The Forgotten Story of Spain's Penal Colonies in the Philippines

Penal colonies were all the rage back then.

History has many moments that continue to puzzle people, one being the establishment of penal colonies. The practice of exiling prisoners and placing them somewhere far away was all the rage back then. It was recorded as early as the 17th century in China, and was practiced by Ecuador, Imperial Russia, Paraguay, and even Hawaii, to name a few.

The most notable, however, were the British and French implementations. Australia's reputation as a penal colony continues to be blown out of proportion. Historically, only a fraction of Australian colonies established during the 18th century were penal settlements.

Aside from the British and French, Spaniards were equally big on penal colonies. After all, they were one of the biggest colonizers of the New World. While the Mariana Islands went down in history as its official penal colony, the Philippines was also among the empire's many options.

The Spanish implemented forced labor, or the forzado system as it was called, for thieves, highwaymen, and runaway soldiers. But criminals such as murderers and rapists were also recorded to have received the same sentence.

The most perplexing thing about this practice is the fact that these men were called on to serve as soldiers. Understandably, royal officials in Manila weren't completely on board with these "soldiers" because of their criminal backgrounds and unfree nature.

From 1600 to 1690, approximately a quarter of all the soldiers sent to the Philippines were part of this system. Most of these men were transported to the southern islands of the Philippines, with Cavite as one of the main areas.


While it was seen as a punishment, some men preferred living in the Philippines.

In Eva Maria Mehl's Forced Migration in the Spanish Pacific World, she wrote about the account of one Alonso Ramirez. Ramirez was a Puerto Rican carpenter who came to New Spain (now Mexico) to make a living. For some reason untold, he received a sentence to be exiled to the Philippine Islands. After having many misadventures, Ramirez returned to New Spain where he told his life story in a novella.

In The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramirez: The True Adventures of a Spanish American With 17th-Century Pirates, he lists down Manila's many "delights" and "beautiful and fortified location." And instead of being a soldier, he became a serviceman as a sailor and took lodging in Cavite. 

This wasn't the same case for others, however, who were tasked to defend the archipelago against external threats, which came in the form of Chinese pirates and Dutch raiders. Convicts who came back to New Spain spoke of the hot and humid climate, the spread of diseases, and of course, the treacherous five- to seven-month journey.

By comparison, prisoners in the Philippines were a lot more well-behaved. In Guam, those part of the forzado system conspired to murder the governor and religious officials. The plan was uncovered and eventually lead to the execution of 23 prisoners.

That said, many prominent figures in Manila openly opposed the system. In 1667, a judge named Don Francisco de Montemayor de Cuenca wrote:

As an oidor of this Royal Audiencia ... I recognise the frequency of grave crimes, robberies, highway robberies, and the great abundance of unoccupied men, idlers, and those with few obligations, among whom many are usually condemned to serve ... in the Philippines, from where they easily may return [to New Spain] and continue their crimes; this comes at a considerable cost to Your Majesty in their conduction and sustenance and proves only a limited penalty.

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Many settlements such as the ones in Cebu, Panay, Cagayan, Zamboanga, Iligan, Caraga, Palawan, Bolinao, Lampon, and Pampanga ended before the 18th century. But ultimately, the forzado system went on for two more centuries in Manila and Cavite.

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About The Author
Paolo Chua
Associate Style Editor
Paolo Chua is the Associate Style Editor at Esquire Philippines, where he writes about fashion and grooming. Before joining Esquire Philippines, he was a writer at Town & Country Philippines.
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