Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Oct - Dec 2001

The Controversy over Justification
of Spanish Rule in the Philippines


The following article consists of the main extracts of a lengthier one, with 48 scientifically precise footnotes. For reason of space, we have omitted these footnotes. We will be pleased to forward a photocopy of the complete article to the readers asking for it.


In preparation for the trip to the Indies proposed by Christopher Columbus, the Catholic kings of Spain "consulted the most eminent jurists and ecclesiastics . . . concerning the most convenient manner of taking possession" of new-found territories." The Portuguese had relied on a number of pontifical documents for their possessions in the Indies, but the Spaniards could only fall back on the provisions of Law 29, Title XXVIII, of Partida III, which gave legal right over any newly discovered land to whoever inhabited it first. On the strength of these provisions Columbus took possession of the lands he discovered for and on behalf of the Spanish monarchs, who, he asserted, could dispose of them just as they would the realms of Castille. Although at the time it was commonly accepted that the lands of infidels would belong to the Christian nation that first discovered and conquered them, this did not satisfy the Spanish desire for clear title since their own legislation provided that only uninhabited lands could belong to the discoverer. Clearly this was not the situation in the lands discovered by Columbus. Hence Spain appealed to the Roman pontiff for some more plausible legal title.

This recourse was in keeping with the prevailing view among jurists and theologians of the time, believing that the pope was universal lord of the world, whose authority extended to the non-Christians and. that he could therefore, in a given case, appropriate, transfer, and assign, quite legally, political dominion over their lands to Christian princes. Spain could, therefore, legally acquire sovereignty over an inhabited territory in one of four ways, namely: (1) heredity, (2) voluntary choice of the inhabitants, (3) marriage to an heiress of the realm, or (4) pontifical or imperial grant. Obviously, in the case of the lands discovered by Columbus, provisions one and three did not apply. Of the remaining alternatives, the Spanish monarchs chose to assuage their conscience by the most convenient means possible?an outright pontifical grant. Their royal request was approved with the issuance of the papal bull "Inter caetera", dated May 3 - 4, 1493. But what was the precise meaning and scope of the grant? Did it really entail political sovereignty or was it simply a special commission to spread the gospel? This was an issue of continuing controversy that occupied the royal attention throughout the sixteenth century.

In this national controversy the views of the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria loom impressive and commanding. The best efforts of the king's counselors, who opposed Vitoria, proved to no avail. The king himself saw the justice of the Vitorian opinion and gave it royal sanction. The pope, said the learned professor of Salamanca, is not the temporal sovereign of the world; hence, he enjoys no authority over the non-Christian peoples and territories, for which reason, whatever the construction to be given to his bull "Inter caetera", it could not entail any grant of political dominion over said discovered lands. This view soon brought forth zealous defenders as well as bitter opponents. But with the years, it gained ground through the sustained efforts of Vitoria's brothers in habit, notably the Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, bishop of Chiapa. The impact was such that the Spanish emperor, Charles V, was of a mind to forsake the occupied territories of the New World. But Vitoria himself dissuaded the monarch, lest Christianity be lost from among the native converts; for which reason, the emperor pledged to leave these peoples to themselves as soon as they were able to keep themselves within the Catholic religion.

In September 1581, Msgr. Domingo de Salazar, O.P., the first bishop of the islands, arrived in Manila. It was during his time and on his initiative that an assembly of sorts was convened in 1582 on the lines of a council, "to deal with matters concerning the furthering of the Faith and the justification of past and future conquests by Spain".

The fathers of the council were of the opinion that no valid claim could be laid to the conquest of the Philippines other than that based on the right to preach the gospel, with the qualifying clauses, mentioned above. But for this right to justify possession of territories, it was unnecessary to depend on any direct opposition of the natives to the preaching of the gospel, since the inferior or primitive organization of their government and of their laws as would hinder or thwart their conversion was, in itself, sufficient reason.

This theory of the Council of 1582 was unanimously accepted by the religious of the Philippines, including Bishop Salazar.

