the longest and cruelest war waged by Spain in its entire history

In September 1861, Navy Lieutenant José de Malcampo slammed the bow of his ship against a pirate fortress seven meters high in Pagalugán (Mindanao). He did so without hesitation, with the engines of his steam to the maximum and ready for boarding. The man from Cádiz then led an assault where he was shot in the chest and almost killed, but in the end he managed to take the base nestled in the jungle. The officer calmly lit a cigar, not only to celebrate the victory, but to see if the smoke was coming out of his wound, an unusual way to diagnose a possible perforation. Only with such extreme types and methods could Spain

sustain three centuries of arm wrestling with the feared Moors of the Philippines.

Pirates leather helmet.
Pirates leather helmet.

Using the words they knew, the first Spaniards in the Philippines called Moors the Muslim looters who operated, mainly, from the islands of Mindanao and Joló in this region of the world and whose global history includes Julius Albi de la Cuesta in the book
‘Moros: Spain against the Muslim pirates of the Philippines’
(Desperta Ferro Ediciones).

The Spanish crossed an entire ocean to find in the Philippines an enemy as familiar as it was unexpected. «It was believed, at some absurd moment, that they were Muslims converted by the surviving Turks of Lepanto, who had arrived there fleeing from the Mediterranean. It was the only explanation that the Spaniards came up with for meeting some gentlemen who worshiped Allah in the middle of the Pacific,” he says.
Albi de la Cuesta

a lost cause

This diplomat by profession with an irresistible attraction to remote armies and lost causes sheds light on the complicated origins of the Philippines, Spain’s most unusual overseas possession, in his work. “It was a distant world, alien, where it was very difficult to get there and very easy to lose your life along the way,” says the author of ‘Moros’ about the problems of a land immune to miscegenation so characteristic of the Spanish and that always lived under minimum .

Julio Albi, in a file photograph.
Julio Albi, in a file photograph. – Alberto Fanego

The more than 11,000 kilometers of “the longest and most terrible navigation in the world”, which the opening of the suez canal It relieved very little, it made few Spaniards willing to settle in a place baptized as “the galleys of Spain”, as a remote purgatory. Even centuries later, the news of the uprising of May 2 they were not known in the Philippines until the following year.

Epidemics, demographic problems, earthquakes, lack of opportunities and Dutch raids added to the need to always be on guard against pirate attacks. The Moors formed a warrior society dedicated to enslaving other peoples. The captives cultivated their fields, harvested their coveted products in Chinese markets, such as shark fins, and completed their crews.

Through seas strewn with coral reefs and sandbanks; through impenetrable jungles, awash with traps and diseases, the fight against the Moorish boats, so light that they seemed to fly over the water, was a nightmare for the Spanish, unable to guard the 7,000 Philippine islands. The culmination of the clashes was the landing against forts almost invulnerable to artillery and ultimately defended by “sworn”, precursors of suicide bombers. There were cases of combat of this type in which the Moors deliberately impaled themselves on the bayonet of the soldiers in the service of Spain, to get closer to them and be able to strike them with a blow.

In the 17th century, a series of audacious Spanish captains managed to corner the pirates in their nests and bring a victory that was not within European reach until past generations. The Spanish decided to fall back to defensive positions in the face of the threat of a Chinese warlord, who was about to launch a massive invasion of the Philippines. «The Spanish rulers responded to a terrible threat based on the minimum capacity of resistance that they had within their reach. Everything that had been conquered was lost due to an invasion that did not take place”, points out the author of a book that fills a historiographical void that, since 1888, when Jose Montero y Vidal published his ‘History of Malayo-Mohammedan Piracy in Mindanao, Jolo and Borneo’, has suffered through the period.

Attack on the island and fort of Balanguingui.
Attack on the island and fort of Balanguingui.

Without a stable squadron to face the numerous and agile pirate vessels, the most isolated Spanish islands entrenched themselves between stockades and bastions under the orders of trabucaire friars, while an improvised corsair fleet, the Marina Subtil, a name that came from their As a “light” and “ingenious” force, it confronted the Moors as best it could using equally expeditious methods. “It was heavily criticized because it was a strange structure, an unintentional measure, not even ideal, but the only one possible to sustain the incursions,” acknowledges Albi de la Cuesta. Fortunately for the Spaniards, the internal quarrels between Moorish princes, which ended with the notorious defection of one of them, baptized as Fernando I to in honor of Ferdinand VI of Bourbon, prevented the entire Philippines from being razed to the ground.

the royal navy, busy maintaining communication between Spain and America, did not make an appearance in these waters until late in the 19th century. If it was possible to maintain such a long war despite everything, it was thanks to the loyalty of the indigenous population, who made up the bulk of the soldiers and sailors who defended the Spanish sovereignty of the Archipelago. “The whole system was based, as in America, on the loyalty of the locals. If there had been uprisings, Spain would not have been able to face them, “he says.

“The whole system was based, as in America, on the loyalty of the locals. If there had been uprisings, Spain would not have been able to confront them»

In all the centuries of European presence there was not a single mutiny produced between these forces. Even when Manila, the “Pearl of the Orient”, was momentarily conquered by the British, the rest of the territories remained loyal to Spain and the expected collapse did not occur, as in other foreign empires. The Filipinos defended the coasts and They even fought for Spain in the Conchinchina, equivalent today to remotely lost place. Not a single mutiny was known from this navy in all the centuries of European presence.

The changing of flags

With the arrival of steam and modern rifles, Spain reduced raids by pirates to a minimum. By then, the Philippines had found its place in the Hispanic Monarchy with tobacco exports and an economy no longer dependent on the famous Manila Galleon, which for centuries was the richest cargo ship in the world. The 600% increase in exports between 1841 and 1890 enriched not only the Spanish, Chinese, North American and British merchants who hovered around manila, but also to a local middle class that grew up in the heat of an educational system and a very high standard of living for the area.

The tables turned and it was the Muslims, and not the Christians, who began to fear for the safety of their villages. Spain organized royal expeditions directly against the heart of the pirate power starting in 1876. With unpublished documentation, Albi de la Cuesta has reconstructed these last Spanish adventures in the Pacific, which included feats as great as dismantling, moving freehand and reassembling ships of steam through mountains of 700 meters of altitude to cross Lake Lanao, in the epicenter of the island of Mindanao.

«The presence of more than three centuries in the Pacific was in the end reduced to an anecdote, that of the last of the Philippines»

All efforts were frustrated with the uprising of 1896, when the victory over the Moors was already touched with the hand. The US, with more technological resources and less scruples, inherited the problem. «They were horrified with the sworn. And they answered with evil things that had not even occurred to us, such as burying the Muslims next to dead pigs so that they would be contaminated forever, ”recalls this member of the Academy of History.

The new power in the area used cruelty, machine guns and more modern artillery to defeat the Moors, who were greatly weakened after their last clashes with the Spanish. «The presence of more than three centuries in the Pacific In the end, it was reduced to an anecdote, that of the last in the Philippines, something totally unfair and offensive to the thousands of Spaniards who died there defending the flag and carrying out the orders they received from the authorities. I don’t know why the Spanish have this facility to turn the page so quickly with everything, “concludes Albi de la Cuesta.

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