by Jack Demlow
On June 12th, 2018, the Philippines celebrated the 120th anniversary of their declaration of independence from Spain in 1898. However, like most holidays, the history behind this date is a good deal more complicated than a declaration and a day on a calendar.
The Philippines were colonized by Spain in the 16th century and was used for agricultural purposes under the feudal-styled encomienda system, as well as for trade with the East Indies and China. Spain was far from the first foreign power to interact with the Filipinos, who had a history of trading with Chinese and Arab merchants, but Spain would have nearly 300 years of continuous control to gouge out a mark like no other. Traditional religion, methods of governance, systems of agriculture, and more would see significant change under outsider rule. The Spanish crown kept a close eye on the islands, replacing the encomienda system with crown officials to guarantee that the colony was defended, dues were paid, and the Filipinos were instructed in (and restricted to) practicing the Christian faith.
Spanish impositions would gradually ease by the 19th century, but they were still a heavy weight. However, wealthy Filipinos could gain access to education abroad, and through this window the Philippines was exposed to liberal and nationalistic currents. The writer Jose Rizal is credited with rallying many Filipinos to the cause of reform, and his arrest and execution by Spanish authorities resulted in the formation of the Katipunan, an underground revolutionary group. After discovery by the Spanish forced the Katipunan to act quickly with their plan, and the Philippine Revolution began in August 1896. These first hostilities were concluded by a truce and the promise of reform by the Spanish government, but Spain still had not taken steps to meet this promise by 1898, when revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo led his fellow revolutionaries to take advantage of the Spanish-American War and fight for their independence.
The Malalos Republic and Resistance to U.S. Control
Filipino and U.S. forces pushed the Spanish hard, and Aguinaldo and his forces celebrated a wave of victories by declaring independence on June 12th 1898 and forming a governmental system for the newly declared “Malalos Republic,” of which Aguinaldo was president. However, when final victory over the Spanish was declared, the Philippines were not granted official independence; instead, Spain had transferred control of the Philippines over to the United States as part of the 1889 Treaty of Paris. Filipino forces engaged in a guerilla war against U.S. control until Aguinaldo was captured in 1901 and he subsequently encouraged acceptance of the new regime. The fact that U.S. imperial possessions contradicted principles of self-determination was not lost on Filipinos or many Americans, though ostensibly the American regime was meant to prepare the Philippines for independence. This paternalistic claim was not as disingenuous as it might appear; civil services in the Philippines saw a steady decrease in non-Filipino employees and in 1933 the Tydings-McDuffie Act set 1945 as the date for Philippine independence.
The Commonwealth of the Philippines and WWII
Before the Philippines would become completely independent they would have 10 years of U.S.-supervised Filipino self-government. This commonwealth of the Philippines wrote its own constitution and elected Nacionalista Party leader Manuel Quezon as its president. The Commonwealth of the Philippines was officially established on November 15th, 1935, the date of Quezon’s inauguration. The road ahead did not look smooth, however, as Japanese aggression in China bred anxiety in the Philippines, and General Douglas MacArthur became the islands’ military advisor as preparations for defense began.
The Philippines were struck by the Japanese invasion on December 8th, 1941, and had very little preparation in place to fall back on. U.S. and Filipino forces surrendered on May 6th, 1942, but fighting on the islands was far from over. Both army and civilian-organized resistance groups engaged in guerilla warfare over the course of the Japanese occupation, most notably the communist-led Hukbalahap. Almost two years after their initial defeat, U.S. forces returned to the Philippines in October of 1944, landing first on Leyte island then inflicting heavy damage on the Japanese fleet in the battle of Leyte Gulf. MacArthur reported total success of the invasion on July 5th, 1945.
Just shy of a year later, with WWII finally over, the U.S. granted the Philippines independence on July 4th, 1946. After centuries of fighting Spain, then the U.S., and then Japan, and 48 years after Emilio Aguinaldo's assertion of independence, the island nation finally had international legitimacy. Yet, it is June 12th, 1898 that is celebrated today, not July 4th, 1946, a pointed rebuke of both Spain and the United States.