Sugar Sun series location #10: Fort Santiago


Georgina looked up at Fort Santiago, the stone embodiment of Spanish paranoia that capped the fortress city of old Manila. A bas-relief of Saint James the Moor-Slayer stood guard over the gate. Not the most observant Catholic, Georgie liked the thought of Iberian explorers braving the long, lonely journey across the Pacific only to find themselves back where they started: fighting Muslims. Judging by the number of churches they left behind, conversion had been a spiritual test they had met with gusto.

Under the Sugar Sun

Front gate of Intramuros with Saint James the Moorslayer
Saint James the Moorslayer, a close up of the main gate to Fort Santiago. Creative Commons photo by John Tewell.

The defensive embankment of Fort Santiago (“Saint James”) has been around since shortly after the Spanish took Manila from its indigenous Muslim rajahs in 1571—hence, the tone-deaf dedication to Saint James the Moorslayer. (The Spanish converted or chased out most Muslims in the archipelago, but not all. Still today, 5% of Filipinos are Muslim, mostly in southern Mindanao and the surrounding islands.)

1665 view of Maynila from the bay
A bird’s eye view of Manila by Johannes Vingboons, painted in 1665.

When a Dutch traveler painted Manila in 1665, you can already see the walled city of Intramuros, capped by Fort Santiago at the mouth of the Pasig River. This was where the Spanish Army was headquartered, and it will be the Americans’ choice, too. Almost 240 years later, my heroine Georgina Potter had no choice but to search for her missing soldier brother at Fort Santiago. (The relatively brief US stewardship may be the only time this citadel was not a fortress of Catholicism.)

American flag illustration over Fort Santiago after Battle of Manila 1898
Raising the American flag over Fort Santiago, Manila, on the evening of August 13, 1898. From Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Vol. II, published by Harper and Brothers in 1899.

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Manila grew into a thriving commercial and cosmopolitan center.

Vintage postcard of Fort Santiago mouth of Pasig RiverEvery vessel that entered the city—from local casco to Manila galleon—had to sail past the intimidating cannons of Fort Santiago to reach the docks on the north side of the river.

Photo of boats in front of Fort Santiago
Walls of the old city of Manila. Fort Santiago with gorletas anchored in front of it, 1898. Photo from the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

Importantly for Filipino history, Fort Santiago is also where national hero José Rizal spent his last days. In his spare time, this polyglot ophthalmologist authored the seminal work of Philippine fiction, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not). The Noli blasts the corruption of the Spanish friars who ruled the countryside and reveals how young, intelligent Filipinos (like Rizal) were denied human and political rights. Since Rizal was executed for writing a work of fiction, the Spanish ironically proved his claims true.

Collection of last days of Rizal images
National hero José Rizal was held by the Spanish at Fort Santiago until his execution at the Luneta in 1896, sparking the Philippine Revolution. Images from left to right: the entrance to Rizal’s prison, as photographed by Barbara Jane; a common portrait of Rizal; and the map from the Presidential Library and Museum.

Rizal may have had revolutionary sentiments—how revolutionary is hotly debated—but his fate was ultimately sealed by priests, not politicians. Of course, these friars thought they were the government of the Philippines, so a challenge to them was a challenge to Spanish rule. Where did the friars put him? In their fortress of Saint James, of course. Rizal wrote these last words in his jailhouse poem, later named Mi Ultimo Adios:

My idolized Country, for whom I most gravely pine,
Dear Philippines, to my last goodbye, oh, harken
There I leave all: my parents, loves of mine,
I’ll go where there are no slaves, tyrants or hangmen
Where faith does not kill and where God alone does reign.

Jose Rizal's cell in Fort Santiago, pictured now
Jose Rizal wrote his farewell letter, Mi Ultimo Adios, while being held in a prison cell in Fort Santiago. Now the cell has been converted as the Rizal Shrine where a life-size diorama of his last hours is depicted before his execution. Creative Commons photo by Christian Sangoyo.

Scratch a stone in Manila and you’ll dig up all kinds of interesting history, right? By the way, the Creative Commons image below is by Fechi Fajardo. If you’re wondering what that net is, it’s a practice driving range for the Intramuros golf course! Oh, what would Rizal think?

