Coveting PH, then and now | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Coveting PH, then and now

Passive-aggressive” is the only way to describe the recent intrusion of 261 Chinese vessels into the West Philippine Sea as of April 11. We don’t know how events will unfold, but can only wish the Chinese will sail away after making their point.

Framing the present with the past should remind us about challenges posed to


Spanish-era Philippines by other powers centuries ago. In 1568, the Portuguese established a naval blockade on Legazpi‘s Cebu, asserting that the islands lay on their side of the demarcation line that then divided the globe between Spain and Portugal. Despite starving out Legazpi in his camp and having a superior force, the Portuguese eventually just sailed away, as it was more prudent to protect their hold on the coveted Spice Islands or Moluccas from internal and external threats.

In 1646, at the tail-end of the Eighty Years War, also known as the Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648), a Dutch fleet threatened Manila and was repelled after five battles. That naval victory was attributed to the intercession of the Virgin of the Holy Rosary who saved the Spanish Catholic Philippines from the Protestant Dutch. Each year on the second Sunday of October, the feast of Our Lady of La Naval de Manila celebrates that historical event since immortalized in prose and verse by Nick Joaquin.


The British Occupation (1762-1764) occurred in the context of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between Britain and France. When Spain sided with France, George III took advantage of what became a global conflict to attack Spanish overseas territories. Manila was surprised by the arrival of a huge British fleet with land troops of over 6,000 men; as my college history teacher Helen Tubangui declared with a smile, the Spanish in Manila didn’t even know they were involved in a war with Britain! At the time of the attack, the Philippines was without a governor, just an OIC archbishop of Manila waiting for the arrival of the new governor who had been held up because of the capture of Havana by the British.

Manila and Havana are cities connected like twins by history. There are familiar names in the list of colonial governors of Cuba: Valeriano Weyler and Ramon Blanco served in Manila during Jose Rizal’s time, while Leonard Wood and William Howard Taft made history both in Manila and Havana.

To cut a long story short, the British left without extending their authority beyond Manila and Cavite. During the occupation, the Spanish capital was moved from Manila to Bacolor, Pampanga. A ransom for Manila was raised by the Spanish who made a down payment to the British, but the British were unable to collect the balance. In the British Library two years ago, I was shown one hand-drawn map depicting the British siege of Manila, with a note indicating a “breach” in the walls of Intramuros in the hand of George III. That King’s map collection has recently been made available online by the British Library, providing many fruitful hours away from Netflix.

Finally, on May 1, 1898, the first shot in the Spanish-American War was fired, far from Washington or Madrid. It was fired in Manila Bay, resulting in the sinking of the proud but antiquated Spanish fleet under Admiral Patricio Montojo by a modern US fleet under George Dewey. As Dewey had no land troops to take and occupy Manila, he contented himself with a naval blockade. On June 12, 1898, the day Philippine independence from Spain was declared from the window of Emilio Aguinaldo’s Kawit home, German Vice Admiral Otto von Diederichs sailed into Manila Bay. German intentions over the Philippines was suspect because on June 6, 1898, the German ship Darmstadt landed in Cavite with 1,400 men, allegedly as relievers for the crew of two German warships in Manila Bay. While the Darmstadt left after 72 hours, the Germans later maintained five warships in Manila Bay, which were way too much compared to the British, French, and Japanese ships waiting to evacuate their nationals in case of trouble. Worse, the German vice admiral outranked US Commodore Dewey.

Well, the Germans also sailed away from the Philippines and later contented themselves with the acquisition of Palau, the Caroline Islands, and the Marianas, with the exception of Guam which went to the United States.

Learning how the Philippines was seen with covetous eyes by other powers over our long history provides framing to our current territorial disputes with China and Malaysia. History does not solve the present problem, but may hint at solutions.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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