WRITING from Seville, where I have come to conduct research in the Archivo General de Indias to examine the Spanish documents on its Asian colony. What I’ve found is how differently the Philippines sat within the Spanish Empire. We often talk of the Philippines being ‘apart’ from Asia, having been Hispanicized, but once placed in the context of the Spanish empire one sees how comparatively Asian and undisturbed by the Spanish the Philippines was.
The Philippines, the least populated and cared-for colony by the Spanish, represents the limits and contingencies of imperial power. As Spain’s commercial outpost connecting its New World goods to the lucrative Chinese trade, Manila and, to an even greater extent, the rest of the Philippine country was an imperial ‘afterthought’. At no time did more than 3% of the Philippine population speak Spanish (compare this to the impressive linguistic transformation evident throughout Latin America), and at no time did more than a handful of Spaniards reside in the colony.
Given this peripheral status, the Philippine reaction to Spanish power, while recurrently violent, especially in Mindanao and in the areas with a strong sense of community and unified culture, in the long-term was marked by accommodation, appropriation and appeasement. It benefited datus to bend to Spanish guns and technological power, and in doing so, they were able to reassert their agency, appropriating and latching onto Spanish authority for their own ends. Herein lies the greatest symbol to the contingency and limitation to imperial power, which, if it is to be long-term, rests crucially on acceptance, accommodation and collaboration by the natives, for brute force alone cannot sustain a colony in the long-term, as to do so would bleed dry the coffers of the mother country.
Though corruption, injustice, and degradation of native culture marked the Philippines under Spanish rule, the Philippines remained relative agency, as archaeological comparisons show between the New World and the Philippines, in the latter of which the intervention of the Spanish leaves a far less pronounced mark. In many ways, Filipinos paid lip service to Spanish wants while retaining and transforming native beliefs and culture. This is most evident in the accommodation of Catholicism, which Spanish friars localized to achieve maximal conversions (explaining articles of faith through preexisting local, cultural beliefs) and the Filipinos interpreted through their preexisting framework, transforming and “nativizing” the religion in the process.
In this context can we think through why US colonialism had such an impact on the Philippines. With a weakly Hispanicized identity, apart from religion, and with the US possessing greater technologies of power and greater desire to impose control than did the Spanish, the “50 years in Hollywood” was able to have an outsized effect, especially in comparison to the weaker effect that the prior “300 years in a Spanish convent” ended up having.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.