Ancient Filipinos stuck to their own islands until the 16th century, when Ferdinand Magellan claimed the islands for Spain and began the bloody process of Christianisation. Filipinos revolted and won their independence in 1898, only to have the Americans take over, whereupon they revolted again and lost. Out of the bloody ashes of WWII rose an independent republic. However, the defining moment of modern Filipino history is the overthrow of elected hardliner President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 ‘People Power’ revolution.

A History of Being ‘Different’

The islands’ first colonisers arrived by boat from the north, south and west, establishing a loose network of settlements that had little contact with each other. Thus, from early on the idea of a Philippine ‘identity’ was a tenuous one. If you were to arrive in North Luzon 1000 years ago, you would have confronted the Ifugao tending to their spectacular rice terraces, which still wow tourists today around Banaue. It is thought the ancestors of the Ifugao were part of a wave that arrived some 15,000 years ago from China and Vietnam.

If you arrived 1000 years ago in southern Luzon or the Visayan lowlands, you would have encountered mostly animists of Malay origin, while in the southern regions of Mindanao and Sulu, Islam would already be spreading by way of immigrants from Brunei. Meanwhile, the archipelago’s original inhabitants, the Negritos (also called Aeta, Dumagat or Ati), were sprinkled all over the place, much as they are today.

Rarely sedentary, the disparate communities of the Philippines roamed around hunting, gathering, fishing and growing a few basic crops such as rice. They formed small ‘barangays’ – named after the balangay boats in which the Malays arrived – under the leadership of a datu (chief). These simple barangays represented the highest form of political unit. The ‘country’, if you could call it that, possessed neither a centralised government nor a common culture or religion.

Into this diverse jumble strode the Spanish, with the singular mission to unite the Philippine islands around Christianity. Remarkably, they would largely succeed, and over the next several centuries a semblance of a unified Filipino identity, bearing traces of both Spanish and traditional culture, began to emerge.

Catholicism Arrives

In the early 16th century, Islam was beginning to spread throughout the region. Barangays as far north as Manila had been converted, and all signs pointed to the archipelago adopting Islam on a wide scale. But on 16 March 1521 Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan changed the course of Filipino history by landing at Samar and claiming the islands for Spain. Magellan set about giving the islanders a crash course in Catholicism and winning over various tribal chiefs. Having nearly accomplished his goal, Magellan was killed in battle against one of the last holdouts, Chief Lapu-Lapu of Mactan Island off Cebu.

Determined to press its claim after conceding the more strategically important Moluccas (Spice Islands) to Portugal, Spain sent four more expeditions to the Philippines: Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, commander of the fourth expedition, renamed the islands after the heir to the Spanish throne, Philip, Charles I’s son. Philip, as King Philip II, ordered a fresh fleet led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to sail from Mexico to the islands in 1564 with strict orders to colonise and Catholicise. In 1565 Legazpi returned to the scene of Magellan’s death at Cebu and overran the local tribe. An agreement was signed by Legazpi and Tupas, the defeated datu, which made every Filipino answerable to Spanish law.

Legazpi, his soldiers and a band of Augustinian monks wasted no time in establishing a settlement where Cebu City now stands; Fort San Pedro is a surviving relic of the era. Legazpi soon discovered that his pact with Tupas was meaningless because the chief had no authority over the islands’ myriad other tribes. So Legazpi went about conquering them one by one.

After beating the local people into submission, Legazpi established a vital stronghold on Panay (near present-day Roxas) in 1569. The dominoes fell easily after that, the big prize being Manila, which he wrested from Muslim chief Rajah Sulayman in 1571. Legazpi hastily proclaimed Manila the capital of Las Islas Filipinas and built what was eventually to become Fort Santiago on Sulayman’s former kuta (fort).

The new colony was run by a Spanish governor who reported to Mexico. But outside of Manila real power rested with the Catholic friars – the friarocracia (friarocracy). The friars attempted to move people from barangays into larger, more centralised pueblos (towns). They built imposing stone churches in the centre of each pueblo (dozens of these still stand) and acted as sole rulers over what were essentially rural fiefdoms.

