Introduction to the Philippines

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Podcast Transcript

Located off the coast of Southeast Asia lies an archipelago of 7,641 islands that constitute the nation of the Philippines. 

The Philippines is one of the largest countries in the world by population and has a history and a culture, unlike any other country in Asia. 

The process through which the modern nation of the Philippines came to be is a direct result of its unique history. 

Learn more about the Philippines, its geography, and history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Usually, when I do an episode about a country, I tend to do episodes about small countries. It is pretty easy to cover the story of Liechtenstein or Andorra in a single episode. 

In the case of the Philippines, that is impossible to do. The country is simply too big, and its history too rich to cover everything, given the time constraints of this podcast. 

What I’m going to attempt to do is just give an introduction to the Philippines. Many of the topics I’ll be covering are worthy of their own future episodes. 

That being said, I’ve probably been asked by more people to do an episode about the Philippines than any other topic. 

Moreover, even before I started this podcast, I knew that the Philippines would probably be requested because of all the Filipinos I’ve interacted with online and in person all around the world. 

Before I get into that, let’s start with the basic geography of the country. 

The Philippines constitute the northern part of the Malay Archipelago. The term “Malay Archipelago” is confusing because of its similarity to the name of the country of Malaysia. 

The Malay Archipelago refers to all of the islands between Southeast Asia and Australia, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo, Singapore, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea. 

Fun fact: in the early 1960s, there was a movement in the Philippines to change the name of the country to Malaysia….but they were beaten to the punch by the former British colonies of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore.

As I noted in the introduction, the Philippines consists of 7,641 islands; however, the majority of them are small and uninhabited. Only about 2000 islands have any human population.

By land area, the country is slightly smaller than Italy and larger than Ecuador. 

The country can roughly be divided into three groups of islands. In the north is Luzon, which is centered around the island of Luzon, the largest and most populated island in the country and the capital city of Manila. 

In the center are the Visayas, whose largest city is Cebu.

Finally, in the south is Mindanao, which is centered around the second largest island in the country, Mindanao, and its capital, Davao. 

The current population of the Philippines is estimated to be around 110 to 118 million people, making it the 13th largest country in the world, just behind Japan and above Egypt.

The history of the Philippines is fascinating and unlike that of any other Asian country. 

The first hominid presence in the Philippines dates back about 700,000 years. During previous ice ages, when the sea levels were lower, most of the major islands of the Philippines were connected to mainland Asia.

About 4000 years ago, Austronesians migrated to northern Luzon from what is today the island of Taiwan. This is part of the same migration which eventually settled most of the islands in the Pacific. 

The particular group of islands that make up the Philippines is a result of being colonized. Prior to that, there was no hard and fast grouping of islands. Individual islands and villages would have had their own cultures and traditions.

Around the 10th century, trading ports developed on many islands, and during the Tang dynasty, trade began with China. Many of the trading centers in the Philippines became tributaries of China during this period.

Influences from India also migrated to the Philippines in the 14th century in the form of both Hinduism and Buddhism. 

The primary social system at the time was that of the barangays. The barangays were independent villages ruled by a chief known as a ‘datus.’  Barangays would often form alliances with each other, and there was a loose similarity to Greek city-states. 

While many barangays were just some villages, some of them grew in size to populations of thousands of people. 

The term barangay still survives today as the name for local villages or districts. 

The event that transformed the Philippines and led to the development of the modern Philippines was contact with Europeans. 

The first European to set foot in the Philippines was Ferdinand Magellan, who arrived in 1521.

Magellan arrived in the Philippines and claimed it for Spain. However, his ‘claiming’ the land for Spain didn’t do him much good because he was killed soon after at the Battle of Mactan, just off the coast of modern-day Cebu Island. 

The crew, led by Juan Sebastián Elcano, which I covered in a previous episode, managed to complete the voyage without Magellan, but he is still usually credited with being the first person to sail around the world. 

In 1542, Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos named the islands after King Philip II of Spain.

Magellan’s claim to the Philippines on behalf of Spain wasn’t forgotten despite his death. In 1565, the Spanish returned in the form of Miguel López de Legazpi, who established the first permanent Spanish presence in the Philippines. 

He also moved the capital of the Spanish Philippines to Manila, with its superb natural harbor. 

The consolidation of the Philippines by the Spanish was a process of divide and conquer, which was very similar to the process they used in Mexico. In some cases, they would use outright military conquest. In others, they used pre-existing rivalries between barangays to have them do the work for them.

They put in place the encomienda system. The encomienda system dates back to the Reconquista in Spain, and it was a form of feudalistic land management and labor system. Under this system, Spanish colonizers were granted a piece of land or a village along with its indigenous non-Christian inhabitants. 

The grantee, known as the encomendero, was responsible for the Christianization, protection, and education of the indigenous people on his land. In return, the encomendero was entitled to receive tribute from the people, often in the form of labor, agricultural produce, or other goods. 

