The Oldest Churches in the Philippines?

Oriental Mindoro is surprisingly rich in history and has possibly the oldest buildings remaining in Philippines. There are at least two very old ruined churches hidden away; one is known as Simbahang Bato (stone church at Bato) at Banagay Bancuro just to the south of Naujan, the other is in Barangay Anilao further south. [picture]

So many questions…..who built them, for what purpose, when, and why in these particular locations? Conclusive records do not exist but we can start to build the picture…..

All Philippinos are all taught the Spanish version of history, most of it written by Spanish Jesuit priests stationed in Philippines, but actually their version only tells half of the story. As is always the case history is written by the victor and further elaborated by generations of teachers and to some extent historians, sometimes this can distort or even conceal the truth. In this case Philippines history taught to successive generations has served to cement the very basis of the Philippines nation which in its early days was certainly not firmly established.

Now with the benefit of the vast amount of electronic data now available for all, we can re-examine and start to question the established thinking.

Spanish and Portuguese history in the 16th Century is complex but it includes the following issues many of which seem to be pivotal to the above questions and when considered together help to lead us to some of the answers we are seeking.

Although not as well documented as the story of Spanish settlement of Philippines, Portuguese influence in what we now call South East Asia and what was then known as the Indies and more specifically the Moluccas, was both widespread and dominant. It is a fact that Portuguese influence was generally earlier than Spanish activity and this partly accounts for the fact that there are several surviving first hand accounts of Spanish experiences in Asia but generally much less Portuguese data available. This imbalance in has tended to generate history from history and to some extent conceal the impact of Portuguese activity in the area that existed for many years before the Spanish became the dominant power.

Portuguese influence in the area predates the arrival of the Spanish by a considerable margin. The Portuguese were established in Goa by 1510 and very quickly within the next 50 years effectively explored and build many forts and trading posts. On the other hand the Spanish never became fully committed to establishing a base in Asia until after the 2nd half of the 16th Century and even after this initial commitment progress was limited effectively until the start of the next Century.

The treaty of Tordesillas 1494 between Spain and Portugal gave the Spanish title to any new territories they were to ‘discover’ having approached from westerly direction from a longitudinal line 370 leagues west from Cape Verde Islands and effectively prevented Spanish exploration in an Easterly direction from Europe, a sphere of the world which anyway, was effectively off limits due to Portugal’s naval dominance.

Portugal’s objectives in Asia and elsewhere in the world contrasted with those of Spain. Portugal never cemented the concept of a colonial empire based on territory as Spain did, its objective was to optimise financial gains from trade by controlling and optimising maritime trading routes rather than by establishing land based territory and governance.  The Spanish on the other hand, sought to colonise and administrate by establishing governance over local peoples by the physical presence of Spaniards, bureaucratic control and religious conversion. This essential difference partly explains the speed with which Portugal was able to become established in many parts of the world during the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. It also helps to explain the demise of Portuguese dominion later in the 17th Century by which time maritime supremacy had become much more risky and expensive to achieve.

There is no doubt that Spanish expansion was both supported by and driven by religious fervour. On the other hand, Portuguese exploration and settlement was for the overriding objective of optimisation of trade to Portugal’s commercial benefit. This model by definition sought to include and tolerate those with other religions in order to keep the peace, promote trade and allow for further expansion.  This contrast in the relative importance attached to furthering and expanding the Catholic faith was at the root of the papacy fully sanctioning the Spanish quest for religious expansion on the back of self financed commercial and military aggression to assert religious conformance especially in the 1530s and 1540s.

Charles 1st of Spain was also the 5th Holy Roman Emperor from the age of 19 until his abdication at the age of 54 and provided a further platform for Spains colonial ambitions. As the Popes, temporal executive on earth there was no doubt considerable pressure on Charles, either actually or self-imposed, to establish a lasting Catholic presence in Asia.  Pressure which intensified as he reached the age of retirement and he was increasingly able to assert that he was unable to achieve his religious objectives based on the Portuguese model of colonialism and that nothing short of a Catholic Republic would achieve his ambitions and provide him with a fitting legacy in return for his life’s work.

Spanish objectives for the Philippines started to materialise even though political agreement with Portugal had not been reached in Europe. It appears inevitable that agreement at least at a familial level must have come about after 1525 by virtue of John 3 of Portugal marriage to the sister of Charles 1 of Spain and at the same time Charles 1 of Spain’s marriage to the sister of John 3 of Portugal.   However the Treaty of Zaragoza with Portugal in 1529 flies in the face of such agreement as Spain essentially contracted out of any further claim on the Moluccas and receives 350,000 ducats and a new Demarcation line at 297 leagues west of Malacca is set which technically also includes the Philippines [link].

By 1542 however, Charles is sufficiently emboldened, possibly by the evangelical influence of the Counter Reformation, and supports an expedition from New Spain (Mexico) as a result of which the ‘Felippinas’ are declared Spanish.

Spanish settlement in Philippines was slow for a long time after this mainly due to the tortuous geographical route which included a two month journey from Sevilla on the Mediterranean coast of Spain via Havana to Veracruz on the eastern seaboard of Mexico, then by land to Acapulco on the western seaboard after which a massive sea journey of at least three months was necessary across the pacific to Manila Philippines. This route was necessary not only for provisioning of manufactured goods but also for any communication between Spain and the newly settled Philippinas. In one direction this would take eight to ten months  however a round trip for example to receive a response to a communication in practise due to mismatch between seasonal departure times of each leg would be more likely to take three years.

