The 16th-Century Unity in Arms

Santiago de Vera's Letter Excerpt


It was a common belief that the ancestors of the Filipinos had a poor sense of unity across the archipelago, an easy reason by many, or perhaps a lazy way, in explaining why the precolonial Filipinos were conquered by the Castilians.

This common belief is about to be shattered, for upon review of historical accounts, it can be observed that the sixteenth-century Filipinos, and their nearby nations, had a strong sense of unity in reclaiming their lost freedom.


In 1589, Santiago de Vera, the sixth Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, had written a military report to his Spanish king, Felipe II, that there was an inter-island uprising in their conquered territories as he penned:

“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 [sic] 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 that Governor-General Santiago de Vera pertained were the Tagalog princes, nobles, and freemen 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 nations along the banks of Pasig River and nearby areas.


The Tagalog noble’s resolve had spread across seas, for the sultanates of Brunei and Sulu, and the royal house of Maguindanao joined their cause to crush the Spanish conquerors.


As for the mentioned foreigners, this was the Japanese, who earlier agreed on expanding the Tagalog forces by bringing samurais, warriors, and armaments. And later on, true to their word, the Japanese came with their forces.


Unfortunately, this Tagalog-led uprising failed when Antonio Surabao of Calamianes betrayed them to the Spanish authorities that led to the executions of the Tagalog princes and the banishments of other nobles to Mexico.


In the same letter, Governor-General Santiago de Vera included a rebellion plot that had happened in the Visayas:

“After that, in the province of Cubu [sic] 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 were able to discover this rebellion plot, leading to the execution of the best Visayan warriors and a Cebuano prince.


There was another letter sent to the Spanish king, in the same year of 1589, that came from a Castilian official, a licentiate, by name of Gaspar de Ayala. The licentiate mentioned 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 took arms and overran a Spanish fort, killing many Castilians and their encomiendero.

As a result, Governor-General Santiago de Vera sent his Castilian army, and they turned their rice fields and coconut plantations into ash.

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


The year 1589 proved that there was a unifying spirit among the ancient Filipinos to fight for freedom. For aside from the Bruneians, Tausugs, Maguindanaons, and Cebuanos there was an evidential proof that implies that the Tagalog nobles might have in touch or inspired

And this rebellion was now referred as the Tondo Conspiracy of 1587-1588, also known as the Conspiracy of the Maharlikas or the Revolt of the Lakans.

With that, it can be observed that the Cebuanos must have negotiated with the Tagalog princes in a concerted rebellion against the Castilians.

If only the Tagalog princes were not betrayed, perhaps the greatest Far Eastern forces made by the ancient Filipino kampilan wielders, Bruneian silat masters, and Japanese samurais could have defeated the Spanish Empire in Asia.


Based on de Vera’s letter, we can learn that:

  1. There were regional kingdoms in the precolonial Philippines.
  2. There was a unified spirit in the fighting for freedom among the premiered kingdoms of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.
  3. War alliances were practiced by the precolonial Filipinos among their neighboring nations.


  • De Vera, Santiago (1589). Letter From Santiago De Vera to Felipe II. In Emma Helen Blair & Alexander Robertson, The Philippine Islands 1493-1898 (Volume VII). Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903.
  • Sitoy, T. Valentino, JR. (1985). The Initial Encounter: A History of Christianity in the Philippines. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.
  • Artwork Information: Detail from a painting located at the National Museum of the Philippines.

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