Tracing the earliest inhabitants of Cebu, and the Philippines, goes back way before the land was “discovered” by European seafarers. Diverse peoples came to the islands in waves, quite literally too, traveling in boats from Indonesia and the Malayan islands, as historical studies suggest. Over the centuries, migrants from India were followed by Chinese traders; then in the 14th century, Arab merchants from Malay and Borneo crossed over to the Philippines’ southern shores.
A social and political structure had evolved across the islands by the time the navigators from Europe arrived in the 16th century. The basic social unit or community was the barangay (from the Malay word for boat), headed by a datu (chief).
When Ferdinand Magellan – a Portuguese explorer who had fallen from the good graces of his king – set out in the service of the Spanish Crown to find a western route to the spice islands (spices were such prized commodities that could establish vast empires then), his miscalculation led him to the Philippines’ Samar island on March 16, 1521. Three weeks later, on April 7, Magellan anchored his ships on the fishing island of Cebu – or Sugbu to its inhabitants – where he planted a cross and claimed the land in the name of Christianity.
Cebu was already a bustling settlement and its chieftain, Rajah Humabon, was a gracious host to the newcomers from the West. Magellan and his men lost no time in befriending the tattooed natives who were persuaded, or charmed maybe by the fair-skinned visitors, to give up their pagan ways. At a mass baptism a week after, about 800 natives, including the chieftain and his wife, converted to the Catholic faith and swore their allegiance to Spain.
On neighboring Mactan island, the hostile chief named Lapu Lapu would not be dictated upon by an outsider and stood defiantly opposed to the stance Humabon had taken. In a fierce clash with the native warriors, Magellan met his untimely death in the hands of Lapu Lapu in Mactan’s shallow waters. Leaving behind their captain’s body, the remaining Spaniards retreated to their ships and soon after sailed away to continue their expedition. A single ship from Magellan’s original fleet of five made it back to Spain to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe. It bore a crew of 18 emaciated sailors and a load of valuable spices.
Spain mounted an expedition led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi that landed in Cebu in 1565 during the reign of Rajah Tupas, a nephew of Rajah Humabon. The avenging Spaniards easily subdued Cebu, and established it as the capital of their new colony with Legazpi as its first governor. In its keen rivalry with Portugal to find new territories, this stamped a win for Spain and marked the beginning of its rule over the Philippines that would last over three hundred years.
Trade was the main source of income for the Spanish colonizers in the prosperous commercial port of Cebu. Galleons were trading ships that carried some of the most valued cargoes across the high seas like spices, silk and porcelain. Sailing out of Cebu on two separate routes, eastward to Mexico and westward to the spice islands, the galleon trade became a highly lucrative business for Spain’s coffers; but the richly-laden ships were often targets of English freebooters and marauding Muslim pirates from Indonesia.
To protect their territory, fortresses were erected by the Spaniards along Cebu’s coastline. The earliest fort was the Fuerza de San Pedro, named after Legazpi’s flagship, San Pedro. Built in 1565, it was the first Spanish settlement in the country. The small and wooden triangular bastion served as a lookout against Muslim invaders and was later fortified with thick stone walls to became a major military outpost.
While opposition to the abusive colonial government had escalated, history took a turn after the firing squad execution of Jose Rizal in 1896. A symbol of Filipino freedom from Hispanic rule, his martyrdom fueled the flames for a full-blown revolution against Spain throughout the country. In Cebu, Gen. Leon Kilat led rebels in a historic bloody battle on April 3, 1898. Fighting against superior weaponry, the Cebuano forces drove the Spanish troops to retreat to the safety of Fort San Pedro. The victory, however, was short-lived with the arrival of Spanish reinforcements.
After three long centuries, Spain’s sovereignty finally ended when the American warships decimated the Spanish fleet in the decisive battle of Manila bay in May 1898. Under the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10, 1898, Spain officially ceded the Philippines islands to the United States.
As the Americans prepared the country for its eventual independence, the Philippine commonwealth was formally established in Manila in 1935 with Manuel L . Quezon as the elected president and Sergio Osmeña, a Cebuano, as Vice-President. By 1937, Cebu became a chartered city.
Following the outbreak of World War II, the Philippines was under Japanese occupation from 1942-45 until Gen. Douglas Macarthur made good his famous “I shall return” promise and liberated the country. The Philippines was granted independence in 1946.
For twenty six years, the nation had been the modern showcase of democracy in Asia up until martial law was declared in 1972 by then President Ferdinand Marcos in the wake of bombings and student unrest. His dictatorial regime ended with the peaceful People’s Power revolution in 1986. Democracy in the Philippines continues to flourish today, much like the country itself. Cebu is a testament to that.