Excerpt: The Philippines — From Earliest Times to the Present

Key Issues in Asian Studies (KIAS) is an AAS book series of short, classroom-ready texts intended for high-school and undergraduate readers. Today, we are pleased to bring you an excerpt from the latest KIAS title, The Philippines: From Earliest Times to the Present, written by historian Damon L. Woods. In this brief volume, Woods provides readers with an overview of Philippine history, culture, and politics. Starting in the year 900CE, Woods traces the archipelago’s past, exploring the regional ties that connected its inhabitants with others in the Pacific Ocean long before the arrival of European ships in the 16th century. Woods then devotes chapters to the years of Spanish, American, and Japanese rule, followed by an in-depth discussion of political and social developments in the decades following Philippine independence in 1946. As Woods notes in the excerpt below, “This book is a story of the Philippines that depicts Filipinos as active participants in their own history rather than passive accommodators,” and a central objective of his work is to discuss Philippine history on its own terms rather than as a side note in the history of other nations.

On the southwestern edge of the Pacific Ocean, before one reaches the continent of Asia, there is an archipelago composed of over seven thousand islands. The archipelago extends more than 1,100 miles from north to south and more than 650 miles at its widest point. The name of that archipelago is the Philippines. The Anglicized name Philippines comes from Las Islas Felipinas, the name given by Ruy López de Villalobos to two islands, Samar and Leyte. The islands, and now the entire archipelago, were named for the Spanish crown prince who would one day become Philip II and would be responsible for the Spanish conquest of what is now known as the Philippines.

Less than a hundred miles from the island of Borneo to the south and two hundred miles from Taiwan to the north, these islands were often viewed as isolated from the rest of Asia and the world, that is, until they were “discovered,” quite accidentally, by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The Spanish conquest, coming half a century later, opened the islands to limited European trade. Some Europeans viewed this development as the initial opening of the Philippines to outsiders, but the people of the Philippines had been trading with Asian neighbors for more than seven hundred years before the famous seafarer’s arrival.

The term Filipino needs explanation. Prior to the nineteenth century, a Filipino was a Spaniard born in the archipelago. The Spaniards referred to the local inhabitants as indios, as they did the indigenous peoples of the Americas, based on Christopher Columbus’s mistaken idea that he had reached India. It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that those who were struggling against the Spaniards took the name Filipino, and today the term applies to the entire population.

Many Americans first become acquainted with the Philippines when learning about the Spanish-American War (1898). They know of Admiral George Dewey’s victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila during which only one American sailor died. But few are aware that the German imperial fleet was at anchor in Manila Bay, watching the battle, and the Japanese imperial fleet was off the west coast of the island of Luzon. Both countries, and other nations as well, were interested in acquiring the Philippines. Probably even fewer Americans are familiar with the lesser known Philippine-American War (1899–1901), in which up to one-tenth of the Filipino population died.

For others, World War II comes to mind when considering the Philippines. American history buffs know stories of the surrender of American troops to Japan, the infamous Bataan Death March, and General Douglas MacArthur’s famous promise to the Filipino people, “I shall return.” He did return, defeating the Japanese and liberating the Philippines. But after the war, an independent Philippines faded from popular view except for sporadic bits of news about the Huk Communist insurgents, and U.S. bases in the Philippines.

The Philippines made worldwide news again when the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in 1986 by means of a nonviolent event that came to be known as “People Power” or the EDSA Revolution (named after the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, where the people’s demonstrations took place). Over two million Filipinos took to the streets of Manila to protest not only the irregularities that enabled Marcos to claim victory in the presidential election but more than two decades of his corrupt and violent rule. Marcos fled into exile in the United States. Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the widow of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who had been assassinated in 1983, was proclaimed president. Once again the Philippines seemed to fade from popular American consciousness. As of the publication of this book, Americans familiar with international affairs may be again aware of the Philippines because of China’s expanded and apparently more aggressive presence in the South China Sea.

But the Philippines, its history, and its people are much more than scattered vignettes of an isolated archipelago. The Philippines has been an active participant in the history of both Southeast Asia and Asia as a whole. Studying the history of the Philippines assists in both understanding these connections and gaining a sense of the genuine human diversity of the nation.

The archipelago can be divided into three major island groups—Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao—with each group represented by a star on the Philippine flag. Luzon, to the north, is the largest island and the location of the capital city, Manila. To the south is Mindanao, the second-largest island, with other islands dispersed and reaching down toward Borneo. Between the two large islands is the region known as the Visayas, consisting of more than six thousand islands. The eight major islands in this group are Panay, Negros, Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, Samar, Masbate, and Palawan.

For all the diversity, there is a certain unity. There are more than one hundred languages, depending on how one classifies them, but all are in the Austronesian family. Religious beliefs and practices vary, yet animism, the belief that there is an energy that animates the universe, informs aspects of all belief systems. Other cultures have influenced the Philippines so significantly that outsiders often view Filipinos as mere borrowers of culture. This is simply not the case.

In his classic work, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses, 1565–1700, John Leddy Phelan noted:

The Filipinos were no mere passive recipients of the cultural stimulus created by the Spanish conquest. Circumstances gave them considerable freedom in selecting their responses to Hispanization. Their responses varied all the way from acceptance to indifference and rejection. The capacity of the Filipinos for creative social adjustment is attested in the manner in which they adapted many Hispanic features to their own indigenous culture.

This book is a story of the Philippines that depicts Filipinos as active participants in their own history rather than passive accommodaters. Beginning long before the arrival of the Spanish, this story also encompasses Spain’s dominance and centuries-long presence, the subsequent American and Japanese occupations, and finally the struggles of the modern nation-state known as the Republic of the Philippines. It is a story filled with great drama (as well as the mundane), gain and loss, bravery, struggle, and much more.

Today one in ten Filipinos lives away from the Philippines. They are scattered around the globe in more than 160 countries. One can no longer imagine the country of their origin as isolated or disconnected from the rest of the international community. The Philippines has been and continues to be actively connected to the world.