Fort Santiago stylized modern

Sugar Sun series glossary term #12: Sinulog

(Note: This post was originally written on January 9, 2016.) It’s fiesta time, people! You thought the holidays were over, but in Cebu they are just beginning. All you need is some nutmeg, a drum, and a statue of Baby Jesus.

Creative commons photo by Billy Lopue.

The nutmeg is a nod to history. Spices are why Magellan sailed to Cebu. In medieval Europe, this stuff was more valuable than its weight in gold. It not only tasted good, it warded off the bubonic plague, too! (Don’t try that at home, folks.) By the early 1500s, the Portuguese had locked up the eastern trading routes around Africa and India, leaving the Spanish to sail west off the edge of the world. No, just kidding. Anyone with education back then knew the world was round, but they didn’t know a good route around the Americas. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan told King Charles I of Spain that he could find a western passage for the right price. It took him two years to make good on that promise—two years of being chased by the angry Portuguese navy; surviving mutinies, storms, starvation, and winter; and crossing the un-pacific Pacific Ocean. Finally, Magellan and his remaining crew arrived in Cebu in 1521.

Magellan's forces fight those of Lapu-Lapu in the Battle of Mactan, 1521. Photo of the Ayala Museum history dioramas.
Magellan’s forces fight those of Lapu-Lapu in the Battle of Mactan, 1521. Photo of the Ayala Museum history dioramas.

There Magellan managed to convince the raja of Cebu, his harem, and the entire settlement to convert to Christianity. The people already had their own idols they danced to, but they pledged to put those away in favor of a present from Magellan: the Santo Niño, or Child Jesus. Magellan even offered to make Christianity work for his new ally, Raja Humabon, now called Don Carlos. Carlos pointed out that the raja of Mactan, a small neighboring island, was spurning the right and true religion. Off Magellan went to fight Lapu-Lapu with an unnecessarily small number of Spanish troops: forty-nine to Lapu-Lapu’s fifteen hundred. Magellan must have never heard MacArthur’s (or the Princess Bride’s) twentieth-century warning to “never fight a land war in Asia.” Intending to be a Christian miracle worker, he died a Christian martyr. His body was not found after being torn apart by the Mactan defenders, adding to Lapu-Lapu’s legend as a true nationalist hero. He even has a delicious fish (local grouper) named after him. Very cool.

The Spaniards staying with Don Carlos overstayed their welcome, possibly raping some of the raja’s women after a fiesta (not a tradition of Sinulog). A few of Magellan’s crew, under the captaincy of Juan Sebastian del Cano, made it back to Spain after circumnavigating the globe for the first time. This was the last the native Filipinos saw of the Spanish for a while. Other Spaniards made it to the southern tip of Mindanao long enough to name the islands Las Islas Felipinas in honor of Phillip II, but it took 43 years for Miguel Lopez de Legaspi to make it to Cebu. What did he see there? People dancing to the Santo Niño! (Probably among other idols, but he did not emphasize that part.) A miracle!

Creative commons photo by Rusty Ferguson.

Soon came the friars, and Catholicism was in the Philippines to stay. Every town’s church is named after a saint, and that saint’s festival day is celebrated with a procession of the wooden santo statue along the main thoroughfare. In Cebu the sinulog, or “current of the river,” was also danced to please the Santo Niño during his parade. Native drums, gongs, and frenzied movement resemble the pagan festival it once was. Sometime in the 1980s Cebu’s Sinulog became big business, and people travel from all over the world to see it. The schedule for this year’s event includes an entire month’s worth of events, from a historical recreation of Don Carlos’s baptism to a singing competition (Sinulog Idol, of course!). The Santo Niño also travels round trip to Mactan (Lapu-Lapu would not be happy, I think) the day before the big parade, which itself lasts about twelve hours. The costumes are out of sight. In comparison, Americans have no idea how to throw a parade. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade cannot beat this, especially since Sinulog is a regional celebration. I’ve not even mentioned Quiapo’s Black Nazarene, Iloilo’s Dinagyang, Bacolod’s Masskara, Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan, and so on.

If you live in Cebu, I hope that you were not planning to drive anywhere this week or next. Happy Sinulog!

Creative commons photo by Kenneth Gaerlan.