The history of Cebu doesn't make much sense without considering the history of the nation; this page takes a look at Philippine history as it taught in the Filipino public school system. The history of the Philippines can be considered to consist of four major periods, each defined by who was in charge.

The Chieftans
The Philippines did not exist as an entity; scores of little kingdoms were dispersed throughout the islands and seamlessly intertwined with what is currently Malaysia, Indonesia, and Timor Leste. Some of the chieftans and their subjects were Muslim, others were on the verge of discovering Islam.

The Spanish
The Spanish ruled the archipelago, via Mexico. Revolts and insurrections kept flaring up here and there, until the Spanish governors and friars were finally sent packing in 1898. Adios!

The Americans
The Philippines was America's only colony from the turn of the century until World War II. The Japanese took over briefly, before the Philippines finally gained independence.

The Republic
Since independence, the Philippines has been a democratic republic, except for the Marcos years, when we had a dictator. The Philippines famously contributed the concept of People Power to world history and got rid of that slick con man and his shoe-mad wife. Well, actually, the wife is still around. She was in Cebu recently, promoting her movie.


Unfortunately, not too many records survive from this period. However, it must be emphasized that when the Spanish arrived, they did not come across primitive stone-age cultures. Some coastal areas boasted advanced civilizations. History textbooks usually mention Sugbu (Cebu), Maktan (Mactan), Maynilad (Manila), and Bigan (Vigan).

The little kingdoms were engaged in international trade. Upon their arrival, the Spanish, it is said, came across a trader from Siam (Thailand) in Cebu, and the etymology of numerous words in all Filipino dialects is proof that considerable intercourse took place with the Middle East. But most of the trade was with China. In fact, while the Philippines is usually said to have been discovered by Magellan, the Chinese arrived on these shores long before, as evidenced by large amounts of Chinese artifacts, such as chinaware, imported to the islands before Spanish times. The Filipino-Chinese have been part of Philippine society for centuries.

The kingdoms, while politically independent from each other and functioning like Greek city-states, nevertheless had similar forms of administrations. The chief executive and head of state was usually a king, or Rajah (sometimes spelled as Raja or Raha). The administrative district was the barangay - and this concept survives today.

In what is currently the south of the Philippines, Muslim culture had been well established, and had begun spreading to other city states, such as Maynilad. Those areas that were firmly Muslim when the Spanish arrived - such as Sulu -have remained Muslim to this day, and never ceased agitating for independence over the centuries. The Spanish, the Americans, and the modern Philippine Republic have all been plagued by the refusal of the Muslim area - known as Moroland - to acknowledge external sovereignty.

Going way back to the era before the development of the civilization, the Malay cultures in these parts included some interesting rituals, as described under Sightseeing.

It should be noted that remnants of the indigenous tribes - known as Negritos - that inhabited the archipelago prior to the arrival of the ethnic Malays continue to exist in the isolated forests, although their habitat is threatened and their way of life is endangered. There are no Negrito tribes in Cebu.


Cebu played a prominent role in the first contact with the Spanish, in the guise of Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. As you probably know, Magellan was the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Well, not quite. His ships went on without him after he was killed in Mactan, Cebu.

First Contact

On August 10, 1519, Magellan and 256 men set sail from Seville with five ships, aiming to discover a westward route to the Spice Islands, current-day Indonesia. To cut a long story short, Magellan spied the mountains of Samar (an island east of Cebu) on March 16, 1521. Some historical accounts put the date as March 17, but March 16 is correct. Magellan's ships proceeded to the uninhabited island of Homonhon, in the gulf of Leyte, on March 18.

What happened thereafter is a matter of dispute. Officially, the Iberians went on to Limasawa island and came into contact with a splendid little local kingdom. Actually, they sailed to a place called Masao, in Agusan del Norte. The official version was installed by then First Lady Imelda Marcos, who hails from Limasawa, and preferred Philippine history to read that the first Mass on Philippine soil was said in Limasawa. Never happened.

The local chieftan in Masao quickly directed Magellan to the center of commerce in the region, Cebu - or Sugbu, as our city was known back then - and the expedition arrived here on April 7, 1521. That same day a traditional blood compact was made between Magellan and Rajah Humabon, the ruler of Cebu.

On April 14, 1521, a Mass was said in Cebu, and Magellan had a wooden cross planted, known as Magellan's Cross. This has since become a principal tourist attraction in Cebu today (see Sightseeing). The Spanish later portrayed this event as a mass conversion of Rajah Humabon and 800 of his followers, but since the Cebuanos are unlikely to have comprehended the significance or nature of the ritual, that is probably mere propaganda. However, it is nonetheless true that this event heralded the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines.

