The island of Cebu, together with the other islands comprising the archipelago of the Philippines, was peopled by the Negrito race that crossed the Asian continent through land bridges 30,000 years ago. Its prehistoric antecedent shares much in common with other Malay countries and it is very likely that Cebu, together with southern parts of the country, was part of a once-mighty Malay empire around 500 AD.
Trade and commerce from as far away as Arabia, China, the Kingdom of Siam, as well as the neighboring Malay countries, were established long before the coming of the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century in the fishing village referred to as Sugbu or Zebu by its early inhabitants.
The Spanish-financed circumnavigator, Ferdinad Magellan, set off in September 1519 and, after crossing the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, first sighted Samar Island and the Philippines on March 17 1521. Not long after, on April 7, he landed on the shores of Cebu Island. Among the first things he did was to plant a cross on the sandy beaches, the relics of which are now housed inside the Magellan’s Cross monument. The island was then populated by the people of the Malay race, who trace their roots to neighboring Borneo, practising the religion of Islam. They follow a political concept of territorial domains ruled by a rajah or sultan, who exercises sovereignty over small settlements called barangays, ruled by datus.
It was during the reign of Rajah Humabon when Magellan landed in Cebu. Five large galleons whose passengers where unlike any other that the locals had ever seen must have been an awesome sight to behold. With their large, pale stature and strange-looking clothes, it was easy to intimidate the curious inhabitants. With the help of a native translator — Magellan’s Malay slave, Enrique — the Spanish friars where able to convert a good number of the Muslim population, starting with Rajah Humabon himself and his wife who was baptized as Juana.
Crossing the nearby island of Mactan, Magellan was met with furious defiance from the local chiftain, Datu Lapu-lapu. It was on the shores of Mactan that Magellan met his ignoble death. The remnants of his navy swiftly departed the country and lived to tell the tale of Las Islas Filipinas, the name that Magellan gave to the islands in honor of his patron, King Philip of Spain.
Fourty-four years later, in 1564, a new Spanish expedition arrived in Cebu under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. With his superior canons, the Spaniards easily subdued the resistance of Rajah Tupas,
naming the colony Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jesus, thus, becoming the first colony estabished by the Spanish Cortes in 1571. Under Legazpi, the Philippines became a Spanish colony, a prize catch for Spain, who was locked in a deadly rivalry with Portugal for new territory.
Legazpi brought with him an Augustinian priest, Fr. Andres Urdaneta, who is credited for much of the evangelization in Las Islas Filipinas, paving the way for Christianity, making the Philippines the first and only country to be so in the Asian sub-continent.
Typical of colonial rulers, Spain squeezed the Philippines of its natural resources to enrich the Spanish Galleon Trade. These ships would ply the Tanon Strait and the Cebu Strait towards its eastward journey to Mexico and westward to the Spice Islands. Marauding pirates, mostly from Muslim Indonesia and the occasional English buccaneers of Francis Drake would continually harass the galleons laden with treasures for the Spanish coffers. To defend its territory, the Spaniards constructed several forts or cotta throughout the archipelago. The earliest and oldest were made by Legazpi in the bay of the then Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jesus. Fort San Pedro started as a wooden citadel until it was fortified in 1738 as a major military outpost with thick stones and mortar walls.
The Philippine revolution against Spain was organized by Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo in the 1890s, after the martyrdom of Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero. Cebu itself was the site of a bloody battle on April 3, 1898 between the rebels headed by Gen. Leon Kilat and the Spaniards in the three-day pitched fighting that had the colonizers on the run behind Fort San Pedro. It would have been a victory for the rebels had it not been for the timely arrival of the Spanish armada. The revolution did not last, overshadowed by the Spanish-American War. Spanish rule finally ended in 1898 after three centuries, when the Americans won over the Spaniards in the Battle of Manila Bay in May. Spain officially turned over the Philippines to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in December of the same year. The Americans then set about to prepare the country for semi-autonomous rule. In 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth was established in Manila with Manuel Quezon as President, and Sergio Osmeña, a Cebuano, as Vice-President. Under the Americans, Cebu was established in 1901 as a municipality and became a chartered city in 1937.
World War II came to the islands with the Japanese invasion shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 8, 1941. The Japanese dominated the Philippines with the landing of the Japanese Imperial force in April 1942 and lasted until March 1945 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur liberated the country from Japanese yoke. On July 4, 1946, the United States granted independence to the Philippines.
The current Philippine constitution is patterned after the American government, with the head of state being the President of the Republic. It was a model of modern democracy up until the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who was elected President in 1968. He declared Martial Law in 1972 to continue his “strong man” rule. He was finally thrown out by a People’s Power Revolution in 1986. Today, the country is a struggling democracy.
In the present time, Cebu is regarded as the most dynamic metro area in the country, with
growth rates generally twice as high as the national average. It is home to a surprising range of industries, including semi-conductors, shipping, education, watch making, food processing, high-end furniture and, of course, tourism. (A bit of trivia: Almost all of the Timex watches sold anywhere in the world are made in Cebu.)