Por: Prof. Josefina B. Iledo
Executive Assistant
Office of the City Mayor
Zamboanga City



I..    Introduction
II.   The early Immigrant
III.  The Coming of the Spaniard
IV.  The Republic of Zamboanga
V.    Zamboanga Under the American Regime
VI.  Conclusion

Zamboanga Historic Past and the Rich Cultural Legacy


The Filipino historians have neglected the roles provinces and towns have played in the country’s history. They give little attention to many events outside Manila, despite the fact that those happenings lent color and light to many aspect of Philippine history.

The contributions of towns and provinces is either overshadowed or entirely forgotten.  For instance there is very little mention in our history book about the historical role of Zamboanga in the Christianization of Mindanao, the contemporary writers of Philippine history have failed to fill the gap of twenty years from 1900 to 1920, during which period the United States established a special form of government and Zamboanga was made the seat of government. Others even want to discredit the glorious event where a Zamboangueńos wrestled Fort Pilar from the Spaniards, their symbol of strength and power for Mindanao and successfully established a short lived “Republic of Zamboanga”. Under Spain, Zamboanga stood out for several reasons:  1) It became an integral part of the Spanish colonial administration, when it was made the capital of the “Gobierno Politico Militar”, 2) from Zamboanga several expeditions were launched against the piratical Moros, 3) As the seat of government, Zamboanga became the cultural center of the south, 4) the Christianization of the people of Zamboanga and their hispanized ways stood out among the deeply rooted Islamic influence found in the region 5) the Spanish fortress Fort Pilar, and the last Spanish Supreme commander of the once mighty Spain surrender to the native son of Zamboanga Vicente S. Alvarez.
Zamboanga “La Bella,”  “Orgullo de Mindanao.” “City of Flowers” is not only known for its romantic, scenic, and natural beauty, and as the melting pot of culture in the South, but more than its aesthetic value, the
Zamboangueńos has more to be proud of, Zamboanga has a hero in the person of Vicente Alvarez.

It is a must for every Zamboangueńos to have a knowledge of our past, because it will make you proud of your birthplace, it will give you identity as a group, as well as direction in your life knowing that your ancestors have contributed to make Zamboanga what it is today.

Zamboanga Peninsula map


Geographical Features

A knowledge of the geography of Zamboanga will make us understand why foreign countries like the Dutch, the British wrestled for the control of Zamboanga, and why Zamboanga was chosen by the Spaniards.

Zamboanga is located at the southernmost tip of Mindanao. It comprises of the southernmost portion of the Zamboanga peninsula, extending from the northwester part of Mindanao. Bounded on the south by the Basilan strait, on the west by the Sulu and Zamboanga del Norte, on the North by Zamboanga del Sur, and on the east by Sibuguey. The city of Zamboanga has a land area of 148,338.49 HAS including Barangay and a population of 511,139 as of 1995.

Birth of Christianity in Zamboanga a priest in one
of religious events


Early Immigrants of Zamboanga  - Pre-Spanish Period

The early people of Zamboanga were the Subanos. They were of Malay origin who came at about 6,000 to 2,500 years ago. The Subanos were pagans who believed in the forces of nature and spirit of their ancestors. They lived along the coastal are and they  were fishermen.  When the Muslims came they were forced to retreat to the hinterlands and live along the river banks.  Eventually they became farmers, thus, the name “Suba” meaning people of the river.  The Subano’s name for Zamboanga was “Su ng Lupa” meaning “Pointed Land” and they called Pasonanca “Nawan” meaning “future” where they settled. There were other areas were they migrated in Zamboanga peninsula. The early Subanon settlement revealed the lack of political cohesion among them, and this was the reason why they failed to resist Muslim attacks and emulate the strong political organization. A Subano leader was assessed of his leadership in terms of the number of families residing under his dominion.  The original Atilano-Alvarez family of Zamboanga were the results of the intermarriages between the native Subano and the Spaniards here in Zamboanga.

Introduction of Islam

At about 1480 to 1490.  Arab missionaries and teaches of Sulu reached the shore of Sulu in the person of Mukdum, Rayah Baginda and Abu-Bakr and introduce a new religion called “Islam”  which later led to the conversion of the natives.  With the new religion which was monotheistic in nature came he new form of government, the Sultanate and  eventually a new culture.

