The Reason Why Spain Colonized the Philippines

Even today the Philippines are heavily influenced by their Spanish heritage.  And 80% of the population of the Philippines is Christian, catholic to be precise, which makes the Philippines the only Asian country with a Christian majority aside from East Timor. Both facts are closely connected to the history of the Philippines as a Spanish colony.

But why did Spain colonize the Philippines?

Spain colonized the Philippines to have a strategic base in the Pacific as a stepping stone for future conquests and the Christianization of Asia. By colonizing the Philippines themselves, Spain also prevented its rival Portugal from colonizing the strategically important Philippines.

So there were 3 reasons why Spain colonized the Philippines. Let`s take a closer look at all three of them!

The Philippines as a Strategically Important Stepping Stone to Asia

But before we can look at why Spain colonized the Philippines we first have to take a look at what prompted Spain to push west across the Atlantic in the first place.

Several medieval trading cities, Venice being the most famous one, had become incredibly rich through having a share in the spice trade. Ever since Antiquity (here you can find out more about the Roman spice trade with India) there had been two main routes on which spices from India came to Europe. The first one ran from India through the Red Sea to Alexandria (on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast) where the spices were then picked up by Venetian merchants. The second route ran from India over the Persian Gulf up the Tigris-Euphrates river system to the coast of Asia Minor where the spices were then picked up by Venetian merchants.

But both routes on which spices were brought from India to Europe came under Muslim control in the Middle Ages. That was a result of the Muslim Expansion and the eventual fall of East Rome and the crusader states. But that is a story for another time.

So Christian sailors dreamed of finding a new route to India that was not under Muslim control. Finding such a route would have made the sailors (and the country under which flag they sailed) extremely rich.

The Portuguese decided that their best chance of finding a new route that was not under Muslim control was to sail along the Atlantic coast of Africa and around the African continent until they reached India and its valuable spices. Spain on the other hand decided to use the spherical shape of the Earth to get to India.

Now it might sound surprising but despite modern-day stereotypes, people in the Middle Ages didn`t believe that the Earth was flat.

By the way, it would be a Genovese sailor and cartographer called Christopher Columbus who would eventually persuade the Spanish monarchs to finance his travels westwards. But that is a story for another time.

Christopher Columbus eventually found land (which he mistakingly considered to be India) in 1492. And in March of 1521, the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan (who just like Columbus was sailing for Spain) managed to circumnavigate South America and reach the Philippines where he landed at Cebu. He occupied the Philippines and established a Spanish presence. Originally the Philippines were occupied to provide a stepping stone for a further advance into Asia.

But although the Philippines were primarily occupied as a stepping stone to resupply ships on expeditions further into Asia, Magellan also immediately started to Christianize the Philippines and their native population. He was actually quite successful for a while and even convinced local rulers like Raja Humaban to convert to Christianity before he eventually fell while trying to bring all of the Philippines under Spanish control.

So Spain had originally claimed and colonized the Philippines as a strategic base and stepping stone for future expansion into Asia and the Christianization of these territories.

Spain was even willing to invest a level of money and manpower for the establishment of a presence in the Philippines that was not justified by the economic potential of the Philippines itself. A good example of that can be found in 1564.

After Ferdinand Magellan had fallen, several Spanish expeditions were sent to colonize the Philippines. And in 1564, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi was sent to the Philippines by Spanish King Philip II to establish a constant Spanish presence. In the following years, he and his army managed to conquer, colonize, and Christianize most of the Philippines.

And that brings us to the second reason why Spain colonized the Philippines.

The Philippines as a Base for the Christianization of Asia

But the strategic value of the Philippines as a base to resupply ships on their way from the American continents to Asia was not the only reason Spain colonized the Philippines.

Aside from the establishment of a strategic base for future expansions into Asia, the Christianization of the colonized Philippines was also important to Spain.

For Spain as a force that had fought the Reconquista (a series of wars to retake the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control) for almost 800 years, Christianizing conquered territories was part of its DNA. 

Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas, was the first land in the New World that was sighted and visited by Christopher Columbus and his crew on 12 October 1492. After Columbus had met natives he wrote in the ship log, that he was convinced that these natives could easily be Christianized. So it shows that the Christianization of newly occupied territories had been a concern of the Spanish monarchs from the very beginning of the Spanish expansion into the New World.

So the Spanish eagerness to spread Christianity over the world was just as much of a reason for the colonization of the Philippines as the establishment of a strategic base for future Spanish expeditions into Asia.

However, due to several reasons (like wars with the Portuguese, Dutch, and English over the distribution of the New World), the planned Spanish expansion further into Asia and the Christianization of Asia never happened.

Preventing Portugal From Colonizing the Philippines

Additionally, we also have to acknowledge the rivalry between Spain and Portugal. While Spain didn`t try to conquer Portugal itself, both powers tried to occupy as much land as possible. Eventually even the pope had to interfere and divide the world into a Portuguese and a Spanish sphere of influence.

By conquering and colonizing the Philippines, Spain prevented its rival Portugal from colonizing the Philippines!

But the rivalry between Spain and Portugal is a story for another time.

By the way, before Christopher Columbus managed to convince the Spanish monarchs to finance his expeditions westwards, he first tried to convince the Portuguese king to sponsor his voyage. Here you can find out more about the decades of hardship Columbus had to go through before somebody finally financed his idea of sailing west to get to India.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


John S. Collis: Christopher Columbus.*

Francisco J. Montalban: Das Spanische Patronat und die Eroberung der Philippinen.

Joseph Höffner: Kolonialismus und Evangelium. Spanische Kolonialethik im goldenen Zeitalter.

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