Philippines Cebu

This is the Philippines, an archipelago comprising over 7 and a half thousand islands – a fluctuating number mostly dependent on the height of the tide.

Almost smack in the middle of this cluster is the island and city of Cebu. 

Its 2021 population is estimated to be just short of 1 million people, making it the 3rd most populous city in the Philippines, after Davao city some 406 kilometers south east  and Manila 570 kilometers north west.

It is one of the main Philippines’ shipping ports and is home to about 80% of the country’s domestic shipping companies making it the 2nd largest economic center in the country. 

Historically, it also happens to be the first settlement established by the Spanish in the region and as a result it is the oldest city in the country which also means that it is considered by many to be the birthplace of Christinaity in the Far East. 

Unsurprisingly this arrival of Spanish settlers also created conflict and it was right here on Mactan Island just beside where the modern city of Cebu lies that arguably the most triumphant moment of early Philippino history occurred creating the legend known as Lapu Lapu.

So let’s talk about, what were the pivotal moments of this region’s recorded history? How was it affected by the arrival of the Spanish empire? And how has Cebu evolved to become one of the most important economic centers in the Philippines? 

cebu city map


In truth history of the earliest tribes living in the Philippines isn’t that well known 

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

Simply because little was written down.

What we do know largely comes from other Asian cultures who were their trade partners and settled there themselves.

Starting with  the period of the south Indian Pallava dynasty and the north Indian Gupta Empire, when Indian culture spread to Southeast Asia and reached as far as the Philippines leding to the establishment of Indianized kingdoms

The date inscribed in the oldest Philippine document found so far, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, is from 900 AD

terms and titles seen on this document show that the culture and society of Manila Bay was that of a Hindu and Old Malay mix, similar to the cultures of Java, Malaysia and Sumatra at the time.

So evidence shows that during this period Cebu Island would have been largely occupied with people of Malay origin who practiced pagan and Islamic religions. 

The city had different names such as ‘Zebu’, ‘Zubu’, ‘Sebu’, ‘Sugbu’, and Sibuy and it was one of the earliest real settlements to have sprung up in the Philippines. 

It is unknown exactly when The Rajahnate of Cebu was formed. It was founded by Sri Lumay otherwise known as Rajamuda Lumaya, a minor prince of the Hindu Chola dynasty from SumatraIndonesia

Lumay was sent by the maharajah to establish a base for expeditionary forces to subdue the local kingdoms but he rebelled and established his own independent Rajahnate instead.

So prior to the arrival of the Spanish Cebu was an Indianized Rajaa monarchical society

Similar to that found in Sumatra. 

It is commonly argued that there was little evidence that the archipelago experienced much violence or competition amongst its tribes prior to the 14th century. This is In order to create a narrative aimed at the evils of early colonialism.

(Damn colonialism ruining my life)

This narrative is unlikely to be true. It is more likely that participation in warfare was the most public and prestigious act in this prehispanic society giving males the possibility of improving their social status.

Like everywhere else participation in warfare was desirable because of potential rewards: slaves, materials, bounty, and especially validation and prestige. 

By the 1300s, a number of the large coastal settlements had emerged as trading centers, and became the focal points of societal changes. This phase of history can be noted for its highly mobile nature, with barangays transforming from being settlements and turning into fleets and vice versa.

And Participating in land and sea raids was an essential part of duties. These raids, locally known as pangangayaw, were usually regular annual expeditions undertaken by whole communities in a very Viking-like fashion. 

Massive changes to the region began  with European arrival 

While a settlement has existed on the island for many thousands of years the city known as Cebu was officially founded in 1565 by Miguel López de Legazpi with the arrival of Spanish settlers.

And The first recorded visit by Europeans came in the form Ferdinand Magellan‘s expedition which landed in Homonhon Island in March 17 1521. 

This was following Magellan’s insane voyage all the way from Western Spain to the Southern tip of South America and all the way to the Philippines. 

