Magellan, who claimed the archipelago for Spain in 1521, died in a battle with a group of local warriors led by Lapu Lapu at Mactan Island. It was Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, in the fourth Spanish expedition, who named the territory as Filipinas after the heir to the Spanish throne in 1543. In 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi led an expedition to colonize the islands and by 1571, most parts of the archipelago came under Spanish rule.
The Spaniards established the colonial government first in Cebu in 1565 and then in Manila in 1571. Historians claim that University of San Carlos in Cebu and University of Sto. Tomas in Manila are the oldest universities teaching European type of education in Asia. Jesuit and Dominican priests established the two institutions.
Under Spanish rule, Catholicism became the dominant religion. Catholic friars not only lorded over the congregations; they enjoyed vast political and economic influence, which they eventually used to repress Filipino peasants’ uprisings in the largely feudal Philippine society at that time. The Spaniards also quelled a number of rebellions instigated by the Chinese migrants. The friars distributed lands to Spanish families, who later comprised the landowning class. To perpetuate their economic interests, this class would also rise to become the political elite that would remain in power to this day.
This gave way to the hacienda system in the Philippines, where cacique or landowners managed large tracts of lands tilled by peasant workers. Under the system, farmers were supposed to receive half of the harvest, but they usually ended up with much less because they had to pay for large interests on debt incurred from the cacique. This would be later corrected with a system of land reform, which, however, remains to be fully implemented to this day.
The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade became the major trading system between Asia and the Americas for nearly two centuries. Manila became a transhipment point of American silver to China. It was through this trade that the first Chinese silk and porcelain reached the shores of the New World. There were unverified claims that Filipinos helped build the city of Los Angeles in America. The Chinese and Filipinos would later become the two largest Asian migrant groups in the United States.
Coconut became the country’s top agricultural product, because of Spain’s huge need for charcoaled coconut shells used for the caulking of the galleons. In 1642, the colonial government issued an edict requiring each Filipino to plant 200 coconut trees all over the country. By 1910, coconut exports would account for a fifth of total Philippine exports and to this day, coconut oil remains the country’s top agricultural shipment.
The Galleon Trade lasted for about 200 years until 1815. It is during this period that rice and tropical fruits from the Philippines such as mango and banana made their way to Latin America. Beginning 1750, Spanish priests encouraged the development of plantations to grow abaca (hemp), tobacco, coffee and sugar. Sugar barons from the Visayas would later emerge as among the richest clans in the country.
From 1762 to 1764, the British briefly captured Manila during the Seven Years War. The treaty of Paris ended the British occupation and returned the colony to the hands of their original colonial masters.
In 1781, the Spanish governor established the tobacco monopoly in the Philippines, which would become a major source of revenue for the colonial government. From 1820 to 1870, the Philippines would be transformed to an agricultural export economy. Located on the oceanic trading routes connecting Asia to other parts of the world, the Philippines became a transhipment point of merchandise goods from all over Southeast Asia on their way to Europe.
The Philippines exported plantation crops such as sugar, abaca, other fibres, tobacco, coffee, and coconut products to China, Spain, United States, United Kingdom and British East Indies. In return, it imported textiles and rice.
Historians claim that Spain administered the Philippine affairs through Mexico. Spanish administrators in the country were actually reporting to the Viceroyalty of Mexico. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Madrid directly governed its only Asian colony and even allowed rich Filipinos to study in Europe. The Spanish rule gave way to the rise of a small but highly powerful elite class, which to this day, controls most of the Philippine economy. The elite families, which own large plantations, were able to send their children to Europe for education.
Investors from Spain, Germany, Britain and other European countries laid the groundwork for utility companies in steam navigation, cable, telegraphy, railroads and electricity in the country. They also invested heavily in rice and sugar milling, textile and banking. The local elite developed the brewing industry, which would become one of the most profitable sectors in the economy.
Although the educated Filipinos who studied in Europe shunned the use of force to topple the colonial government, their writings provoked nationalist sentiments among young men, who eventually formed a revolutionary movement against Spain. In 1896, the war between Spanish and Filipino soldiers escalated following the death of novelist Jose Rizal and rebel leader Andres Bonifacio. Emilio Aguinaldo, the new leader of the revolutionary forces, forged a pact with US Commodore George Dewey in Hong Kong to defeat the Spanish army.