In Mindanao, Sherif Kabungsuan introduced Islam in Cotabato, and Islamism begun to spread throughout Mindanao including Zamboanga. New customs and traditions were introduced and interspersed with the natives who choose to be converted to Islamism white others retreated to the mountains and remain pagans.

Origin of the Name Zamboanga

There were three version as to how Zamboanga got its name:

1. When the Malay settled at the tip of Zamboanga peninsula, they found the area profusely abloom with colorful flowers which they later name “Jambangan” meaning the “land of flowers.”
2. The other version came from the word Saguan or Sambuan which was a Malay word for paddle or pole used by the natives to paddle their vintas.

Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde's Map of year 1734

Close up showing the town of Samboangan (now Zamboanga)

3. The third is the word Sambon which referred to the herbal plants that grew abundantly in the area.  To make it easy for the Spaniards to pronounce and to sound hispanized, the native term became Samboangan as attested in the old map of Zamboanga by Murillo. Much later it was changed to Zamboanga.

  Zamboanga as the City of Flowers, where colorful flowers grow abundantly in home gardens and public plazas all year round.


The Coming of the Spaniards and the Introduction of Christianity

White Cebu, Manila and the other islands were easily subdued and place under Spanish sovereignty, the subjugation of Mindanao proved to be the greatest challenge of the Spanish authority.  The presence of a well established political structure under the sultanate and the stern zeal to Islam were among the greatest factors to its difficulty.

Sixty four years after the founding of Manila, the Spaniards in their quest to spread Christianity send expeditions to colonize and evangelize the natives of Mindanao.  The control of Mindanao was vital if there objectives were to be achieved.
Capt. Esteban Rodriguez de Figueroa was send on an expedition and was directed to accomplish four things which were:

      1. to get the Moros to acknowledge Spanish sovereignty
      2. promote trade with them and to limit their trade with the Philippines;
      3. put an end to Moro piracy;
      4. begin hispanization and colonization of the Moros

It was the last of Spain’s policy which was at the root of the Moro’s fierce resistance to the Spaniards and their Christianization allies.  Despite the series of vigorous Spanish attacks, Muslim raids continued unabated in Christian settlements therefore, the solution they thought was to make their presence felt by putting up a garrison.

Zamboanga was chosen as the site of the Spanish garrison because of its strategic location.  For a time the Spanish presence in the area was felt when in 1569, the Spaniards built their first fort in La Caldera, presently Recodo here in Zamboanga.  The fort was a wooden palisade but later reconstructed with stone in 1593.  This Spanish outpost was used to reinforce troops, send supplies to Sulu and served as a strategic outpost to check on the piratical movements, as well as to prevent attacks on Christian settlements along the coast of Visayas and Southern Luzon.  One good result of this outpost was the first conversion to Christianity could have taken place here among the Sama-Lutaos and the Subanon who were staying within the vicinity of the Spanish settlement.

Towards the end of 1599, there was an order to close the Fort in La Caldera.  The entire garrison was brought to Cebu.  This move was in anticipation of the British attack in Cebu which did not happen.

The abandonment of La Caldera was a blow to the Spanish stronghold in Mindanao.  However, the continued raids and the menace sown by Datu Qudarat on the Christian settlements prompted the Jesuits to lobby for the return of the Spanish forces and in particular for a fort to be constructed.

Towards the end of March 1635, a Spanish force of 300 Spaniards and 1,000 Visayan troops under the command of Capt. Juan Chavez reached the shore of Zamboanga, together with a Jesuit father, Melchor de Vera. Right from the start there was hesitation and resistance from the crew to stay knowing among others things the fierce raids of the Moros as experienced by the soldiers.  The insistence of Fr. De Vera prevailed.  On April 16, 1635 the new settlement was established. On June 23, 1635, the cornerstone was laid

Signaling the founding of the fort.  The fort was named “Real Fuerza de San Jose”

The site was chosen by Fr. De Vera, who was an engineer was a swampy area where mangrove grew and at the tip of Zamboanga Peninsula facing Basilan strait and Sulu.

