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It's All History by Jon Malek

The Philippines in the early modern world

By Jon Malek

The history of the Philippine Islands offers a rich source for those interested in the past. Its land and its people have been shaped by a number of influences. For example, the presence of the Spanish for three hundred years added to the existing indigenous cultures, colouring Filipino family life, art and architecture, music, and food to name a few. The internal history of the Philippines is well known within the community and I’m always pleased when people tell me about that past with pride. I’d like to discuss the place of the Philippines throughout history because its role in the historical development of Asia and the world is sometimes overlooked.

Before Europeans arrived in Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century (with Magellan arriving in the Philippines in 1521), the Philippines already had an important role in trade within Asia and Southeast Asia. This is demonstrated in the marine archaeological record of the region. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered the wreckage of eight trading vessels called balangays, also known as Butuan boats, near Butuan City in Mindanao. (As a side note, these balangays are also thought to have lent their name to barangay, the most basic administrative unit in the Philippines). These balangays were fifteen meters long and since the 1970s have been used to demonstrate the importance of the Philippine Islands, in particular Butuan, in the circulation of trade and culture in Southeast Asia. This find was made all the more important when a ninth ship, almost twice the size of these balangays, was discovered in 2012. Apparently, the planks used to create this “mother ship” were so large that they can no longer be recreated, as the size of tree needed is no longer available. Initial studies of this large, twenty-five meter ship suggests that it is from the thirteenth century, well before the presence of European trading vessels.

Up until this 2012 discovery, it was well known that early seafaring Filipinos crossed the waters of Southeast Asia as far as Vietnam (known then as Champa) in their balangays. What this new discovery suggests is that these may have been smaller support vessels attached to the larger vessel, suggesting not only that the Filipino seafarers played a more significant role in trade than previously thought, but also that they were well organized and advanced in their seafaring.

This further emphasizes the importance of the Philippines as a trade centre in the region. By the time that Miguel Lopez de Legazpi established Spanish Manila in the 1570s on the same site of Rajah Sulayman’s settlement, the Philippines was a strategic trade centre for China. In addition to being attracted by the rich resources of Luzon Island, the Spanish colonizers also saw the importance of the Philippines in relation to China. For many European countries, access to Chinese silks, pottery, and other trade goods drove them to enter Southeast Asia. From Manila, for instance, the Spanish were able to trade silver from the Americas with China, using the Philippines as a staging point. Indeed, the famous Manila Galleon that sailed between Mexico and Manila every year brought much fortune to those involved. As well, the Filipinos that sailed those galleons often ended up settling in Mexico, and today their descendants still maintain their Filipino identity.

Some of the more daring Spanish Governors of the Philippines also saw Manila as a military staging point to invade China. In the sources there are letters to the Spanish monarch requesting a modest number of soldiers with which, they thought, they would be able to conquer all of China. Such an adventure, of course, would have failed, but it emphasizes the importance of the islands in connecting Europeans and Southeast Asians with China.

It is important to reflect on the role of the Philippines and of Filipinos in the development of Southeast Asia. At least one author has referred to the Philippines as being “in but not of Asia,” suggesting that although it is geographically part of Asia, its culture somehow separates it due to its unique experience with Spanish and American colonial contact. However, given the uniqueness of Philippine culture in the region, the Philippines still shares long-standing ties with its Austronesian neighbours (the Austronesian linguistic family extends from Taiwan, South Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, parts of Indonesia, and extends as far as Madagascar and the Easter Islands). Previous (Western) historians have viewed Southeast Asia as being economically undeveloped before contact with Western traders and colonists. Examples such as the Philippines demonstrate that not only was there contact among the various kingdoms and chiefdoms of Southeast Asia, but that advanced networks of trade and commerce existed well before the first European ships entered the region. Furthermore, it is now believed that instead of creating trade networks, Europeans merely used existing networks.

The Philippines has for long been tied into wide, global networks of trade, commerce, and culture, creating and maintaining contact with Southeast Asian states and with China. These early activities of the peoples that would come to be known as Filipinos helped make the thriving and interconnected environment that European traders encountered in Southeast Asia, and this place in history should be recognized and celebrated.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at

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