Unity in Arms in the 16th-Century Philippines

Excerpt from Don Santiago de Vera's letter


It is a popular belief that the ancestors of the modern-day Filipinos had a poor sense of unity across the archipelago. And this becomes a convenient excuse or a lazy way to explain why the precolonial Filipinos were subjugated by the Castilians.

This common belief is about to be shattered, for upon review of historical accounts, it can be observed that the 16th-century Filipinos and their nearby nations had a strong sense of unity in vanquishing the Spanish Empire in the Far East.


In 1589, Don Santiago de Vera, the sixth Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, had written an interesting military report to King Felipe II:

“I learned that some chiefs of these islands had intrigued with that people to secure their aid; and that they had plotted together to do this, and had agreed to bring Burney [Brunei] and the kings of Jolo and of Mindanao [Maguindanao], and many other foreigners against this city, in order to rob and kill us.”

— Governor-General Santiago de Vera, July 1589

The chiefs whom Don Santiago de Vera pertained were the Tagalog princes of Manila, Tondo, Candaba, Bulacan, Pandacan, Navotas, Taguig, and Quiapo. And these native princes had recruited more nobles as far as Bataan, Batangas, Cavite, Laguna, and other Tagalog villages along the banks of the Pasig River and nearby areas.

The Tagalog nobles’ resolve spread across seas, for the royal houses of Brunei, Sulu, and Maguindanao joined their cause to crush the Spanish conquerors.

As for the mentioned foreigners, they were the Japanese, who earlier agreed on expanding the Tagalog forces by bringing samurais, warriors, and armaments.

Unfortunately, this Tagalog-led uprising failed when Antonio Surabao of Calamianes betrayed them to the Spanish authorities. This led to the executions of the Tagalog princes and the banishment of the rest of the noble conspirators to Nueva España or Mexico. And four hundred years later, this rebellion is now called the Tondo Conspiracy, the Conspiracy of the Maharlikas, or the Revolt of the Lakans.


Surprisingly, in that same report of 1589, Don Santiago de Vera included a rebellion plot that happened in the Visayas:

“After that, in the province of Cubu [Cebu] and in that called the Pintados, the chiefs held a conference, and plotted to kill the Spaniards. The majority of those who took part in this have been imprisoned, and proceedings are being instituted against them.”

— Governor-General Santiago de Vera, July 1589

Like the unfortunate Tagalogs, the Spaniards discovered the Cebuano conspiracy, which led to the executions of the best Visayan warriors and nobles — and it is believed that Cebuano crown prince Pinsuncan, son of Raja Tupas, was among the executed.


That same year of 1589, Licentiate Gaspar de Ayala sent a letter to the Spanish king. The licentiate reported that their encomienda in Cagayan Valley was under rebellion:

“Four or five months ago[,] two soldiers came from the city of Segovia, located in the province of Cagayan. They were sent by the alcalde-mayor of that province, bringing word that the province was all in rebellion and that the Indians had killed many Spaniards.”

— Licentiate Gaspar de Ayala, July 1589

The natives of Cagayan Valley in Northern Luzon overran a Spanish fort, killing their encomiendero and several Castilians. As for the Spanish reprisal, Don Santiago de Vera sent his army, and they turned Cagayan Valley’s vast rice fields and rich coconut plantations into ashes.

However, to their Castilian shock, the rebels of Cagayan Valley frustrated the Spaniards by burning their huts, retreating to the mountains, and leaving their community useless for Spanish use.


Historical accounts prove that there was a unifying spirit among the ancient Filipinos and their neighboring allied nations to go against the unstoppable Spanish Armed Forces in the 16th-century Far East.

We can theorize that the Tagalog nobles might have inspired or even planned the interisland concerted attack against the Spanish Regime in 1589. This is strongly plausible, for all of them were connected by trade: the Tagalogs, the Japanese, the Bruneians, the Tausugs, the Maguindanaons, and the Visayans, and even the natives of Cagayan Valley — who had access to the much-coveted Igorot gold — were bartering before the coming of the Spanish conquerors.


If only the Tagalog princes were not betrayed, imaginably, the greatest Far Eastern forces made of the ancient Filipino kampilan wielders, Bruneian silat masters, and Japanese samurais might have defeated the 16th-century Spanish Empire in the Far East.

Nonetheless, basing on these historical accounts, we can learn that there were regional Malayan kingdoms in the precolonial Philippines; there was a unified spirit to fight for freedom among these ancient kingdoms of Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao; and they were supported by neighboring countries, such as Japan and Brunei.


  • Blair, Emma Helen, and Alexander Robertson, eds. The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903-1909.
  • Scott, William Henry. The Discovery of the Igorots: Spanish Contacts with the Pagans of Northern Luzon. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1974.
  • Sitoy, T. Valentino Jr. A History of Christianity in the Philippines: The Initial Encounter. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1985.

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