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History of Zamboanga - circa 1600s

*1600s A.D. – A formidable Fort, militant Catholicism, Zamboanga, and Chavacano arrives

In the 1600s, Jambangan would experience its transition from the Muslim community it has become into the Catholic dominated city it is today. In 1635, Don Juan Cerezo de Salamanca, interim Governor-General of the Philippines, received reports relative to the Moro power concentrated near the site of the present downtown of Zamboanga. During that year, Padre Juan Batista Vilancio, who had been for years a captive in Jolo, escaped to Manila and brought to the ears of the Governor-General an account of the town where "the nobility of Mindanao held court.

Governor Salamanca resolved to take possession of this strategic peninsula, hoping in this manner to strike a heavy blow on to the Moro power. A fortress in Jambangan would command the Basilan Straight, the waters of which were the ordinary course of the Moro pirate vessels infesting the coasts of the Visayas. The region of Jambangan, while not as important as the seats of the Sultans of Sulu and Mindanao, was nevertheless the territory of a minor Moro king whose authority reached along both sides of the peninsula for a hundred miles on either side. Salamanca hoped to divide this unbroken front and his efforts would prove successful.

Thirty-seven (37) years after the ill-advised destruction of their La Caldera Presidio and Mission, the coffers of the Manila-centric Filipinas Spanish government is once again enriched and well-supplied with new troops from Nueva España and other native settlements in the Visayas and Luzon islands, who have suffered tremendous losses from the Moro attacks on their villages, leading to a more concerted effort in restoring their important sentry in the Mindanao island peninsula.

B & W-Ship of 1630.jpg (87699 bytes) After due preparation for their voyage, a conquering force of 300 well armed Spaniards from Luzon and 1,000 Cebuanos under the command of Captain Juan de Chaves landed at Jambangan on April 6, 1635. There, de Chaves temporarily founded the town of Bagumbayan, which was the first Spanish-given name for Jambangan, and from this station he soon attacked and cleared the town of La Caldera, now barrio Recodo in Caldera Bay, and eventually the rest of the Jambangan peninsula, of Moro Pirates. Their two-month long campaign would provide them a temporary relief from the Moro Pirates and allow them to start construction on the fort.

Soon, the construction of one of the finest and most important Spanish forts in the East was put into effect. Upon careful choice of locating the fort at the southern-most tip of the peninsula for its military vantage point of the main water routes that converges in what's called today the Basilan Straights, the foundation of the grand fortress of Fuerza de San José was laid by Father Melchor de Vera, a Jesuit priest and engineer of the Spanish army, on June 23, 1635, establishing a permanent Spanish presence here brick-by-brick.2  Zamboanga City, as we know it today, was thus born.

In the best evidence we have found so far relating to the early beginnings of Zamboanga, a letter to King Philip IV of Spain from the Bishop Fray Pedro of "Santissimo Nombre de Jesus " (locally known as Cebu) dated October 17, 1635 states that he requested, and got approval, from interim Governor Salamanca, the building of a fort in " Samboanga or Samboangan" to preclude their enemies in Mindanao and Sulu from raiding his "people" and "burning villages, firing churches, destroying images, and capturing many Indians" (their description of the locals), especially worst during the previous year.3 Bishop Fray Pedro also advised the new Governor Don Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera, ex-governor of Panama, that the work on Fort San José be continued for the benefit of church and state. The efforts of the Bishop of Cebu would prove fruitful for the coffers of Spain, and a handful for the few Jesuit priests from Cebu he "entrusted" to do the religious conversion of the natives, who numbered in the "many thousands. The inadequate number of Jesuits for their religious mission resulted in the Bishop requesting from the King "forty" (40) more devoted and "efficient" fathers of the Society of Jesus.3 The local scenery at this time must not have looked that much different than a picture scene in the late 1700s, proving that early Jambangan was already a major trading town with thousands of residents.

Along with the new formidable fort, the Spaniards would forever change the area’s original Jambangan name (which came to be known and spelled Samboangan in the early 1600s by Spanish historians) that stood for over four centuries into its present one – Zamboanga. Little did Captain Chaves foresee that it will someday be considered by some of the leading travel writers today to be the most beautiful and exotic sounding name for a tourist destination city.

Another historical transformation will take place henceforth and will forever embody the character of Zamboanga – the evolution of the Chavacano Dialect and its People - the Chavacanos. The conglomeration of the multitudes of ethnic and foreign peoples and languages from the surrounding Philippine Islands and European countries would force upon the fort and city builders a rudimentary form of survival communication, evolving into the unique dialect of today, based on Creole Spanish: Chavacano.