The opinion of the Jesuits can be summarized thus. The right of the Spanish sovereigns to rule the new territories was based, in the first place, on the natural right to help the needy and protect the innocent. Upon this basis Pope Alexander VI made the King of Spain supreme ruler of these people to advance the spread of the gospel. But what authority did the pope have over pagan lands as far as safeguarding evangelization was concerned? Directly, of course, he had none, but indirectly he could intervene in the affairs of pagan nations when necessary for the exercise of the right to defend the innocent and to preach the gospel. The same indirect authority rested with the king and, by papal concession, was restricted solely to him to avoid friction and confusion in the new Lands. Both the pope and the King of Spain could exercise this indirect authority in three cases, namely, should the preaching of the gospel be hindered by these people; when there was a probability that the maintenance of Christianity in their lands could not be entrusted to them; and when; in the opinion of learned and virtuous persons, the preaching of the gospel could not be carried out in safety but on the contrary, there was danger that it cease altogether. Consequently, the King might acquire no authority over these peoples without first ascertaining the existence of these conditions. Moreover once the native had been converted, the King would acquire added justification to continue his rule over them based on the natural right to be protected in their new faith.

The Augustinians saw in the pontifical grant a justification for Spanish rule over the Philippines. By divine and evangelical law the supreme pontiffs had been entrusted with the proclamation and spread of the gospel. throughout the world. Since they were unable to do this personally everywhere, much less in remote places, who could doubt that they might or even ought to entrust this care and task to one who was able to attend to it with less hindrance and greater means. Inasmuch as the discovery of the East and West Indies had been achieved through the intervention and at the expense of Spain and her sovereign, the popes, particularly Alexander VI, had good cause to delegate to the King of Spain the evangelization and conversion of the Indies, and the governance and protection of those converted

The opinion of Bishop Salazar, on the other hand, may be gathered from his brief "Resolution" as well as from his tract on the collection of tribute from the pagans in the Philippines. The Dominican prelate began by distinguishing between two orders or kinds of rule, political or temporal, and spiritual or supernatural. The former, he believed, proceeds from God through the choice made by the subjects and is destined to keep them in peace and justice while the latter, which derives from Christ and was delegated to Saint Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome, is ordained to the teaching of the true and salutary doctrine that would lead men to eternal salvation.

Only in one of these two ways, he continued, could the King of Spain rule these lands: the political or temporal authority of the king might have originated either when the Spaniards first reached the Philippines, or after they had settled there. In either case, to be valid, he said, it must be founded either on popular choice or upon a just war. But, in the case of popular. choice, the following conditions had to be fulfilled: first, that all the natives, or at least a majority, should have chosen the King of Spain for their ruler?thus becoming his subjects. If originally they had their own rulers, these too should have expressed their consent to the decision. A choice made either by the natives or by their rulers alone would not have sufficed; it had to be a joint action. Moreover, this decision must have been made freely, without the intervention of fear, force, pain, or ignorance. Failure in any one of these conditions would invalidate the King's rule.

Bishop Salazar then broached the existential phase of the question, alleging that all available information failed to show any such deliberate and free choice ever having been made by the Philippine natives and their rulers in favor of the King of Spain and his rule. He went on to say that neither did the Spaniards acquire legal dominion by reason of a just was since two of the essential conditions were lacking: authorization from the king to carry out the war and, secondly, an offense committed by the natives.

Touching on another aspect of the problem, Salazar stated that the Spanish kings could be considered the legal rulers of the Indies by virtue of the concession granted to them by Pope Alexander VI, but this went no further than the right to lead men to their eternal goal through the preaching of the gospel and related activities.

