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  • Established (as a Spanish city): 1571

Manila was the center of the Spanish colony in the Philippines, and remains the capital of the independent Philippines today. In the early modern period, it was a major center of Spanish, and thus Catholic, activity in the region, and one of the main transshipment points between Asia and the New World for the Manila galleons (aka Acapulco galleons).

The Spanish first arrived in the Philippines in 1565, and after seizing Luzon Island in 1571 made Manila the capital of their new colony. The city had already been an active port prior to that, however, under Muslim rulers surrounded by a countryside where animism dominated.[1] Like other areas in the region, Manila was plagued by pirates and privateers for the remainder of the 16th century, and into the 17th. Lim Ah Hong was perhaps among the more prominent pirates in the area; he led a fleet of some sixty junks in a series of attacks on the Spanish in 1574 which is notable but was ultimately unsuccessful.[2] Manila Bay and surrounding waters also saw numerous clashes between Spanish and Dutch ships, beginning in 1600 if not earlier.

The city was also home to one of the largest Nihonmachi (Japantowns) in Southeast Asia at that time; boasting some 1,500 Japanese at its peak, this community was roughly the same size as that in the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya.[3] The community began in the late 16th century, at a time when Catholicism was earning many converts in Japan, particularly in Kyushu, and when some thousands of Japanese were actively trading and traveling between Japan and Southeast Asia, or otherwise living in diaspora. Around 1590, Governor Gomez Pedro Dasmarino began to impose restrictions on the Japanese living in Manila, and around the same time, Japanese residents, such as Harada Quimon, petitioned Toyotomi Hideyoshi to invade and conquer the Philippines. Hideyoshi is known to have sent at least one threatening letter, but never actually launched any attempts to attack the Philippines.

While the residents of this Nihonmachi community were freemen, Manila was also a major entrepot for the trade in slaves. Asian slaves and servants of various classes were all called chinos in Spanish, regardless of where in Asia they came from. Filipinos, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Burmese, Ceylonese, Indonesians, and perhaps some number of Japanese, were bought and sold as slaves or servants in Manila. Many of them were then brought to New Spain (Mexico), to be further sold and put to work. Some 40,000-100,000 Asians traveled to New Spain over the course of the Spanish colonial period, either as slaves or servants, or as freemen hired as sailors or laborers.[4] It is unclear how many, if any, were Japanese.

Spanish and Japanese trading ships continued to travel between Manila and Nagasaki, connecting the two cities in a rather active trade, and the Japanese community, though small, remained influential as it did in many other Southeast Asian ports. By 1603, the Japanese community numbered around 800, and played some role in quelling an uprising by the local Chinese. Three years later, in 1606, the Japanese themselves rose up, at a time when the Spanish governor was absent. Though this rebellion could have thus presented a serious threat to Spanish control, it ultimately came to nothing, and another rebellion the following year was crushed, with the Nihonmachi being burned to the ground.

The community was revived, however, when Christian daimyô Takayama Ukon led a group of some 300 Japanese Christians, Naitô Joan and Naitô Julia among them, to Manila in 1614. They settled outside the city walls, but were otherwise warmly welcomed by the Spanish. A school was established by the Spanish in 1622 to cater to Japanese and Chinese Christians in the city.

However, by 1624, the Tokugawa shogunate banned trade with Manila. Two ships, one sent by Satsuma han and one by the Nagasaki bugyô, did travel to the Philippines that year, though historian Geoffrey Gunn suggests their missions may have been more military than commercial;[5] meanwhile, a Spanish envoy who arrived in Satsuma (one of the more strongly anti-Christian domains) that year was treated brutally.

Persecution of Christians became more severe in Japan beginning around 1630, and a considerable number of Japanese Christians fleeing persecution traveled to Manila over the course of the 1630s. All are said to have been received warmly. They established a Japantown at a place called Dilao, on the south bank of the Pasig River, just next to the northeastern portion of the city walls, between the Chinese parián and Laguio. This community continued to operate as an active commercial center at least until 1656.

Takayama Ukon's followers, meanwhile, had established a separate community, in the San Miguel quarter of the city, roughly adjacent to Dilao. This was not a center of trading activity, but rather merely a residential area, though it was home to at least one church, as was Dilao. This San Miguel community was destroyed by fire in 1768; it is unclear if the community recovered afterwards.


  • Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 225-227.
  1. Anthony Reid, "Early Southeast Asian categorizations of Europeans," in Stuart Schwartz (ed.), Implicit Understandngs: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters Between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era, Cambridge University Press (1994), 271.
  2. Matt Matsuda, Pacific Worlds, University of Cambridge Press (2012), 106-107.
  3. At that same time, Manila was also home to around 20,000 Chinese. Uezato Takashi. "The Formation of the Port City of Naha in Ryukyu and the World of Maritime Asia: From the Perspective of a Japanese Network." Acta Asiatica 95 (2008). p70.; Gunn, 222-223.
  4. Edward Slack Jr., "The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image," Journal of World History, 20:1 (2009), 37.
  5. Gunn, 226.