The 16th-Century Unity in Arms

Santiagao de Vera's Letter


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

This common belief is about to be tested, 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 vanquishing the Spanish Empire in the Far East.


In 1589, Santiago de Vera, the sixth Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, had written a military report to his Spanish king, Felipe II, about an inter-island uprising in their conquered territories. 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 [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 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 nobles’ 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.

The mentioned foreigners 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 that led to the executions of the Tagalog princes and the banishments of other nobles to Mexico. And four hundred years later, this rebellion was now called the Tondo Conspiracy, Conspiracy of the Maharlikas, or the Revolt of the Lakans.


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

“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 were able to discover this rebellion plot of the Cebuanos, leading to the execution of the best Visayan warriors and their prince.


In that same year of 1589, there was another letter sent to the Spanish king that came from a Castilian official, a licentiate, by the 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 the Cagayan Valley’s vast rice fields and rich coconut plantations into ashes.

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.


One has to understand that Spain was the first global superpower in the sixteenth century. And based on the historical accounts and the same year of 1589, we can observe that there was a unifying spirit among the ancient Filipinos and their neighboring allied nations to go against the unstoppable Castilian army in the Southeast Asia.

Perhaps, it was the Tagalog nobles who inspired, or even planned, an inter-island and countrywide concerted attack against the Spanish Regime in 1589. For all of them were connected in trade — the Tagalogs, the Japanese, the Bruneians, the Tausugs, the Maguindanaons, the Visayans, and even the natives of the Cagayan Valley who had an access to the much coveted Igorot gold — they were bartering before the coming of the Castilians.


If only the Tagalog princes were not betrayed, imaginably, 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. Nonetheless, based on these historical accounts, we can learn:

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


  • Blair, Emma Helen, and Alexander Robertson, eds., The Philippine Islands 1493-1898 (Volumes I–LV). Reprint of the 1903-1909 edition, Michigan Library, 2005.
  • Francisco, Carlos. Presentation of Santo Niño in Cebu, 1965. Manila: National Museum of the Philippines.
  • Scott, William Henry. The Discovery of the Igorots: Spanish Contacts with the Pagans of Northern Luzon. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2006.
  • Sitoy, T. Valentino Jr. A History of Christianity in the Philippines: The Initial Encounter, Volume 1. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1988.

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