This system was one of the reasons why Spanish colonization was so different from French, British, and Dutch colonization. For the most part, the people in the rest of Southeast Asia didn’t adopt the religion or customs of the countries that colonized them. 

This is why I said the history of the Philippines was so unique amongst the other countries in Southeast Asia. 

In the Philippines, the encomienda system and other Spanish policies fundamentally changed the country in a way that didn’t change neighboring countries. Indonesia and Malaysia remained Muslim. Christianity never really caught on in Vietnam or Cambodia. 

But the Philippines became a profoundly catholic country. In fact, today, it has the third largest Catholic population in the world, behind only Brazil and Mexico, another former Spanish colony.

Moreover, most people in the Philippines have names that are of Spanish origin. This was due to the Spanish Naming Decree of 1849, which mandated that everyone in the country select a surname from a preset list, most of which were Spanish in origin. 

If you remember back to my episode on the Manilla Galleons, the Philippines became an endpoint in the world’s first truly global trading system.

For the most part, the Philippines was closed to the outside world for much of Spain’s rule. However, in the 19th century, the country began to open up to the rest of the world. The very word Filipino began to take on a different meaning.

Previously, it only referred to people of Spanish origin who were born in the Philippines. It was now being used to refer to anyone who was from the Philippines. 

With this opening, the idea of independence began to take hold in the late 19th century—something which had already happened in most Spanish colonies in the Americas. 

One of the first events that spurred independence was the execution of three Filipino catholic priests in 1872. Mariano Gómes, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora were executed after being charged with subversion. 

Other independence leaders arose, most notably Jose Rizal. Rizal wrote passionately about the cause of Filipino independence, and his works played a part in the Philippine Revolution, which took place from 1896 to 1898. 

The Spanish authorities executed Rizal on December 30, 1896. Rizal is considered a national hero of the Philippines, and December 30 is celebrated as Rizal Day. Today, you can visit the place of his execution in Fort Santiago in the Intramuros area of Manila.

Spain was weak by 1898, and the Philippine Revolution would probably have been successful if it hadn’t been for Spain going to war with the United States. 

The Philippines declared Independence on June 12, 1898. However, on December 10, 1898, Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, ceding control of the Philippines to the United States. 

The Filipino revolutionaries now had to shift their efforts from the Spanish to the Americans, which resulted in 1899 in the Philippine–American War. 

The Philippine–American War lasted for over three years, and most Americans have never even heard of it. It resulted in the deaths of between ten to twenty thousand Filipinos and 4,200 Americans. This will definitely be the subject of a future episode. 

The war ended in 1902 with the passage of the Philippine Organic Act by the US Congress. The act allowed for the establishment of a Philippines-elected legislature, a Phillippines Bill of Rights, and two non-voting representatives in the US Congress.

In 1934, the Tydings–McDuffie Act was passed, giving the Philippines commonwealth status. As a commonwealth, the Philippines would be given significantly more autonomy, and it would be part of a ten-year transition to full independence. 

Whereas Spain controlled the Philippines for over 300 years, the US was going to have the Philippines for just a few decades. 

However, once again, Philippine independence was delayed with the onset of the Second World War and the invasion by the Japanese. 

The Japanese attacked the Philippines simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The war saw some of the most significant actions in the Pacific theater, including the Battle of Corregidor, the Bataan Death March, the Manilla Massacre, and a large-scale guerrilla insurrection. 

When the war ended, the plans for independence were back on track, and after centuries of occupation, the Philippines became fully independent on July 4, 1946. 

Perhaps the most notable period post-independence was the reign of Ferdinand Marco. Elected as president in 1965 and 1969, he declared martial law in 1972 and ruled by decree until 1986, when he fled the country after a popular uprising known as the People Power Revolution.

One of the biggest economic developments of the last several decades has been the emergence of an enormous Filipino diaspora. There are estimated to be over twelve million Filipino overseas workers. 

I have literally met Filipinos on every continent, including Antarctica. One of the industries where they make up a huge part of the workforce is in the maritime industry. As many as a fifth to a quarter of all seamen working on merchant vessels worldwide are from the Philippines. 

If you visit the Philippines, there are several exceptional things to see. The rice terraces of Banaue are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are often called the 8th wonder of the world. It is a series of rice terraces built on steep mountainsides. The cover art for this episode is an image of the rice terraces.

The island of Palawan is home to the world’s longest underground river, which is 24 kilometers or 15 miles long. In 2011, it was declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

With over 7,600 islands, as you might guess, there are fantastic coral reefs and opportunities for SCUBA Diving.  Just to give a shout-out, one of my friends and popular YouTuber, Justin Carmack, just opened up a dive shop called Critter Republic on the island of Dauin.

This was really a cursory overview of a country that has a lot of history and for which there is a lot to be said. But you should be able to see why the Philippines is unique among the countries of Asia, and it is one of my favorite countries in the world.