June 23, 1635, the day Zamboanga and Chavacano were founded, should also be symbolically known as “Dia del Chavacano de Zamboanga

Thus, the veil of Catholicism began to slowly spread across the region with the spirited drive of the militant Jesuits.  With no spices or gold to enrich the king’s coffers, except for local taxes, the Jesuits refocused the Spanish government’s agenda and made religion the object of their expansion and conquest here. It is conceivable that eight hundred years of Moorish domination over Spain that ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada must have left bad blood in the Spanish conquerors’ dealings with the region's transplanted Malayan residents who were converted to Mohammedanism. In this crossroads of Zamboanga’s storied history, Filipino people of the same Malayan decent fought each other to the death in battles for religious domination. The Spaniards and Filipinos from the Visayan and Luzon Islands, backed by the bigger guns and resolve of the Spanish empire to stop the murdering Moro Pirates, eventually made their secure foothold in Mindanao with the strategically placed San José Fort in Zamboanga and have not relinquished it to this day – 374 years later (2009).

In the history of Spanish conquest, there is no other place that symbolizes their greatest achievement as the success of the Zamboanga campaign and the formidable San José Fort that saved them, erasing almost a century of their failure to win against the resilient Moro Pirates. It is even more remarkable what the severely outnumbered Chavacanos have accomplished given the isolation of Zamboanga in the middle of predominant Moroland. The erection of this fortress was accompanied by serious interruptions in the way of Moro Pirate attacks. With only a portion of the massive walls in place, the Spaniards awoke one morning to meet the attack of some 5,000 Moro Pirates, who entered Rio Hondo and attacked the unfinished fortification. Canons were hastily mounted upon the fragmentary walls and the Spaniards retired to the partial shelter to pour a terrible canon fire towards the advancing Moro Pirates. The Moro Pirates' wave broke on the uncompleted walls and the force eventually retired, with severe casualties inflicted upon the Spaniards. With the completion of the San José Fort, a convenient base of operations paved the way for a long-awaited Spanish victory in Moroland. This strong fortress, only ninety miles from the Moro capital of Jolo, always remained as a serious deterrent to Moro Pirates' aggression. The meter-thick walls withstood numerous attacks, and in all of the long history of this fort, the Moro Pirates never captured it. The first victory for the men of the fortress and also the first major victory for Spain was the destruction of a Moro Pirates' fleet. In 1636, Tagal, brother of Kudarat- the Sultan of Maguindanao (Mindanao), gathered a large fleet recruited from Mindanao, Sulu and Borneo and made a cruise to the Visayan Islands. The result was a glorious field day for the pirates. Every town of importance on the whole coast of the Visayas was attacked and looted. When Tagal wearied of the slaughter and raised his hand to turn the prows of the pirate vessels to the south again, 650 captives lay trussed like chickens in the pirate hold. One hundred miles from Jolo, a Spanish fleet that was operating from their base in Zamboanga, intercepted the victorious Tagal as he rounded the treacherous angle of rough water at Puenta de Flecha in the Dumanquillas Bay. Hampered by the hundreds of captives in the holds, the garays (a Spanish term given to the swift Moro-built pirate ships) of Tagal were slow and unwieldy, and in the naval engagement that followed the Moro Pirates suffered a crushing defeat. Three hundred Moro Pirates, including Tagal, were killed, and 120 captives were set free. Tagal jettisoned many of the captives as the tide of battle turned against him, and the sharks at Puenta Flecha fed well on the bound bodies of Christian slave girls bound for the harems of Jolo.2

After twenty eight years of rapid conversion of the locals in Zamboanga, areas of Mindanao and nearby Basilan Island, by the Jesuits, the supporting Spanish troops from Zamboanga, and Ternate (Spice Islands, Moluccas), were suddenly recalled to Manila in May 6, 1662 by Governor Sabiniano Manrique de Lara's decree ordering the garrison to spruce up its defense against possible invasion by the Fujian warlord they called Koxinga (Guo Xing-ye in Chinese) from Formosa, after his troops defeated the Dutch and expelled those that surrendered. The Spaniards did not return to Zamboanga until 1718.

They left behind some of the Jesuits who decided to stay, along with their numerous Chavacanos, to continue their work of spreading the Catholic faith. Amazingly, the Chavacanos who remained, Jesuits included, will amazingly endure another fifty-six (56) years (1662-1718) of isolated existence and proliferation amidst the hostile threat and return of the Moro Pirates who overtook and destroyed the abandoned fort. 

Story Continues: History of Zamboanga - circa 1700s   Read on...


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