More Spanish settlers arrived in Cebu by this route with Legazpi’s expedition in 1564 however there was no Spanish presence in Manila until 1572 and significant building did not take place there until 1580s. In the 1560s and 70s Portugal did not recognise the existence of Philippines and were effectively at war with Spain in Philippines. The Portuguese fleet blockade Cebu and later Manila several times between 1565 and 1572 and demanded departure of the Spaniards. True accord was not reached until 1580 when there was full political union of Spain and Portugal following a Portuguese succession crisis which allowed Spain to effectively govern all of Portugal’s affairs thereafter until 1640.

There are some surviving first hand accounts that there was already some Portuguese settlement in Mindoro in 1570 before the Spanish had even settled Manila. [Reference]

There is also surviving first hand evidence that Chinese traders were regularly visiting Mindoro before 1570 to trade manufactured goods for natural produce including lumber, fish, game, wildfowl and possibly rice. In particular a settlement on a river Bato is stated as a trading place [Reference]

On the other hand the first Jesuits under Spanish governance did not arrive in Philippines from Mexico until 1581 and the building of mission stations took place from 1595 starting in Manila. The Jesuits were organised along militaristic lines hence their reputation as the soldiers of God, they recorded their endeavours meticulously and have identified the location of the churches they built of which there were many, however there is no mention of any church in Mindoro.

Place names also provide some evidence. Anilao the present name of the Barangay in which one of these buildings is situated suggests a Portuguese influence.  Mindoro is also a corruption of the Portuguese which on some early Portuguese maps is referred to as ‘Vindoro’.

Architecturally, the church at Bancurro seems not to be in the Jesuit style whos churches are generally much grander and more extravagant. This one appears more rustic and functional. It also appears to be more 15th Century than 16th Century.   The many carved stone sun logos are the ‘black sun’ emblem associated with the Jesuits but the central heart emblem belongs to the Augustinian order which would predate Jesuit period. There are also still some signs that the five or six sun logos were added after the original construction. [picture]

The Portuguese built what they called ‘feitoras’ (trading posts) and ‘fortalezas’ (fortification) and many were built between 1510 and 1550 in S E Asia. Building of the Church was often concurrent with establishment of the trading post and in many cases the church was the only stone building. On this basis the church would have been truly multi purpose, serving not only as a place of worship but as an administrative centre, storage place, for defence and also detainment. In Africa the Portuguese word for church ‘igreja’ has become the Swahili word for gaol.  The first Christian church in Malacca was built by the Portuguese in 1521 on top of the hill for defence and was only later used as a church when its defensive function became less important.

The Portuguese established a trading post at Ternate (Spice Island) in 1522. It is also recorded elsewhere that in 1538 the Portuguese Bishop of Goa despatched missionaries to Mindanao and that many natives were baptized, this strongly suggests that a church(es) must have also been established.

Later in 1557, a trading post was established by the Portuguese in Macao. The coast of Mindoro is directly on this trading between the Spice islands and Macau therefore settlements on the route would have served the usual dual purpose of increasing trade and securing the existing trade route.   The Portuguese had a much more Laisez Faire approach to expansion as compared to the Spanish model, administration was minimal and growth of the trading network took place on an organic opportunistic commercial basis without control and direction from the mother country. To some extent the Portugese settlers were freelancers with no real ties to Portugal.  it is perhaps not surprising that good records do not exist.

These outposts were intended to further commerce and trade by providing for maintenance and supply of Portugal’s maritime presence but also to intercept trading ie. to exert control over a port. Without exception settlement and building took place where there already existed a flourishing trade of some sort. In both instances these buildings in Mindoro are located several kilometres from the coast.  This suggests that both were built purely as churches possibly to evangelise the existing population or to support new European Settlers as a church and possibly as protection from hostile invaders. In the case of Bancurro church there is evidence that the location may once have been on the bank of the river which has since changed its course.  Both churches may have been built inland as a means of protection from invasion by seaborne Morro raiders from other islands although folklore would have it that this strategy was not always effective.

The first Jesuits in Asia were Loyola and Xavier whos trip was initiated directly by King John 3 of Portugal. Thomas J Campbell states in his book ‘The Jesuits – 1534 -1921’ on the travels of Xavier in the Moluccas in 1546; ‘Up and down the islands of the archipelago he travelled meeting degeneracy of the worst kind at every step. But he established missionary posts, with the wonderful result that ten years later, De Beira whom he sent there, had forty seven stations and three thousand Christian families in these islands.’  

The whereabouts of all of these mission stations, assuming that they existed, has never been comprehensively established however it is reasonable to expect that several of them would have been located in present day Philippines. Portuguese maps of this period not surprisingly include modern day Philippines as part of the Moluccas even though not all of the islands were shown or even known about. However some of the modern day island names are recognisable on early Portuguese maps including Cubu (Cebu), Negros (Negros) Polaguan (Palawan).  There is also a reversal on some maps of this era of Mindanao and Mindoro, clearly there was some confusion about the whereabouts or even the existence of both.

The history of the Portuguese St Pauls’s church in Malacca is of interest because although it was originally constructed in 1522 it was later gifted by the existing church in Malacca to the Jesuits and the deeds handed to Xavier in 1548. This was at the height of the Counter Reformation in Europe, although there is no doubt that the Jesuits were self appointed as the spearhead of this quest to win new converts to the faith and to consolidate and purify the existing fold, to some extent their reputation preceded them. Certainly also their religious zeal as the ‘soldiers of god’ backed directly by the Vatican was second to none amongst the existing catholic denominations. To co opt existing churches and their congregations was a means of instantly boosting the number of so called ‘converts’.  In the event that the two buildings in question existed in 1548 it is probable that they also would have been ceded to the Jesuits at the same time as St Paul’s.

It therefore seems likely that these two churches in Mindoro were built by early Portuguese settlers in 1520s or 1530s. Alternatively they may have been built by the Portuguese immediately following the journeys of the first Jesuits in 1546. In either case the churches were built by Portuguese and most likely pre date the existence of the Philippines.


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