Crucially for modern Cebuanos, the Portuguese seafarer gave a gift of a doll representing the infant Jesus to Rajah Humabon's wife (whom he, incidentally, christened Queen Juana). This doll, which later miraculously survived a fire unscathed, is none other than the Santo Nio, the most revered saint and icon in the Philippines. It is probably the most valuable artefact in this country, though no-one has ever tried to put a dollar value on it.

While Magellan and his crews were largely welcomed by the easy-going Cebuanos, one leader, chieftan Lapu-Lapu of Mactan, wasn't enthralled by the foreigners. Some accounts say that Magellan was asked to intervene in a local conflict between Lapu-Lapu and another chief called Zula. In any case, Magellan and sixty of his conquistadors proceeded to do battle with Lapu-Lapu and his warriors. The result was that Lapu-Lapu slew Magellan, and that is why Lapu-Lapu is revered as the greatest Cebuano hero of all time.

What led to Magellan's defeat? For one thing, he was vastly outnumbered. However, superior armor, weapons, and training have always helped Iberians defeat other native forces even when outnumbered, so there's more to the story. Apparently Magellan was a bit too cocky for his own good; previously, he had demonstrated the workings of Spanish armor to local chieftans, so Lapu-Lapu and his men knew that the chinks were vulnerable. That is probably the main reason Magellan went down. I've been told that the Mactan warriors used the tide to their advantage, but it is unlikely that the seafarers would have been unaware of the tide.

In any case, Magellan met his maker on Mactan's shores, on April 27, 1521. On May 1, about two dozen surviving members of his expedition behaved badly at a local banquet back in Cebu, and were killed by Rajah Humabon and his men. Some textbooks state that the inebriated Spaniards raped local girls; it is more likely that their raucous behavior, frowned upon by Cebuanos of yesteryear and today alike, led to a culturally-based misunderstandings and the ensuing argument resulted in a fight.

Kicked out of Cebu, the downsized expedition sailed on towards the Spice Islands, and eventually completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Spanish Conquest

Now, it is a fact that the Philippines was colonized and ruled by Spain, but this is misleading. While the Philippines did eventually come under the hegemony of the Spanish crown, the actual conquest and much of the administration was carried out by New Spain, or Mexico. Many of the governors referred to as Spanish in traditional history textbooks were actually Mexicans. This is the story right from the start.

Following the success of Magellan's voyage, five successive expeditions were launched, three of them from Mexico, to claim the Philippine archipelago for Spain. The Loaisa, Cabot, Saavedra, and Villalobos expeditions all failed. The fifth, under the captaincy of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, succeeded.

Legazpi sailed from Natividad, Mexico, on November 21, 1564, and anchored off Cebu on February 13, 1565, some 44 years after Magellan. Apparently, the famous mass baptism had had little effect and mostly bitter memories had remained in Cebuanos' hearts and minds, for Legazpi was denied permission to land. The expedition went to Samar, and eventually Cebu's neighbor Bohol. On March 16, 1565 Legazpi concluded a blood compact with the local chieftan, known as Sikatuna in most records.

(Actually, his name was probably Katuna; si is a term which precedes proper names in Cebuano. Hence, in reply to a query about his name, the response would have been, "Si Katuna" [That's Katuna], leading to Spanish misinterpretation of the name as being Sikatuna.)

Using Bohol as a base, Legazpi attacked Cebu on April 27, 1656. The Cebuanos, led by Rajah Humabon's son Rajah Tupas, resisted but lost the battle, and Cebu was burned to the ground. Rajah Tupas and his followers fled to the hills.

Since Cebu was the most powerful and significant kingdom in the region, the islands were as good as in Spanish hands when Cebu was taken. Legazpi established a Spanish settlement, and founded Cebu City on the ashes of Sugbu, and thus Cebu was born as the oldest Spanish city in the Philippines. Legazpi named the main street Colon, in honor of the first Westerner to come across the Americas, Christopher Colon aka Columbus. Today Colon is a gritty and dilapidated, but still the premier shopping destination of lower class Cebuanos.

A treaty was negotiated between Rajah Tupas and Legazpi, and on June 4, 1565, Rajah Tupas agreed to recognize Spanish sovereignty over his fiefdom.

Meanwhile, Augustinian friars in Legazpi's expedition had commenced missionary activity. On March 21, 1568 Rajah Tupas entered the Christian world, with his erstwhile foe serving as godfather.