The fort was huge enough to house the living quarters of the Spanish officials, the soldiers and their families.  Inside were the church, school and hospital.  The arrangement was made this way for the protection against the Moro pirates.

While the Spaniards were constructing the fort the Jesuit missionaries were busy on their mission to spread the gospel and converting the Sama-Lutaos and the Subanon. The native Subanon being pagan were easily converted and accepted the new way of life and religion and adopted Spanish surnames.  These Sama-Lutaos and Subanon who were converted became the ancestors of the present native Christian

zcforpilar.jpg (90536 bytes)
Fort Pilar


The Birth of the Chavacano Dialect

When the fort was being constructed, the problem of communication arose.  However, after a period of time, the inter-mingling of the immigrants from Luzon and Visayas with the soldiers, and contacts with the natives Subanon and Sama-Lutaos gave birth to a unique dialect called the Chavacano.

Chavacano is a pidgin form of Spanish spoken by the people of Zamboanga City, developed by the early immigrants and the native as a compromise to Spanish language.  It is also defined as Spanish contact vernacular that resulted from the interference of a foreign language vernacular.  The use of the new language was of interest among the natives because it gave pride and honor as it closely resembled the language of the masters. In due time, Chavacano became the lingua franca of the natives of Zamboanga.

The years  that followed were characterized by raids and counter raids both by the Spaniards and the Moros.  The fort was attacked several times by Moro pirates, bombarded by the Dutch in 1646, and by the British in 1798.

The Fort Real Fuerza de San Jose was Abandoned

By 1663, the Real Fuerza de San Jose was abandoned. It was part of Spain’s strategy to re-enforced her troops in Manila and Cavite against the local insurrectos, the Chinese revolt and in particular the rumored attach of the Chinese pirate Koxinga.  The fort was relinquished to a Christian datu Fernando de Macombon. Although the order was strongly opposed by the Jesuits, but on January 8, 1663, the fort was finally closed.  The entire settlement including the Jesuits left for Manila.

For a period of 55 years, the town of Zamboanga and the fort was laid at the mercy of Sultan Qudarat and the other native leaders who laid siege for the control of the fort.  During this period the natives destroyed all the improvements and fortification including the church while the Christian converts reverted to Islam.

Due to the clamor of the Jesuits, the Royal crown reconsidered the popular request to reopen the fort and to continue with their evangelization among the natives.  In 1718 Governor Manuel de Bustillo Bustamante re-established and re-occupied the fort.  In January 1734, the soldiers brought along with them the image of the Lady of Pilar from Zaragosa as their patron.  The fort was re-named “Real Fuerza de Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Zaragosa in honor of her.  The image was embossed on the eastern side of the fort as a front piece.  Many stories, legends and miracles were attributed to the Lady of Pilar as told and retold over the centuries.

Before Zamboanga expanded in areas and eventually became a city, it underwent several transitions.

Fort Pillar26.JPG (254614 bytes)
The image of Our Lady of the  Pilar of Zaragosa at the Fort

From 1635, Zamboanga revolved around the three original communities around the fort. Theses were the communities of Cagang-Cagang, Buaya-Buaya and Bagumbayan presently Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara and Rio Hondo.  By 1718, when the fort was re-established, the area expanded beyond the fort.  It was divided into three zones, namely:  a) Pueblo Viejo  b) Pueblo Nuevo,  c) Sama-Magay.  Much later the area was expanded to include Sta. Maria, referred as Pampago-Zamboangueńos community; Tetuan as Ilongo-Zamboangueńo community and Bolong as Boholano-Zamboanga  community.  Throughout the Spanish regime Zamboanga was designated as the capital and the seat of the Gobierno-Politico-Militar for the entire Mindanao.  Zamboanga was called “La Villa de Zamboanga”

The   Spanish   culture   imbedded   well  and  was   assimilated   by   the
ńos.  Both her Catholic religion and the imprints of her Castilian heritage are found in the Chavacano dialect, in the Spanish names, in the ballads and songs, customs and traditions and foods.  For more than 300 years the Zamboangueńos were a loyal subjects to the mother country Spain until the event in1898.





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