The Philippine Revolution

Spain grew weaker as the friars grew more repressive and the natives started to resist. Several minor peasant revolts, easily quashed, marked the end of the 18th century. But in the 19th century the face of the resistance would change as a wealthy class of European-educated mestizos (Filipinos of mixed Spanish or Chinese blood) with nationalist tendencies began to emerge. Known as ilustrados, the greatest and best known of the lot was Dr José Rizal, doctor of medicine, poet, novelist, sculptor, painter, linguist, naturalist and fencing enthusiast. Executed by the Spanish in 1896, Rizal epitomised the Filipinos’ dignified struggle for personal and national freedom.

By killing such figures, the Spanish were creating martyrs. Andres Bonifacio led an aggressive movement known as the Katipunan, or KKK, which secretly built a revolutionary government in Manila, with a network of equally clandestine provincial councils. Complete with passwords, masks and coloured sashes denoting rank, the Katipunan’s membership (both men and women) peaked at an estimated 30,000 in mid-1896. In August, the Spanish got wind of the coming revolution and the Katipunan leaders were forced to flee the capital.

Depleted, frustrated and poorly armed, the Katipuneros took stock in nearby Balintawak, a barangay of Caloocan, and voted to launch the revolution regardless. With the cry ‘Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!’ (Long live the Philippines!), the Philippine Revolution lurched into life following the incident that is now known as the Cry of Balintawak.

After 18 months of bloodshed, most of it Filipino blood, a Spanish-Filipino peace pact was signed and the revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo agreed to go into exile in Hong Kong in December 1897. Predictably, the pact’s demands satisfied nobody. Promises of reform by the Spanish were broken, as were promises by the Filipinos to stop their revolutionary plotting.

Meanwhile, another of Spain’s colonial trouble spots – Cuba – was playing host to an ominous dispute between Spain and the USA over sugar. To save face, Spain declared war on the USA; as a colony of Spain, the Philippines was drawn into the conflict. Soon after, an American fleet under Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and routed the Spanish ships. Keen to gain Filipino support, Dewey welcomed the return of exiled revolutionary General Aguinaldo and oversaw the Philippine Revolution phase two, which installed Aguinaldo as president of the first Philippine republic. The Philippine flag was flown for the first time during Aguinaldo’s proclamation of Philippine Independence in Cavite on 12 June 1898.

The Philippine-American War

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the Spanish-American War ended and the USA effectively bought the Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, for US$20 million. A fierce debate raged in the US over what to do with its newly acquired territory. Hawks on the right clamoured to hold onto the islands for strategic and ‘humanitarian’ reasons, while ‘anti-imperialist’ liberals attacked the subjugation of a foreign peoples as morally wrong and warned that the battle to occupy the Philippines would drag on for years (about which they were correct).

US President William J McKinley originally opposed colonisation before caving in to hawks in his Republican party and agreeing to take over the islands. Echoing the imperialists, McKinley opined that, because Filipinos ‘were unfit for self-government’, he had no choice but to take over the islands and ‘civilise’ them. Filipinos led by Aguinaldo had other ideas. They set up a makeshift capital in Malolos, outside Manila, in open defiance. The Americans, in turn, antagonised the Filipinos and war broke out in February 1899.

The guerrilla campaign launched by Aguinaldo and rebels who included Gregorio del Pilar and Apolinario Mabini proved remarkably effective at neutralising American military superiority. Aguinaldo was captured in March 1901, but still the war dragged on. As it did, and as casualties on both sides mounted, the American public's opposition to the war grew. Resentment peaked in September 1901 in the aftermath of the Balangiga Massacre. It was only on 4 July 1902 that the US finally declared victory in the campaign, although pockets of guerrilla resistance continued to dog the Americans for several more years. Some 200,000 Filipino civilians, 20,000 Filipino soldiers and more than 4000 American soldiers died in the war from combat or disease.

The American Era

The Americans quickly set about healing the significant wounds their victory had wrought. Even before they had officially won the war, they began instituting reforms aimed at improving the Filipinos’ lot, the most important of which was a complete overhaul of the education system. Whereas the Spanish had attempted to keep Filipinos illiterate and ignorant of Spanish, the Americans imported hundreds of teachers to the country to teach reading, writing, arithmetic – and English. Within 35 years the literacy rate among Filipinos had risen from a miniscule percentage to almost 50%, and 27% of the population could speak English.