Apparently there were some food shortages in Cebu at the time. Since Cebu has always been a trading hub, rather than a bread basket, it is likely the case that the Spanish conquest interrupted normal trading activity, leading to a disruption of the distribution of supplies. In any case, the shortages caused Legazpi to move to Panay, in Capiz Province. Using Panay as a base, the conquistadors and friars quickly spread Spanish hegemony. Captain Luis Enriquez de Guzman took Masbate, Ticao and Burias. Juan de Salcedo, Legazpi's grandson, took Mindoro.

The Fall of Manila

Martin de Goiti and Salcedo, accompanied by 120 Spanish/Mexican conquistadors and several hundred Visayans, led a force to Manila, called Maynilad at the time. Maynilad's young chieftan, Rajah Suliman [asa Soliman, Sulayman] rejected Spanish overtures, and Goiti's men captured Manila by force on May 24, 1570.

The Spaniards did not, however, stay to occupy the city, but returned to Panay. Legazpi was briefed about the existence of a kingdom made rich by trade with China, Siam and Borneo. A second, larger expedition was organized and reached Manila Bay one year after the initial conquest. The threat of force was enough this time, and on May 19, 1571, Maynilad fell bloodlessly to Spain.

While Rajah Suliman and two of his uncles, chieftans Lakan Dula and Rajah Matanda, opted to submit peacefully to the Spanish crown, Bambalito, a Pampango chieftan based in Macabebe, organized an attack on Goiti's forces. This attack was crushed in a naval battle in Manila Bay, and Bambalito was killed in action.

On June 24, 1571, Legazpi proclaimed Manila the capital of the archipelago which eventually became known as, in honor of King Philip II, as the Philippines.

Spanish Rule

The most significant consequence of Spanish rule was the conversion of almost the entire Filipino populace to the Roman Catholic religion. Christianization of the indigenous population, as was the case in Latin America, allowed a small band of Spaniards - initially less than a 1,000 - to subdue an entire country, and keep it subdued.

The conversion of the Philippines to Catholicism, and the maintenance of that religion, was the work of Spanish friars. It is perhaps because friars, have undertaken a vow of celibacy, needed to be replenished with fresh monks from the mother country that Spain successfully maintained control over religion and society in the Philippines for a period of more than three centuries. The new arrivals, all of them Spanish nationals, undertook their work with a zeal and and unflinching belief in the superiority of Spanish ways which would have been impossible for native-born individuals.

Simultaneously, the obstinacy and lack of cultural enlightenment on the part of the friars also caused problems; in fact, cruelty and corruption by the orders was a primary cause of revolts against the Spanish authorities.

The secular administration, meanwhile, was subject to the authority of the Mexican viceroy, who governed the Philippines on behalf of the Spanish throne, via a governor general appointed to Manila. Non-Filipinos were shipped to Mexico City for trial, and until 1595, the Bishopric of Manila was a diocese of the Archbishopric of Mexico.

Interestingly, the New Spain helped keep the colonial government of the Philippines solvent. An annual royal subsidy was sent by the Mexican viceroy to Manila to compensate for the deficit in the government's current account; often this amounted to a considerable sum. The average was said to be 250,000 pesos. This is conjecture on my part, but I'd guess subsidy was necessary despite burgeoning trade and a wealth of natural resources because of corrpution in the Mexican administration. Taxes were kept low so that the Mexican taipans remained content; the only loser in the arrangement was the Spanish monarch.

A significant amount of trade took place between the Philippines and Mexico, in the form of what became known as the Manila galleon - although, in the early years, several galleons sailed from Cebu. The Manila galleon was a ship packed with valuable artefacts and commodities from all across Asia - China, Japan, Siam, Malaya, the Moluccas, and Arabia - which sailed from Manila to Acapulco and back on a regular basis. On the return trip, the ships would be bursting at the seams with silver bullion, as payment for the Asian goods. The Manila galleon was the stuff of legend - with a cargo rich beyond the wildest dream of any pirate, a single ship carried the fortunes of innumerable merchants and investors. The legend lives on today; quite a few of the ships sank, and if you're ever lucky enough to find the wreckage of one, you'll have it made for life.

Incidentally, the Manila galleon led to the demise of Cebu as a trading hub. Although a few early galleons sailed from Cebu, Manila quickly became the single center for administrative and commercial activity, and Cebu languished as a result. In retrospect, that was perhaps a good thing, for today Cebu City is far smaller and more livable than the giant metropolis from Hell, Manila.

