When you think of the Philippines, what usually comes to mind are tropical beaches and offshore reefs, dense jungle, clear blue seas, and an abundance of unique fauna. If you’re historically minded, you may also think of the recent history of the Philippines, which until the middle of the 20th century, was a territory of the United States. Many aspects of the islands’ story in World War II are well known—the evacuation of General Douglas MacArthur by PT boat was later retold in the classic John Wayne film They Were Expendable. MacArthur’s triumphant return to the Philippines—famously wading ashore from a landing craft in October 1944—and the accompanying Battle of Leyte Gulf are almost equally famous. But the war tends to obscure the longer history of the Philippines, which goes back millennia.
Like many Southeast Asian islands, the earliest settlers are lost in the mists of time, but evidence of human settlement can be firmly traced back approximately 50,000 years ago. Native Filipinos probably originated in Taiwan, having settled there approximately 6,000 years ago. Some 2,000 years later it is most likely to have been the people of this island that slowly began to spread south and east, across the islands separating the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It was these original settlers who formed the basis of the many tribes that occupied the scattered islands of the Philippines for the next three millennia. Far from being uncultured collections of disparate people, many grew into kingdoms that established rule over large swathes of the Philippines and traded widely with other East Asian nations.
When European nations discovered these places in the 16th century, it was Spain that claimed the Philippines. Very much a jewel in their Pacific crown, the Spanish fought hard to keep the Philippines, warding off incursions and attacks from China, Japan, Britain, and the Netherlands, while simultaneously suppressing indigenous rebellions. Relics of their defenses can be seen around the country today, including at Pamilacan Island.
Like many colonies seized by European powers, the Philippines were suppressed and exploited. But the centuries of Spanish rule brought great benefits to the islands as well. Manila, today the capital, began life as the capital of the Spanish East Indies and the islands grew in stature, initially under the administration of New Spain (Mexico) and later ruled directly from Madrid. Trade flourished and as the separate communities of the 2,000 inhabited islands slowly unified, and new urban areas were established. The Spanish introduced hospitals, free schooling, and (eventually) abolished slavery. They also bought Catholicism to the islands, the legacy of which is that 90% of today’s population identify as Christian.
The brief Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II often overshadows the longer association with the US, which began in 1898 after the Spanish-American War forced Spain to cede its Pacific territories to America. Far from meekly trading one foreign power for another, however, Filipinos initially fought against the US and, although they lost the short Philippine-American War, they sowed the seeds for their future independence. Right from the beginning of their rule of the islands, US politicians were discussing when, not if, the Philippines would be granted self-rule.
The war accelerated independence, but at a heavy cost. A less well-known aspect of the Japanese invasion was that it began away from the main islands, at the small 12-mile-long island of Batan. Two days later, assaults on the mainland began at Vigan and days after that, the main landing commenced at Lingayan Gulf, home of the Hundred Islands National Park. After the Japanese had conquered the nation, it would be some time before Vigan was liberated. Even after MacArthur’s triumphant return, it would be almost a year before the islands were finally free. Led by Japanese General Yamashita—the Tiger of Malaya who had stunned Britain with his lightning capture of Singapore in 1942—fought a brutal defensive campaign and only surrendered in September 1945, several weeks after hostilities had ended elsewhere.
Even after gaining its independence in 1946, the Philippines’ path has been rocky, with periods of martial law and political rivalry extending to revolution. But since a return to democracy in the 1980s, the nation has continued to flourish and today stands ready to welcome visitors keen to learn more about the history and culture of this charming Southeast Asian nation.
East Asia keeps on pulling me back, which is perhaps hardly surprising given that I was born in Singapore and spent four years in Japan. Visiting this corner of the world can be a richly rewarding experience, and the Philippines, with its vibrant mix of cultural history, promises to be an enlightening experience. As a military historian, the islands also promise to be a tremendous learning opportunity and a chance to see some places I've read so much about. What could be better than speaking about the Battle of Leyte Gulf when we sail over it? I hope you can join me on Zegrahm’s Philippines with Palau & Taiwan expedition, February 29 – March 16, 2020 to learn more about this fascinating archipelago.