Bishop Salazar next dealt with the jurisdiction of the Church over pagans. He brought forth the same distinction established by the Dominican theologian Cajetano. There are those, he said, who are de facto and de jure subject to the Church, namely: (1) those residing in the papal estates; the pope may rule them, except in matters relating purely to divine positive law or ecclesiastical law; (2) those who are legally but not de facto subject to the Church, such as the pagans living in lands unjustly withheld by them against their lawful Christian rulers; in this case, the latter may validly declare war on such pagans as unjust aggressors; (3) lastly, those not subject either de facto or de jure to the Church. Those in the third group, he argued, are not hostile to Christians nor do they occupy lands once belonging to the Church or to Christian princes; they are the owners and the lawful rulers of their territories, just as the Spaniards are of theirs. The Church has authority over them, he said, only to the extent that, through the preaching of the gospel, she attempts to bring them to knowledge of the truth; thus, unless they hinder the preaching of the gospel or are totally opposed to it, or their attitude toward Christians proves destructive and malicious, neither the Church nor the Christian princes have any cause for a just war against them. The pagans of the Philippines were to be classified in this third category.

For his part, Father Miguel de Benavides, O.P., later third Archbishop of Manila, also discussed these points, basically agreeing with the views of Bishop Salazar.

For Salazar and Benavides the King of Spain had yet to become the political sovereign of the Philippines; his only authority was as an instrument of the spiritual power of the pope, directly so over the Christians and indirectly over the pagans. While Salazar merely rejected the legitimacy of the Spanish dominion the Philippines, Father Benavides suggested a means of vindicating it. He proposed that the king should send religious and secular clergy to convert the natives in justice and charity, while leaving them to rule themselves. In this way the natives were likely to choose freely to become subjects of the King of Spain even before becoming Christians. The natives should be attracted to the Spaniards through friendship, so that they might eventually decide, of their own volition, to accept the rule of the Spanish monarch.

From what has been said, it is clear that there was a divergence of opinion among the religious in the Philippines on the temporal or political authority of the Spanish king over the islands. The Augustinians and Jesuits maintained the legitimacy of this dominion, based on the papal concession and the opposition of the natives to the preaching of the gospel. The Dominicans, led by Bishop Salazar, rejected this legitimacy as insufficiently established according to law.

This matter was at length taken up by the royal council of the Indies. Governor Gomez Perez Dasmariñas sent to this council all the relevant documents supporting the royal claim, and also Father Francisco Ortega, whom he instructed to oppose the view advanced by the Bishop of Manila. Bishop Salazar, then aged 78, also left for Spain to defend in person his opinion before Philip II, taking with him Father Miguel de Benavides.

After lengthy discussions, Philip II issued a decree on June 11, 1594, addressed to the governor-general of the Philippines. All the decisions in it were completely contrary to Bishop Salazar's views concerning the collection of tribute, although?thanks to the efforts of Father Benavides¾it was declared that the natives who were rulers before their conversion to the Catholic faith should remain so after their conversion.

Bishop Salazar died on December 14, 1594, at the age of 82. Father Benavides then took the matter into his own hands, determined that the royal decisions should be reversed. He prepared a new study of the whole affair and submitted his views in writing to Philip II, who hastened to convene the Council of the Indies, instructing its members to hold sessions without respite so that a decision might be reached before Benavides left the country. On October 17, 1596, the council signed a declaration, later endorsed by the king, favorable to the stand of Father Benavides. On February 8, 1597, Philip II issued a decree ordering the governor-general of the Philippines to call together the authorities of the islands to determine ways and means, first, to restore tribute unjustly collected from pagan natives, over whom the king had no legal power, and, second, to obtain, without coercion, ratification of the natives' submission to the Spanish sovereign who, in his own words, had been convinced by Father Benavides that he should cherish submission of his subjects only when voluntarily given.

In 1598, Benavides (by then, bishop-elect of Nueva Segovia) returned to Manila, bringing along with him this unprecedented cedula. In pursuance thereof, on August 4 of the same year, the governor-general convened the council proposed by the king. All the authorities present at the meeting pledged to comply with the. royal wish. The next day, the cedula was publicly proclaimed by Francisco Pos, Manila official town crier, before a huge crowd.