Their goal was of course to find a new shorter trade route to link Europe to Asia. 

So Not long after arriving in the Philippines Magellan was welcomed by the king of Cebu, Rajah Humabon along with his wife and around 700 of their native islanders.

They did not lose any time and started baptising the local population, quickly;  after they gained favour from the King Who according to the story had an ill grandson. Magellan or one of his men was able to cure or help the young boy. 

While it is likely that knowledge of Christinaity had spread deep into the far east  this was certainly the first time in the history of the Philippines that large numbers of natives were evangelised into the church. 

Meaning that Cebu really could have been one of the earliest bastions of Christinaity in East Asia especially since it was able to spread freely without much persecution like in Japan where it was outright forbidden and it didn’t really have much competition from the local beliefs like in modern mindanao where Islam was much more established. 

But back to Magellan, 

So on that same expedition, Magellan and his crew tried to land on Mactan island some 6 kilometers east of Cebu, they were not given the same acceptance there, especially from Lapu-Lapu, the local chieftain. 


When mention is made of the Spanish conquest of the Philipines, the first event that inevitably comes to mind is the battle of Mactan. Every Philipino school child would know of this story and be taught about it in school.

It has been etched into Philipino nationalist consciousness and Lapu Lapu is considered a national hero. 

Instead of a warm welcome the Spaniards were met with a barrage of flying spears, and subsequently ‘The Battle of Mactan’ was fought on April 27, 1521. 

Magellan, was heavily outnumbered with only 100 soldiers or less, fighting Lapu-Lapu head on in typical European fashion utilizing his advanced weaponry. 

Considering that under Lapu Lapu’s command there may have been well over 1,000 warriors this probably at first seems like an obvious foolhardy blunder. 

In reality Magellan by this point in his career was an experienced military leader who had faced similar odds when fighting various tribes in south america including the aztecs. 

Technological and tactically advanced methods of European fighting usually prevailed as they scarred off local resistance Especially due to the European tradition of warfare which emphasized very direct confrontation that usually resulted in many casualties.  

This time they did not and Magellan and most of his soldiers were overwhelmed and killed.

Magellan’s body was never recovered and the remaining members of his expedition returned to Spain. 

Ever since Lapu-Lapu became a National Hero, symbolising the nation’s bravery and capability of resisting foreign invaders.

Today there are two monuments standing close to each other on Mactan Island, one in the name of the first national Philipine hero and one for Magellan, the first bringer of Christinaity. 

Hmm, I think there is definitely a conflict of interest there that might just be too much for some people to handle. 

So the story Spanish colonization continues 

As on April 27th, 1565 as another set of Spanish conquistadors led by Miguel López de Legazpi arrive in Cebu.  

Their goal was to continue the Spanish colonization of Cebu and the rest of the Philippines. 

Rajah Tupas was the chieftain of Cebu at the time and was not as easily swayed.

He was defeated and as a result became the last Rajah of Cebu in the Pre-Hispanic Indianized society of Philippines.

Tupas and Legaspi signed the Treaty of Cebu, which effectively gave Spain control over Cebu.

The Spaniards then constructed fortified settlements, with the main one being called Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jess.

And also Fort San Pedro, a military fortification in East Cebu City to defend the Spanish settlement from attacks by natives opposed to the colonization.

Agriculture, trade, and commerce flourished in Cebu as it grew and its population increased over the centuries as the Spaniards continued their colonization of the Philippines.

The fragmented and sparsely populated nature of the islands made it easy for Spanish colonization. 

The Spanish brought political unification to most of the Philippine archipelago via the conquest of the various small maritime states.

One of Spain’s objectives in colonization of the Philippines was the conversion of the local population to Roman Catholicism. The work of conversion was not that difficult mostly thanks to the disunity of other organized religions, with the exception for Islam, which was still predominant in the southwest.

