Spain in the 19th century

A great article coming from one of our top historian, Fr. Jose Arcilla. Here he summarized the unique political situation during the years of tumultuous Spain, the circumstances that led to the unusual arrangement – Friars overseeing the colony – according to a Governor being “as good as a military battalion”. Religious representing regimes that back in their native land sought to demolish them–but in this far off colony, their the indispensable ally.


Traditional history conveniently labels the years before the Philippine revolution as a period of corruption. There was corruption, from the start, but there were constant efforts to stop it. And yet, despite everything, the colony lasted.

As a royal visitor reported to the Madrid government, reforms in the Philippines would fail, because angels were needed to introduce them, while the Philippines had only greedy and ambitious men.

Ferdinand VII, the absolutist ruler of Spain died in 1833. Against tradition, he named his infant daughter Isabela, his heir. Carlos, his brother, challenged the succession. He received support from the conservatives and absolutists, the group known as the “Carlistas.” To keep herself in power, Christina, the regent for Isabela, sided with the liberals. This led to the prolonged civil war, or the Carlist wars, which rocked Spain in the 19th century.

In 1839, the anti-Church liberals seized power. They burned churches and monasteries, confiscated church property, but left untouched the seminaries that trained missionaries for the overseas colonies because they were cheaper than military units to keep the colonies loyal to Spain.

The Philippines was spared through the missionaries. But they were anti-liberal, quite understandable since in the Peninsula, the liberals wanted to destroy them. But they had to play the political game of following the dictates of the liberal government that suffered them only to preserve the Spanish domains. More than one governor general assured Madrid that a friar in the Philippines was as good as a military battalion

The unjust vexations against the Church in Spain had a double effect on the friars in the Philippines. First, their continued stay to carry on their religious work depended on their “political” usefulness to a government they could not in conscience support. Consciously or not, they were forced to act more than ever as the representatives of a government that had tried to destroy them. Second, they naturally abhorred a movement that despoiled their brethren in the Peninsula, and they tried to block the liberal reforms in the colony. These two states of mind, inevitable in the circumstances, would bring the friar into direct conflict with the rising tide of Philippine nationalism.

There were several shades of liberalism, but there were sudden alternations between “Moderates” and “Progressives,” mainly through military intervention or “pronunciamientos.”

Isabela’s scandalous private life, when she reached the majority age and ruled in her own right, weakened her liberal support, and she was finally overthrown in 1868, a revolution known as “La Gloriosa,” for it ended monarchical rule and Spain approved a radical, secular constitution.

After two years of shopping around, liberal Spain persuaded Amadeo of Savoy to assume the Spanish Crown, incidentally provoking the Franco-Prussian War. Amadeo proved to be brilliantly inept and abdicated two years later. A “First Republic” was set up, but four presidents in one year failed to restore order. Meanwhile, regalism was rapidly dividing Spain and the Carlist War was tearing the nation apart. (This was the same epoch of the Cavite mutiny in the Philippines.)

The military finally prevailed and dissolved the legislature or the Cortes. In this state of affairs, one man stood out, Antonio Canovas del Castillo, who hoped to restore the royal line in the person of the young Alfonso XII. A military coup in favor of Amadeo blocked Del Castillo’s efforts.

How did this affect our country? Depending on the government in Madrid, liberal or conservative officials came to Manila. In 1869, the Suez Canal halved travel time between Madrid and Manila, facilitating a flood of refugees from the mother country, and a rapid succession of short governments followed. One would begin a new administrative policy, only to abandon it unfulfilled when Madrid had another change of government.

In other words, Spain was too broken up to be able to rule the Philippines properly. That friars in the Philippines, as exaggerated by the nationalist propagandists, were conservative one can easily understand.

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