Kris-Crossing Mindanao

Is Davao City truly Exhibit A?

So obscure was knowledge of the Davao City area in the Spanish colonial years that when a Recollect priest died there, his death was not even known in far-flung Manila. The Davao of history is today’s Davao Oriental where the Spaniards established Caraga town in 1750.

The Davao City area reached colonial notice only when a mission of the Basque Jose Oyanguren sailed in 1848, financed by Manila business and government, with the deal that he be given full authority as governor for the next 10 years. As the venture failed in subjugating natives, Governor General Antonio de Urbiztondo withdrew Oyanguren’s privileges.


Elsewhere in northern Mindanao, towns had flourished since the 1600s. So remote was Spain’s newest colony of 51 years that during the Philippine Revolution, there was nary a revolutionary activity in capital town Davao, incommunicado from Luzon. Under the Americans, it was made part of the Moro province, when northern Mindanao already had representations in the Philippine Assembly.

Abaca was the impetus for demographic change. The American James Burchfield established the first plantation in 1902. The shift caused massive displacements of native inhabitants. Agrarian unrest preceded a scorched earth policy following the
assassination of Davao’s military headman Lt. Edward Bolton who himself had acquired lands for abaca planting.


The boom attracted Visayan recruits. In 1903, recruitment of Japanese labor first began under Ohta Kyozaburo who formed the Ohta Development Corporation, the leading abaca planter by 1918. Seventy-one plantations were Japanese-owned, the Americans owned only 34.

The research of the American Geographic Society written by Karl Pelzer in 1945 sums up Davao’s fate then: “When Japan became politically menacing, the dangerous potentialities of this colony brought the settlement of Mindanao by Filipinos once more to the forefront. Investigations revealed that Japanese agricultural companies were occupying more land than they had a right to. The total land area controlled by Japanese in 1935 amounted to 57,350 hectares, of which 28,098 had been acquired legally; the other 29,252 hectares comprised public land, which had been alienated to Filipinos and Americans, who then turned it over to Japanese under lease or some other form of contract.”

With 30,000 Japanese settlers, Japanese control of Davao was complete. The Manila government then decided to fast-track its conversion into a city. A chartered city had officials appointed by Manila, instead of elective, thus removing the fear of the Japanese having their Filipino surrogates elected.

Davao became a city on Oct. 16, 1936. That explains why it advanced ahead than its older counterparts: Marawi (1940), Misamis (1948; today Ozamiz), Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Butuan (1950), Cotabato (1959). Land area had to encompass all the abaca plantations in the hands of the Japanese—explaining why it is the “world’s largest city.”

Dynastic bossism, notably by Cebu migrants Alejandro Almendras and Vicente Duterte, followed. The influx of migrants who were not government grantees but landless settlers created more tensions. But abaca demand worldwide declined in the 1950s. Banana and logging followed.

Two basic factors stand out that are not found in Mindanao’s oldest cities: growing demographics, and land availability enabling space for development. Saying Davao is the most progressive city in Mindanao is to eschew an appropriate grasp of the historical factors absent elsewhere.

Being the new kid on the block explains the wide avenues — Mindanao’s northern towns had small Spanish-era grids like
old Cebu because the tight coastal plains offered scant expansion space.


History puts into context contemporary tags, mostly mirage, we give to cities. Fact-checking, part of history writing, is good practice. Example, Davao’s safest city tag: Philippine National Police reports said it has the highest murder rate while news agency Reuters reported in 2016 that it is the second among 15 Philippine cities with the highest rape rate.

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TAGS: Antonio de Urbiztondo, Antonio Montalvan II, Caraga, Davao City, Jose Oyanguren, Kris-Crossing Mindanao, Spanish colonial period
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