Over the centuries Spain never made any profit from overnship of the Philippines. In fact it was a massive burden made worse by wars and famines which it had to fight in the region but it could not withdraw because of a perceived obligation to spread Christianity in East Asia. 

Overall Cebu prospered and new communities began to develop and the economy grew – Spanish colonialism in the Philippines wasn’t actually that bad for the locals who’s standard of living was most definitely improved over the next 3 centuries. 

The governmental and administrative agencies introduced by Spain had considerable effect in welding the Filipinos into one entity. Numerous barangays constantly at war with each other became part of one single united colony. 

The Philippine Revolution

During the 19th century, however, an educated Filipino middle class emerged and with it a desire for Philippine independence. Opposition before 1872 was primarily confined to the Filipino clergy, who resented the Spanish monopoly of power within the Roman Catholic Church.

The real cause of the Philippine revolution was the political maturation and national awakening of its people. This combined with the stirrings of liberalism brought about inevitable conflict. 

And of course propaganda aimed at making Spanish occupation seem as much worse than it really portraying Spain as massively abusive. 

So in 1896, the war for independence against Spanish occupation began, 

when the Spanish authorities discovered the Katipunan, an anti-colonial secret organization. The Katipunan, led by Andrés Bonifacio, began to influence much of the Philippines. 

During a mass gathering in Caloocan, the leaders of the Katipunan organized themselves into a revolutionary government, named the newly established government “Haring Bayang Katagalugan“, and openly declared a nationwide armed revolution.

And On April 3, 1898, the Cebuano revolutionary soldiers  evicted the Spanish forces from the city in the battle of Tres de Abril

As the local revolutionaries led by the Negrense Leon Kilat rose up against the Spanish colonial authorities and took control of the urban center after three days of fighting, this was a month after the Revolt of Cebu began.

Leon Kilat was betrayed and killed by one of his own men. And the rebels ended up withdrawing a few weeks thereafter. 

By June 1898, the island of Luzon, except for Manila and the port of Cavite, was under Filipino control.

The first Filipino flag was again unfurled and the national anthem was played for the first time alongside the establishment of the First Philippine Republic and its revolutionary government. 

This success  wasn’t just attributable to the work of Philipino revolutionaries however as at this time Spain was also at war with Americans who managed a major victory in the Battle of Manila during 

which they blocaded and captured the capital. 

The Philippines would not have its real independence yet however. 

On February 4th, 1899, hostilities between Filipino and American forces began when an American sentry patrolling between Filipino and American lines shot a Filipino soldier. The Filipino forces returned fire, thus igniting a second battle for Manila

The Philippines declared war against the United States on June 2, 1899, with Pedro Paterno, President of the Congress of the First Philippine Republic, issuing a Proclamation of War.

So From 1899 to 1902, the war between Filipino revolutionaries and the United States occurred, resulting in the American colonization of the entire country.  

Americans who were in favour of annexation had a variety of motivations: desire for commercial opportunities in Asia, concern that the Filipinos were incapable of self-rule, and fear that if the United States did not take control of the islands, another power (such as Germany or Japan) might do so.

And So with The signing of the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Spanish–American War provided for the cession of Cebu along with the rest of the Philippine islands to the United States.


Cebu grew and expanded throughout the American colonial era as the Americans improved and established modern public infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, public services, and ports, as well as developing the educational system. In 1936, Cebu, having officially been a town since  its inception  became a city. 

In December 1932, the U.S. Congress started moving towards giving the Philippines independence 

Leading  to the creation and passing of the Tydings–McDuffie Act otherwise known as the Philippine Independence Act, which allowed the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines with a ten-year period of peaceful transition to full independence – the date of which was to be on the 4th of July following the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Commonwealth.

And The new government embarked on ambitious nation-building policies in preparation for economic and political independence.


On December 8th 1941 The Japanese launched their invasion by sea from the Island of Formosa otherwise known as Taiwan and the island of Palau shortly thereafter.

