Spain Seizes the Philippines Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Spain’s seizure of the Philippines opened a lucrative spice trade route between the Mexican city of Acapulco and the Filipino city of Manila, which flourished for more than two centuries. Spain also used the route to spread the Christian faith to non-Christian peoples around the world.

Summary of Event

In the late fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal were great rivals for sovereignty over the uncharted seas. To keep peace between the wrangling sovereigns of the two Catholic nations, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull in 1493 that drew an imaginary dividing line across the globe from north to south. The pope reserved all lands and seas east of the dividing line to Spain and those west of the line to Portugal. In 1494, by the Treaty of Tordesillas, Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494) the two nations moved the line of demarcation to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Philippines;Spain and Legazpi, Miguel López de Andrés de Urdaneta Urdaneta, Andrés de Magellan, Ferdinand Charles V (1500-1558) Philip II (1527-1598) Alexander VI John II (1455-1495) Alexander VI Balboa, Vasco Nuñez de Magellan, Ferdinand John II (king of Portugal) Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Villalobos, Ruy Lópes de Philip II (king of Spain) Urdaneta, Andrés de Legazpi, Miguel López de Tupas

The rivalry between Spain and Portugal arose out of the geography of the known world of the period. Traders used three primary overland routes for the movement of their trade goods to and from the Far East. The northern trade route started in northern China and passed through Constantinople on its way to the Mediterranean. The central route went from the Malay Peninsula to the Mediterranean by way of Constantinople. The southern route also started on the Malay Peninsula, traced its way to the Red Sea, and continued on to Cairo, Egypt. Constantinople was a stop on two of three trade routes; whoever controlled Constantinople was poised to control the very lucrative spice trade. The Ottoman Turks had captured Constantinople in 1453 and had closed the northern and central land trade routes. By treaty, the Turks had allowed Venice Venice, Republic of;trade monopoly control of the southern trade route. Venice had monopolized the coveted Asian spice trade.

Spices were highly desired by the Europeans who needed them, not only for improving their bland food but also for preserving their meat supply. Spices, especially peppercorns, were more valuable than silver or gold; peppercorns were used as payment for land, traded for livestock, and collected for dowries. Spain and Portugal, cut off from the southern trade route, vied with each other to be the first to find another way to the Far East and the lucrative spice trade—a sea route. Trade;spices

A sea route from Europe to the Far East seemed impossible. The large land mass of the American continent, discovered by Christopher Columbus, was thought to block all sea voyages from Europe to the Far East. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the large body of water on the far side of the North and South American continents, which became known as the Pacific Ocean. Then, the race was on to see who would be first to discover a sea route from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean, around or through the Americas, to the Pacific Ocean, and on to the Spice Islands in the Far East. Spain had the advantage, having established New Spain (Mexico) on North America’s western coast, in the wake of Balboa’s discovery.

During this period, Ferdinand Magellan, a young Portuguese explorer, had tried to persuade King John II of Portugal to authorize an expedition that would sail west across the Atlantic to reach the Far East. Angered by King John’s refusal to authorize such an expedition, Magellan approached King Charles I of Spain, and won Charles’s support. Magellan’s expedition left Spain in 1520. Three years later, one of Magellan’s ships, the Victoria, returned to Spain from the Far East by way of the Pacific Ocean.

Charles, now convinced that the Spice Islands could be reached by sailing west, authorized four successive expeditions. All the expeditions failed. Only one, led by Ruy Lópes de Villalobos in 1542, managed to leave behind a Spanish presence in what later became known as Mindinao, Philippine Islands. Tiring of his fruitless efforts to establish Spanish colonies in the Far East, King Charles abdicated to his son, Philip II, in 1556.

Philip authorized still another expedition to the Far East and the islands later known as the Philippines. He appointed Father Andrés de Urdaneta navigator and cosmographer. He appointed Miguel López de Legazpi, a relative of Urdaneta, leader of the expedition. Urdaneta at first refused to accompany the expedition, feeling that, according to the tenets of the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Treaty of (1529) the Philippines lay in Portugal’s sphere of influence rather than Spain’. The Treaty of Zaragoza drew an imaginary line, north to south, at 297½ leagues east of the Moluccas (Spice Islands). All lands east belonged to Portugal’s sphere of influence; all to the west belonged to Spain’. Urdaneta believed the Philippines to be east of the line and, therefore, reserved for Portugal’s exploration.