Soon thereafter, in the various dioceses of the country, public meetings were held at the town square, with the native residents; led by their chieftains, attending. Once the cedula terms were made known to them in their own dialects, they were asked whether they freely chose to submit to the sovereignty of the King of Spain over them. The results were overwhelmingly favorable, even if in some instances reservations and conditions were attached. On July 12, 1599, Governor Tello de Guzman could already inform His Majesty, among other things, "that measures have been taken for the execution of the royal decree brought by the Bishop of Nueva Segovia in regard to rendering submission … In the province of Ilocos, in the diocese of the Bishop of Nueva Segovia, this was very well done; and submission was rendered to Your Majesty. Likewise the whole district of Manila , missionary territory of the Augustinian Fathers, has rendered submission. La Laguna, in. the care of the Franciscan Fathers not so readily yielded, for the natives there have asked for a year in which to reply . . . . Something similar has happened in other provinces." Again, in some sectors of Pangasinan, it was agreed that the natives would accept Spanish rule with the understanding that they receive due redress for the abuses committed by the alcaldes mayores and encomenderos and that the tribute hitherto unlawfully collected from them be returned.

In due time, it can be surmised, nearly all the other regions and provinces of the Philippines gave their free consent to the supreme authority over them of the King of Spain. This can be gathered from the invariable conduct observed by the Spanish government in its rule over the islands. An example is the submission freely given by the natives of the Batanes Islands on June 1, 1782, upon being publicly convened and, through the interpreters, Pedro Paturayan and Marcos Ruiz, told of the message of Governor-General Jose Basco issued in Manila on February 15 of the same year. There is also the free consent given in 1845 by the different chieftains of Basilan Island in Mindanao, who were contacted by the governor of Zamboanga upon instructions to that effect given him by the then Governor-General Narciso de Claveria. It is noteworthy that, in a later communication to the central government in Spain, Governor Claveria corrected the earlier erroneous information that Dato Usuk and the people of the Maluso region, in the said island had given their consent. Governor Claveria made it clear that such had not been the case, so the government was to refrain from exercising any sovereignty over them. Such was the scrupulousness with which this matter of free consent was regarded by Spain. Even as late as 1881 the same criterion would be followed by the Spanish government. Thus, desirous of incorporating the northern Luzon provinces into the territories under the rule of Spain, Governor-General Primo de Rivera, on January 14, 1881, issued a decree appealing to all the Filipino Igorots to accept the rule of the Spaniards, under pain of being forcibly subdued should they fail to do so within a given time period. Although quite a number of them heeded the call, many more refused to do so, whereupon a punitive expedition was sent against them. The government troops were successful, and the governor-general elatedly informed the home government. But, in reply, Governor-General Primo de Rivera was ordered from Madrid to stop immediately all such expeditions, for they were deemed "in violation of the existing laws that did not allow ill-treatment of the Filipinos nor their forcible submission to Spanish sovereignty". The governor general faithfully complied with the instructions, and it was left to the missionaries to achieve the government's purposes through persuasion and conversion.

Irrespective of whether such procedure was followed by the Spanish authorities in every instance and in all parts of the Philippines, the overall general picture is undeniably favorable. Certainly it is not true, as some have suggested, that Spain's legal title over the Philippines was based on the so-called right of discovery and conquest of these islands by the Spanish conquistadores. These were the very grounds put to question by the Spaniards themselves, for "discovery" as a legal title could only apply to uninhabited territories, which was not the case with the Philippines, and "conquest" is but a euphemism for the sanctioning of might as right, contrary to the very ethos of Spain.

In light of all this, it is therefore truly amazing that a king, on whose empire the sun never set, should have evinced such an unswerving determination to seek the free acceptance of his dominion over a people whom he had ruled as subjects for more than thirty years. This, in large measure, was no doubt due to the alert and lively passion for justice and fairness of those early missionaries¾men for whom the rights of God and of God's children were more deeply embedded in their hearts and minds than the awe-inspiring majesty of crown and throne.

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