The defending forces significantly outnumbered the Japanese but were a mixed force of non-combat experienced regular, national guard, constabulary and newly-created Commonwealth units.

While The Japanese used their first-line troops, and by concentrating their forces, they swiftly overran most of Luzon during the first month.

Cebu City became an important base for the Japanese during the war, and as a result, it was subjected to aerial bombardment by US forces, resulting in widespread damage.

Prior to the war, Cebu had been the Philippines second-most important industrial center, and it offered the Allies a harbor for future operations against the Japanese. Making it an important strategic target. 

This lead to the Battle of Cebu city

The whole island was garrisoned by a force of between 14,500 and 15,000 Japanese troops.[3][2] Mainly situated  in Cebu City and on the central east coast. 

Following a preliminary bombardment, the battle began on March 26th 1945, when the Allies launched Operation Victor II.

Under the leadership of Major General William H. Arnold, the force consisted of about 5,000 men who landed on  Talisay Beach, 4 miles (6.4 km) southwest of Cebu City

Meeting no Japanese opposition, the U.S. forces nevertheless suffered heavily from mines and booby traps as they crossed the beach as It was the first time in the Philippines campaign that U.S. troops had encountered such weapons.

The troops slowly forced its way off the beach and moved inland against only small pockets of Japanese resistance that were carrying out delaying actions.

The city itself was not that heavily defended as a large part of the Japanese forces had withdrawn to hilly and more defensive terrain in the north of the city. 

During the final stages of the battle, the mountainous parts of Cebu were also bombed and cleared. A series of battles were subsequently fought during this time, the most famous of which is the Battle of Gochan Hill.

In total it took about 2 months to fully liberate Cebu between March and April 1945. 

After the war 

Cebu recovered after the war and grew and developed into a major economic center contributing to the country’s economic growth and development.

Cebus’ success as a sea hub also contributed to its emergence as an air transportation hub. 

During the Vietnam War, the US upgraded Mactan Island’s airstrip to enable it to handle military jets. When the war ended, Cebu was left with the makings of an international class airport which has been expanded since then. 

Cebu became the second most significant metropolitan center in the country, after the capital of Manila.

In just a few years, Cebu was recognized as the Philippines’ main domestic shipping port and home to about 80 percent of the country’s domestic shipping companies.

The City was never rich in any particular resources and isn’t endowed with much arable land. So it had to follow a model that was similar to Singapore and Hong Kong largely relying on trade. 

As is often the case independence from any single crop or resource fosters a flexible economy – one that is not at the mercy of bad weather or iron ore prices for example. Cebuanos have their foot in the door with everything with its progressive and well educated workforce.

Similar to the way that Singapore has demonstrated that a well educated industrious workforce will overcome poor resource endowment in attracting outside capital. 

Of course trade isn’t the only reason why the city has prospered. Tourism is huge in the Philippines and Cebu isn’t an exception here. 

By being  strategically situated in the heart of the Philippine archipelago, Cebu is very close to the country’s biggest tourist spots. It is 50 kilometers away from Bohol’s Chocolate Hills; 55 kilometers from the Lost Horizon of the South, Camotes Islands; 101 kilometers from the country’s Whale Shark Capital, Oslob; 129 kilometers from the Magic Island, Siquijor; 142 kilometers from the first successful marine sanctuary, Apo Island; 229 kilometers from the Ranch Capital, Masbate City; and more. 

It attracts about 2 million tourists every year because of its location, economy, rich culture, pristine beaches, and the availability of diverse food.

Cebu’s business leaders are optimistic about the city’s growth, with the tourism industry leading the way. The attractiveness of Cebu as a tourist and business destination has been credited with helping the local economy, along with the development in the IT business process management and real estate sectors with many multi billion dollar projects to come. 

So in a sense Cebu is a city with an excellent model for growth that other cities in the Philippines should and could follow. 

So there you go, the story of Cebu and a quick overview of the Philippines.

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