The Storied History of Cebu, the Queen City of the South
Here’s a fun fact you can bring up whenever we can go back to not wondering whether the pandemic or abject hunger will kill us first: Cebu City is the first and oldest city in the Philippines, having been founded in April 1565.
Of course, that’s not the entire story. Calling Cebu the “first and oldest city” presupposes that no cities have existed in the Philippines prior to Spanish colonization-something that’s simply patently false. Looking deeper, we start to see that the truth of the matter is a little more complicated.
The Great Fire of the Kingdom of Cebu
The name Cebu is in itself not Spanish in origin. It’s not clear where the name actually came from. The Philippine folk epic Aginid, Bayok sa atong Tawarik describes Sri Rajahmura Lumay, the half-Tamil half-Malay Chola prince of Sumatra who established his kingdom in the area: During his reign, he would contend with pirates and raiders from Mindanao by employing scorched-earth tactics. Eventually, his kingdom would be called Kang Sri Lumayng Sugbu (Sri Lumay’s Great Fire), or simply Sugbu.
Others point to Cebu’s origins as coming from the word sibu (trade), short for sinibuayng hingpit (the place for trading). It isn’t clear when Subgu became Cebu, but both names point to Cebu’s position in the pre-colonial archipelago as a place of great importance.
In this sense, the pre-colonial history of Cebu shares a lot with the rest of the nation. Before any Spaniard ever set foot in the Philippines, the archipelago was a boiling pot of competing dynasties, rajahnates, confederacies, and tributary kingdoms centered around the barangay system. The barangay state was the center of political and economic life in the Philippines, with a communal plot of land for agriculture, ruled by the maginoo class, who owned the most important force of production: the alipin.
So it comes as little surprise that a prince like Sri Lumay would take interest in establishing his kingdom in Cebu. The island’s central position meant that it was an ideal trade outpost. Ships from Luzon will have to pass through Cebu to trade, while Chinese vessels going to and from Butuan will have to stop over the island. Cebu was a strategic economic chokepoint, and Sri Lumay knew this very well.
The Great Rulers and Sons of Cebu
Aside from that, Cebu’s central position meant it was a strategic staging point for one of the Visayan barangays’ oldest traditions-pangayaw or raiding. The island of Cebu, and its rulers, were major regional players in the 15th century; a fact made all the more important due to increasing influence from other regional powers such as China and Sumatra.
In any case, Sri Lumay and his sons consolidated their power in the island of Cebu. His son Sri Alho ruled in Sialo (modern-day Carcar), while Sri Ukob had Nahalin (the area from Consolacion to Bantayan). Sri Lumay settled in between his sons, overlooking Mactan island in the area that would become Mabolo, Cebu City. He named the city Singhapala, the Lion City; though it would be eclipsed by more famous names.
Eventually, Sri Lumay died in battle. His son, Sri Bantug, succeeded him, followed by another son, Sri Parang, and finally, Bantug’s son Humabon-the same Humabon who met with Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.
The Advent of the Spanish in Cebu
Magellan’s arrival in 1521 was far from an earth-shattering event most colonial depictions would have us believe. By the time of Humabon’s rule, Cebu was an undisputed trading power; it was used to strangers from foreign lands. Humabon was less awed by Spanish superiority and more intrigued by what Magellan can do against his rival, Lapu-Lapu.
Humabon thus used Magellan and his men in an attempt to finish off Lapu-Lapu; an attempt that failed miserably. Humabon and Lapu-Lapu would eventually make amends after the infamous Battle of Mactan, and Humabon would continue to rule over Cebu until his death. He was succeeded by Sri Parang’s son, Tupas.
On the other hand, Magellan’s arrival signaled the beginning of the end. Spanish interests were piqued by Magellan’s journey. Spain sent other expeditions after Magellan, before forces led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived to deal the final blow in 1565.
By this time, Legazpi came with the express intent of finishing what his predecessors started. He wanted to establish a permanent foothold in the Philippines-and what better place to do it than on the very island where it all began?
The End of the Rajahs of Cebu
There are conflicting accounts on how Rajah Tupas dealt with Legazpi’s arrival. In some versions, Tupas was defeated in battle on April 27, 1565 and forced to submit. In other versions, Legazpi arrived in Cebu and found the place abandoned; Tupas having fled.
The truth would be somewhere in between. Scorched-earth tactics were, of course, nothing new for the pre-colonial Filipino. Sri Lumay’s favored tactic of burning his own city to the ground made more tactical sense than it let on; Filipino structures were specifically designed to be temporary, to ease the damage caused by the almost-annual pangayaw raids. During times of distress, like invasion or war, the people would move inland for the time being.
This was what Tupas most likely did when Legazpi arrived. Sensing that he would not be able to defeat Legazpi and his allied Rajahs’ forces, he would side-step for a moment. Legazpi used this opportunity to declare that Cebu had submitted to Spanish suzerainty 40 years before and was engaging in rebellion.
Regardless, Tupas was forced to parlay with Legazpi. On May 8, he presented himself to the Spaniards to formalize a deal. One month later, the Treaty of Cebu was signed: terms of unconditional surrender disguised as a trade deal.
With the Treaty of Cebu signed, Spain had created legal authority to take over Cebu and formally incorporate it into the Spanish crown. Legazpi built a wooden fort, now known as Fort San Pedro, and began to call Cebu the “first” city in Spain’s newest colony: the Philippines.
And so we come full circle in the history of Cebu.
Cebu City, as it is today, is one of the country’s biggest and most beautiful. It is an important regional hub in the Visayas and a center of business, trade, and culture in the region. But beneath the sheen lies centuries of history, just waiting to be uncovered for all of us to appreciate.
Don't forget to subscribe to the Esquire Philippines YouTube channel.