First Contact: How Did The Spanish First Interact With The Filipinos?


It seems so long ago, but almost 500 years ago, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi landed on the Philippine islands in February 1565 to continue what Ferdinand Magellan and Ruy Lopez de Villalobos couldn’t do: Colonize the Philippines for the Spanish crown.

Philippine history has changed so much due to this act. Legazpi’s landing set off a chain of events that put the Philippines on its current course. Five hundred years on, it’s important for us to look back and realize that this wasn’t just another historical footnote in our textbooks, but the beginning of something more important.

Why the Spanish Conquered the Philippines

Before we look at the what, let’s answer the question of why Spain kept trying to colonize the area after Magellan. At the time, it’s important to note that Spain was a leading colonial power, with decades of experience in the Americas.


That said, previous expeditions to the Philippines have confirmed the existence of a lucrative opportunity for the Spanish colonizers. Far beyond any notion of “advancing the Catholic faith,” almost all accounts by Spanish chroniclers first talked about the archipelago’s vast resources and potential.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise when King Philip II ordered the viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, to launch an expedition to the Philippines. The Spanish knew it as a land filled with gold, wax, spices, produce, and other goods. They knew that the Philippines was key to the vast trade network with India and China. And most important? They thought they were well within their right.

In 1529, shortly after Magellan discovered the Philippines, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Zaragoza, establishing which islands were “owned” by Spain and which were owned by Portugal. The two countries had been at odds with each other on issues of colonization, especially in what they called “the Spice Islands,” now known as the Moluccas.

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The treaty stipulated that all areas in Asia, including the Molucca, were under Portugal’s territory. This also technically meant that the Philippines was claimed by the Portuguese. That said, Spain didn’t really care and tried to colonize the Philippines anyway, rightfully thinking that Portugal wouldn’t care too much on account of the archipelago’s lack of spices.

And so the stage was set: On 1564, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi set sail for the Philippines with five ships and 500 men. They would arrive in February of the next year.

Felipe de Salcedo Described the Islands

On February 13, 1565, the Legazpi expedition landed in Cebu. Different accounts by members of the expedition generally followed the same story: After landing in Cebu, they were forced to flee due to native hostility, whereupon they decided to go to Cibabao (Samar) and Tandaya (Leyte). After which, they went to Boyo (Bohol), before returning to Cebu and settling a permanent fort in the area.

What’s interesting about these different accounts was that the authors focused on different aspects. Felipe de Salcedo, who commanded the ship San Pedro, talked mostly about the islands that they visited: Cebu, then Cibabao, Tandaya, Negros, then back to Cebu. His account focused more on establishing a return route to New Spain and their interactions with the native population. He would describe the native Filipinos as “hostile” and “treacherous.”

Salcedo’s account is unique in that it described an action they undertook in Cebu. During a conflict with the native Cebuanos, Legazpi ordered his men to burn down as many as a hundred houses. After the fire, they began looting the place and found a statue of the Child Jesus: “There was found a marvelous thing, namely, a child Jesus like those of Flanders, in its little pine cradle and its little loose shirt, such as come from those parts, and a little velvet hat, like those of Flanders—and all so well preserved that only the little cross, which is generally upon the globe that he holds in his hands, was missing,” he wrote in his account. The Spanish then constructed a fort in the area and erected a church to house the icon, naming the place Villa del Santisimo Nombre del Jesus.


Andres de Mirandaola Paints Natives as Savages

Andres de Mirandaola, a nephew of Fr. Andres de Urdaneta, wrote another, shorter account, advising the king to conquer and colonize the Philippines. “It will be necessary for your majesty to conquer this region,” he wrote, “for I believe without any doubt, that by no other way can it prove beneficial; nor can the Christian religion be otherwise advanced, because the people are extremely vicious, treacherous, and possessed of many evil customs.”

Fr. Andres de Urdaneta


Mirandaola portrayed the native populace as savage and warlike, portraying their journey as treacherous at every step. His short account talked of continuous battle and concern for the “natives’” use of artillery.

Miguel Lopez de Legazpi Emphasized Relationships

But it was Legazpi’s account that provides the most nuanced detail of Spanish interactions with the native Filipinos. Instead of focusing on violent interactions or trade, he paints a more political picture, with transactions between him and other leaders.

It was clear that Legazpi’s goal when he first set foot was establishing political alliances with other local leaders. He recognized that there was an existing power structure in the islands and thus sought to “make treaties and to procure friends,” as he wrote. 

In his account, he refers to Canutuan, in the village of Cavalian, in Buyo, who gave them information on nearby islands and important people; a “Moro trader” who informed them of a company of Portuguese soldiers who posed as Spaniards and attacked the area two years prior, making everybody distrust the Spanish; Sikatuna and Sigala, datus in Bohol who accompanied Legazpi to Cebu (Legazpi would even have a blood compact with Sikatuna); and Tupas, cousin of Rajah Humabon who befriended Magellan.


A look into Spanish accounts of the Legazpi expedition, although very one-sided, sheds some light into how Filipinos saw Spanish arrival with continuity. Life didn’t stop after Magellan died in Mactan. 


For years and decades, a rich history of conflict, intrigue, and expansion existed until Legazpi’s arrival, and it’s important for us to emphasize that the scene was less of a white European colonizer bringing civilization to heathens, but another power disrupting the existing power balance. By having a better understanding of our history, we can start to finally see ourselves as Filipinos with a history viewed outside a colonial lens.


Blair, E. and Robertson, J. The Philippine Islands 1493-1898, University of the Philippines Diliman Main Library.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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