History of Manila

Mother Earth Travel > Philippines > Manila > History

It may not be apparent to the visitor, but Manila is actually one of East Asia's oldest cities. Predating even Tokyo, Manila traces its written history to 1571 when Spanish conquistadors, led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, wrested control of the city from its last pre-Hispanic ruler, Rajah Sulayman. In the ensuing centuries Manila grew into a thriving city, enriched by wealth generated by the world's first global economy--the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. The artistic treasures at San Agustin Museum offer an intimation of this fabulous wealth.

Though the Philippine islands were first inhabited tens of millennia before the Christian era, archeologists estimate the foundation of Filipino culture at around A.D. 500. As can be gleaned from displays at the National Museum and Ayala Museum, Manilans enjoyed their own system of government and writing long before the advent of the Spaniards, but everything was lost in the destruction wrought by the invaders. Literature and other manuscripts inscribed on bamboo were burned or left to decay, while the native civil code was replaced with Spanish colonial rule.

The Kingdom of Namayan can be considered as the precursor of modern Metro Manila. With its capital in Sapa, known today as Santa Ana, Namayan encompassed present-day City of Manila, Mandaluyong City, San Juan, Makati City, Pasay City, Pateros, Taguig and ParaƱaque City, now all parts of Metro Manila. It is said that in the 13th century a Namayan princess was given away in marriage to the heir of the Javanese Madjapahit Empire (1292-1478) and subsequently reigned as Empress Sasaban.

Archeological diggings around Santa Ana Church have helped reveal the social fabric of pre-Hispanic Manila. Communal agriculture formed the basis of the agrarian society that had evolved from earlier hunting and food-gathering communities. With the passage of time, periodic barter between barangays (the basic units of government) developed into regular trade with China and other parts of mainland Asia. The Chinese legacy in Philippine life can be observed today in Chinatown in Binondo and Bahay Tsinoy in Intramuros.

Filipinos jokingly refer to themselves as products of '300 years in a Spanish convent and 40 years in Hollywood.' Though made in jest, it is an astute observation. Following the founding of Intramuros in 1571, the country took on the trappings of Hispanic society, with the population converting en masse to Christianity, adopting the new rulers, language and mode of writing, altering their style of dress to European fashions and so forth. Churches such as Malate Church and Guadalupe Church sprouted all over the country, serving not just as places of worship but as centers of social and cultural life as well. This began molding the unique character of Manila as a meeting point of East and West, and of Filipinos as an Asian nation with a Latin temperament.

Beneath the surface, however, Filipinos retain to this very day certain social values from their ancient past, such as the concept of bayanihan and the pivotal position of women in society. Bayanihan signifies the spirit of community whereby individuals and families within a neighborhood or a village are expected to contribute toward the common good. Unique among Asian cultures, Filipino women have played a traditionally strong role in Philippine society, even before their 'liberated' counterparts in the West gained equal rights.

Spanish rule came to an end in 1898, following a revolution fostered by the lofty ideals of Dr. Jose Rizal and fueled by the fiery tactics of Andres Bonifacio. Rizal was sentenced to death by a Spanish military tribunal on the grounds that his demands for reform were fomenting discord and discontent. Rizal faced the firing squad in Rizal Park, where the Rizal Monument and the Site of Rizal's Execution are dedicated to his memory. The Rizal Shrine in Fort Santiago displays memorabilia of the great man in the building where he spent his last hours. Bonifacio is honored with the Monumento in Kalookan City.

Instead of quelling the rising mood of rebellion, Rizal's execution only further incited Bonifacio and the revolutionary katipunan movement to open combat with the Spanish authorities. Bahay Nakpil-Bautista reverberates with echoes of those courageous times. Two years later, on 12 June 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines from the window of his home in Kawit, Cavite (now the Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine), giving birth to Asia's first republic. The nation's first democratic constitution was drafted at Barasoain Church in Malolos, Bulacan.

But no sooner had Manila lifted the Spanish yoke than America took over the budding nation. Following its declaration of war on Spain over events in Cuba, the U.S. made friendly overtures toward Aguinaldo. But after the final victory of the Filipino revolutionaries, the U.S. signed a treaty with Spain whereby it acquired the Philippines for US$2 million. Betrayed, the Filipino forces took up hostilities against the new colonizers, bravely carrying on the war until mid-1902.

What followed was Manila's '40 years in Hollywood.' In retrospect, it was a happy period in the city's history. It saw the introduction of the English language, the institution of mass education, the construction of new infrastructure and so on. Turning their back on 19th century mores represented in Casa Manila Museum, Manilans embraced the move toward greater westernization with gusto--the populace donned silk stockings and sharkskin suits, flocked to cabarets and movie-houses, danced the conga and boogie-woogie, and moved into Art Deco homes. Landmarks like the Old Congress Building, Metropolitan Theater, Manila City Hall and Central Post Office rose in the heart of the city.

That bright interlude, however, was interrupted by the city's darkest period--World War II. Under the Japanese Occupation, Manila underwent the horrors of modern warfare and by the time it was over the entire city lay in ruins, suffering the worst devastation after Warsaw, Poland. All of Intramuros was reduced to a heap of rubble; the only building left intact was San Agustin Church.

Manila rapidly recovered in the postwar years, with the country gaining independence on 4 July 1946. The presidents of the republic were sworn into office at the Quirino Grandstand and took up residence at Malacanang Palace to preside over the 'showcase of democracy in Asia.' The economy flourished, making the Philippines the second richest nation in Asia. In the 1960s, while its regional neighbors were still mired in underdevelopment, Manila launched into another building boom with the erection of new landmarks such as Araneta Coliseum and Ayala Avenue. The University of Philippines and other institutions of learning were attended to full capacity, creating one of the world's highest literacy rates.

But then came another long dark period in the city's history. In 1972 Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law and for more than 20 years Manila languished under an authoritarian rule marked by curtailed civil liberties and a widening gap between rich and poor. Once again, Manilans rose to liberate themselves. In near-perfect symmetry with the Philippine Revolution of 1896, the People Power Revolution exploded on the streets of Manila in 1986. While the whole world watched, Manilans defied the might of the Marcos dictatorship and staged an unprecedented event in history--a revolution without bloodshed. That momentous point in the life of the nation is commemorated by the EDSA Shrine.

Today, with the institutions of freedom securely in place, the economy growing apace and yet another building boom that is dramatically changing the face of the city, Manila is poised to once again resume its position as one of the preeminent cities of East Asia.