Besides schools, the Americans built bridges, roads and sewage systems. They brought the recalcitrant Moros in Mindanao to heel and Christianised the Cordillera tribes of the north – two groups the Spanish had tried and failed to influence. And they instituted an American-style political system that gradually gave more and more power to Filipinos. The Americans also made a gesture considered unprecedented in the history of imperialism: they openly promised the Filipinos eventual independence.

Critics describe American benevolence during this period as a thinly veiled carrot disguising America’s true goal of establishing economic hegemony over the islands. Whatever the motive, the US endorsed the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935, along with the drafting of a US-style constitution and the first national election. On paper at least, democracy and freedom had at last come to the Philippines. Unfortunately, WWII would ensure that they would be short-lived.

Feature: Reading List

There has been a treasure trove of books published about the unique relationship between the US and the Philippines.

  • In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, by Stanley Karnow. Definitive work on America’s role in the Philippines.
  • Waltzing with a Dictator: the Marcoses and the Making of American Policy, by Raymond Bonner. An investigation into how and why the US helped prop up a dictatorial regime.
  • Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines 1899–1903, by Stuart Creighton Miller. Eye-opening account of the Philippine-American War and how the US media treated that war.
  • America’s Boy: A Century of United States Colonialism in the Philippines, by James Paterson-Hamilton. Absorbing look at Marcos’ symbiotic relationship with the US.
  • Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War & Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, by Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H Francia. Multidisciplinary anthology that provides critical perspective on both countries' national narratives in relation to one another.
  • By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II, by Alphonso Aluit. Blow-by-blow account of the battle that flattened Manila, and America’s role in it.
  • Retribution: The Battle for Japan, by Max Hastings. Critically acclaimed WWII tome devotes much ink to the Philippines campaign and skewers Colonel MacArthur.
  • Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert Kaplan. Has a chapter on the consequences of America's colonial burden in regards to a rising China.

The Destruction of Manila

When Japan bombed Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941, other forces attacked Clark Field, where General Douglas MacArthur was caught napping, despite many hours’ warning, setting off a string of events that would lead to the Japanese occupying the Philippines from 1942 to 1945.

In 1944 MacArthur honoured his now-famous pledge to return, landing at Leyte, determined to dislodge the Japanese. The main battleground in this onslaught was Manila, where defenceless residents suffered horrifically in the ensuing crossfire during February 1945. By the time MacArthur marched into the city, the combination of Japanese atrocities and American shelling had killed at least 150,000 civilians, and a city that had been one of the finest in Asia was destroyed.

A fierce debate rages to this day about who was to blame for the destruction of Manila. The vast majority of civilian casualties resulted from US artillery fire. But many argue that, by failing to abandon Manila and declare it an open city, the Japanese gave MacArthur little choice. Whatever the truth, Manila belongs in a category with Warsaw, Hiroshima and Hamburg as cities that suffered the most damage in WWII.

The Marcos Era

In 1965 Ferdinand Marcos, a dashing former lawyer from a prominent Ilocos political family, was elected the Philippines’ fourth post-WWII president under the seductive slogan ‘This nation can be great again’. At first it indeed was a new era, and Marcos and his even more charismatic wife Imelda went about trying to bring back some of Manila’s pre-war energy. By 1970 widespread poverty, rising inflation, pitiful public funding and blatant corruption triggered a wave of protests in Manila. When several demonstrators were killed by police outside the presidential Malacañang Palace, Marcos’ image as a political saviour died with them.

Citing the rise of leftist student groups and the communist New People's Army (NPA), Marcos imposed martial law on the entire country in 1972. Normally a constitutional last resort designed to protect the masses, martial law was declared by Marcos to keep himself in power (the constitution prevented him from running for a third term) and to protect his foreign business interests. Under martial law, a curfew was imposed, the media was silenced or taken over by the military, international travel was banned and thousands of anti-government suspects were rounded up and put into military camps. An estimated 50,000 of Marcos’ opponents were jailed, exiled or killed. Marcos would not lift martial law until 1981.

Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in 1989 and his shoe-happy wife, Imelda, soon returned to the Philippines. Despite evidence that she and her husband helped themselves to billions of dollars from the treasury, Imelda lives freely in Manila and was elected to her fourth term in Congress in 2016 (once for Leyte and thrice for Ilocos Norte).