The Manila galleon started to peter out in the early 19th century, probably due to sagging demand as Mexican society became embroiled in revolutionary turmoil. In 1802, three galleons returned to Manila with their cargo unsold. In 1821, following the Mexican Revolution, the Philippines came under direct rule from Spain, and all intercourse between the Philippines and Mexico came to a halt.

Revolts, Rebellions, and Insurgencies

Spanish rule was by no means peaceful. Insurgencies against the Spanish crown can be divided into largely two categories.

The Muslim area - Moroland, comprised of Sulu as well as Mindanao - fought the Spanish with the express aim of overturning Spanish sovereignty. Muslim resistance was hardly ever absent during Spain's presence in the Philippines, and the series of wars, battles and rebellions is known collectively as the Moro Wars. (Moro being the Spanish term for the Muslims.)

Meanwhile, pockets of rebellion kept erupting throughout the rest of the archipelago, for a variety of reasons. These were largely the result of local frustration with Spanish injustice, and are thus fundamentally different in charactor from the Moro Wars.

Jolo, the capital of Sulu, first fell to the Spanish in 1578, when a Spanish force commanded by Esteban Rodriguez de Figueroa vanquished Sultan Pangiran Budiman. A subsequent Spanish invasion of Mindanao, however, failed. In fact, the Moro mounted their own invasion, and raided coastal settlements in the Visayas. Such raids would continue on and off for the next two hundred years. On some occasions the raids extended as far north as Manila.

Meanwhile, Jolo would spin out of the Spanish orbit soon after being subdued. A force by Juan Gallinato besieged Jolo in 1602 but failed. Subsequent expeditions by Cristobal de Lugo, in 1627, Lorenzo de Olaso, in 1628, and Pedro Tousino, in 1630, also came to nothing. As a result, the Spanish built Fort Pilar, thus founding the fort city of Zamboanga.

Even in the Christianized parts of the colony, sporadic revolts kept erupting throughout the 333 years of Spanish sovereignty. The longest was the Dagohoy Rebellion which lasted for 85 years, and took place on the neighboring island of Bohol.

It should be noted that most of the rebellions were not concerted attempts to overthrow Spanish rule, but expressions of frustrations with injustice or oppression. Many of the early revolts were the result of abusive practices by the encomenderos - Spanish nationals given a grant (an "encomienda") by the crown which permitted the encomendero to exact tribute (in the form of taxes or goods) from the hapless inhabitants within the encomienda.

Leading Spanish conquistador. Subdued Manila, amongst other locales.

Ruler of Cebu upon the arrival of Magellan. Initially welcomed the foreigners but later oversaw a massacre of Spanish soldiers.

Ruler of Mactan upon the arrival of Magellan. Sent Magellan to meet his maker. Greatest Cebuano hero ever.

Spanish-born leader of colonization expedition from Mexico. Took over the country in the name of the Spanish crown and became first Governor General of the Philippines. Trained as lawyer and soldier. Emigrated to Mexico, married Isabel Garces. Served as secretary of the Inquisition. Suppressed native insurgency in Jalisco. Born 1505 in Zumarraga, Gaipuzcoa, Spain, died August 20, 1572, in Manila, of cardiovascular failure.

Cebuano President of the Philippines. Founder of the Osmena clan.

1916 - 1984. Did a respectable job of building up Cebu. Elected governor of Cebu Province in 1951, mayor of Cebu City in 1955, 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971, congressman in 1957, and senator in 1965. Exiled to the US upon the declaration of Martial Law by President Marcos in 1972; died in exile. Instigated the construction of Mactan International Airport, the first Mactan-Cebu bridge, and the Cebu North Reclamation Project.

Magellan's chronicler. Born in 1493 in Vicenza, near Venice. Served as a diplomat. Wrote "First Voyage Around the World." Died in Malta.

Grandson of Legazpi and talented Mexican conquistador. Took numerous fiefdoms in the name of the Spanish crown. Repealed invasion by Chinese warlord Limahong. Died aged 27 on March 11, 1576, of some tropical disease, in Vigan.

Son of Rajah Humabon; hereditary ruler of Cebu upon the arrival of Spanish conqueror Legazpi. Routed in key battle, agreed to Spanish sovereignty.

Spanish friar. Legazpi's friend and navigator. Was a member of the failed Loaisa expedition to colonize the Philippines. Spent eight years in the Moluccas. Joined the Augustinian Order in 1553. Discovered return route from the Philippines to Mexico. Died June 3, 1568, aged 60.

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