existence of the rich kingdoms in the country hundreds of years ago. However, it cannot be denied that early Filipinos were learned individuals who expressed their beliefs and sentiments in rich languages. According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), there are actually 78 language groupings and over 500 dialects in the Philippines.

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