Mexico’s audiencia (supreme court) under the reign of Spain’s Philip II, did not contradict Urdaneta. They simply sent sealed orders with the expedition to be opened when Legazpi’s ships had left La Navidad and reached the open seas of the Pacific Ocean. The audiencia’s order directed Legazpi and Urdaneta to lay claim to the Philippines and discover a return route from the Philippines to Mexico to use for the trading of spices and for spreading the Catholic faith. Legazpi and Urdaneta eased their disappointment in King Philip’s flouting of the Treaty of Zaragoza by considering their claim to the Philippines in the name of Spain a service to God and the Catholic Church. Exploration and colonization;Spain of Asia

Legazpi’s expedition consisted of two galleons, the San Pedro and the San Pablo, and two tenders, the San Juan de Letran and the San Lucas. Legazpi, Urdaneta, four Augustinian missionaries, and 380 men left La Navidad, on the Mexican coast, on November 21, 1564, and reached Cebu Cebu , in the archipelago of the Philippines, in February of 1565.

Legazpi, after exploring nearby islands, chose Cebu for the establishment of the Spanish settlement and took possession of the island in the name of Spain. The natives that he and his men encountered on Cebu were hostile. Later, Legazpi discovered that Portuguese sailors had landed there in earlier years and passed themselves off as Spaniards. They had looted native villages, burned fields, and turned the people of Cebu against Spaniards. When Legazpi attempted to make friends with Tupas, chieftain of the island of Cebu, Legazpi’s overtures of friendship were met with opposition. Tupas and his people torched their own villages and fled to the mountains rather than submit to Legazpi and his Spanish rule.

Legazpi’s own men caused many of Legazpi’s problems. They robbed graves and took jewelry, gold, silver, and other valuables, buried with Cebu’s dead. The natives reciprocated by attacking the unfinished settlement, harassing the Spanish soldiers, and making off with food supplies. Legazpi put a stop to his men’s despicable behavior, and finally succeeded in winning the trust of Tupas and his people. After this peaceful alliance was formed, Legazpi and his men were able to complete the first permanent Spanish settlement, known as San Miguel.

To establish the return route to Mexico (as instructed by Philip II’s sealed orders), Legazpi sent Urdaneta back to Mexico to report the establishment of a Spanish settlement in the Philippines. Urdaneta left Cebu on the San Pedro on June 1, 1565, sailed northwest across the Pacific toward the California coast, and then south along the Mexican coast to La Navidad and Acapulco.


Urdaneta’s return trip to Mexico fulfilled King Philip’s sealed orders. For the next two centuries, Manila galleons, engaged in the spice trade, sailed between Acapulco, Mexico, and Manila, Philippines, along Urdaneta’s navigational route.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abueva, Jose V., ed. The Making of the Filipino Nation and Republic: From Barangays, Tribes, Sultanates, and Colony. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1998. Comprehensive history of the Philippines from prehistory to the present. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agoncillo, Teodoro. “Spanish Foundations.” In A Short History of the Philippines. New York: New American Library, 1969. An early chapter of this short, well-written history, is a highly readable chronology of Spain’s conquest of the Philippines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arcilla, Jose S. “The Coming of the Spaniards.” In An Introduction to Philippine History. Manila: Ateneo Publications Office, Ateneo de Manila University, 1971. This work is an overview rather than a detailed chronology. Its discussion of early Filipino history is informative and colorful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Headley, John M. “Spain’s Asian Presence, 1565-1590: Structures and Aspirations.” Hispanic American Historical Review 75 (1995): 623-657. Although written in an unnecessarily flowery style, this article offers valuable historical context and is worth reading for those with some knowledge of Spain’s presence in Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    One Hundred Events That Shaped the Philippines. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: National Centennial Commission and Adarna Book Services, 1999. A close analysis of the historical consequences of one hundred specific events in Filipino history, from prehistory through the Third Republic. Includes illustrations, maps, and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Contests the traditional view of Philip as conducting his empire by reacting to events as they occurred without any grand plan to guide him. Uses correspondence and other historical documents to delineate a “strategic culture” informing Philip’s decisions and his reign. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phelan, John Leddy. The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses, 1565-1700. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959. An annotated, well-indexed discussion of Spanish influences in the history of the Philippines.

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

Categories: History