The Birth of People Power

People Power was born in the streets of Manila in February 1986. As the whole world watched, millions of Filipinos, armed only with courage and religious faith, poured out onto the streets to defy the military might of the Marcos regime.

Despite Marcos’ unpopularity in the mid-1980s, People Power might never have happened were it not for the assassination of immensely popular opposition figure Ninoy Aquino. With his death, Filipinos felt they had lost their hope for a peaceful return to democracy. Some two million mourners followed Ninoy’s funeral cortège as it slowly wound its way through the streets of Manila for over 12 hours.

The decline and fall of the Marcos dictatorship came swiftly after that. By 1986 even the USA, which had backed Marcos against communism in Southeast Asia, began to withdraw its support. In the face of mounting criticism abroad and rising unrest at home, Marcos called for snap elections on 7 February 1986. Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino, Ninoy’s widow, became the (reluctant at first) standard bearer of the opposition at the instigation of the Roman Catholic Church. Marcos came out the winner of the election, but the people knew Cory had been cheated, and they were no longer to be silenced.

On 26 February a massive sea of humanity gathered around Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame, along Epifanio de los Santos Ave, better known as EDSA, where two of Marcos’ former ministers, Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos, had taken refuge after defecting to the side of the people. They sang, chanted, prayed and shared food and drink, both among themselves and with government troops, who refused to fire into crowds and eventually went over to the side of the people. By nightfall the restless crowds were threatening to storm the palace. At this point the US stepped in and advised Marcos to ‘let go’. Hurriedly the Marcoses boarded a US aircraft and flew to Hawaii and into exile.

The Filipino people had staged the world’s first successful bloodless revolution, inspiring others to do the same across the world.

Same Old, Same Old

The first decade of the 21st century was a tumultuous one in Philippine politics. It began with an impeachment trial that saw millions of Filipinos take to the streets to oust President Joseph Estrada over corruption allegations – the country’s second ‘People Power’ revolution in 15 years. Estrada gave way to his vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (her father Diosdado was vice president from 1957 to 1961 and then president from 1961 to 1965), whose nearly 10 years in office were also dogged by scandals, including alleged improprieties in her 2004 re-election and in 2007 congressional elections, misuse of public funds and, well, general plunder and corruption.

In the 2010 presidential elections, the country found the fresh face it was looking for in the form of Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino III, the previously squeaky-clean son of Corazon Aquino, hero of the first People Power revolution in 1986. Riding a wave of national grief after his mother’s death in 2009, Aquino won a landslide victory with 42% of votes, emerging from a pack of candidates which included former president Estrada.

Even while the Philippine economy grew quickly (still, nearly 10% was based on remittances), talk of impeaching President Aquino was bandied about after he instituted the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) – essentially a way for Aquino to bypass the legislature and, according to him, fast-track a much-needed stimulus package. In a discouraging tit-for-tat Aquino threatened to impeach the Supreme Court justices who ruled DAP unconstitutional.

The Aquino administration, at the time, appeared to make some headway towards potentially ending several decades of armed conflict in parts of the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. In the summer of 2014 the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the major rebel groups seeking an autonomous Muslim homeland, agreed to the basic framework for this entity called the Bangsamoro. Other groups objected and periodic violence continued apace.

A Different Path

Leading up to the presidential election of 2016, confidence in Aquino and traditional politics was diminishing. There was the Zamboanga siege; the attack on farm workers at Hacienda Lucita; the Luneta hostage taking; cuts in social services; and a lack of progress improving the transportation and power infrastructure. Aquino, however, was hardly alone in his shrinking political fortunes. The ongoing Nopales investigation, in which an influential businesswoman was accused of channelling kickbacks to prominent opposition leaders, was a smorgasbord of wrongdoing.

Tensions with China over sovereignty in the South China Sea were becoming more pronounced. And in yet another example of how politicians in the Philippines have second and third lives, after a long legal odyssey, including 'hospital arrest', former president Macapagal Arroyo was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2016. Even while under the shadow of investigations she was elected twice to Congress.

Promising to end corruption, crime and reset relations with China, Rodrigo Duterte, the former long-time mayor of the southern city of Davao, beat his closest rival by more than 6 million votes in the 2016 presidential elections.