About this time last year, President Corazon Aquino told a most instructive lie. Addressing the Filipino-Chinese Federated Chambers of Commerce on 9 March 1987, she described her appearance before them as a ‘homecoming,’ since her great-grandfather had been a poor immigrant from southeast China’s Fukien province. footnote1 Doubtless her desperate need—given the Philippines’ near-bankrupt economy and $28 billion external debt footnote2 —to inspire feelings of solidarity and confidence among a powerful segment of Manila’s business class made some embroidery understandable. But the truth is that the President, born Corazon Cojuangco, is a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties within the Filipino oligarchy. Her grandfather, putative son of the penniless immigrant, was Don Melecio Cojuangco, born in Malolos, Central Luzon in 1871. A graduate of the Dominicans’ Colegio de San Juan de Letran and the Escuela Normal, and a prominent agricultor (i.e. hacendado) in the province of Tarlac, he was, in 1907, at the age of 36, elected to the Philippine Assembly, the quasi-legislature established by the American imperialists in that year. footnote3 One of his sons (Corazon’s uncle) became Governor of Tarlac in 1941, another (her father, Don José) its most prominent Congressman. In 1967, one of his grandsons (her cousin), Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, became Governor of Tarlac with Ferdinand Marcos’s backing, and went on to count among the most notorious of the Marcos cronies. Another grandson (her younger brother), José ‘Peping’ Cojuangco, was in those days one of Tarlac’s Congressmen, and is today again a Congressman—and one of the halfdozen most powerful politicians in the country. Her marriage to Benigno Aquino, Jr., at various periods Governor of Tarlac and Senator, linked her to another key dynasty of Central Luzon. Benigno Aquino, Sr., had been a Senator in the late American era and won lasting notoriety for his active collaboration with the Japanese Occupation regime. At the present time, one of her brothers-in-law, Agapito ‘Butz’ Aquino, is a Senator, and another, Paul, the head of Lakas ng Bansa (one of the three main ‘parties’ in her electoral coalition); an uncle-in-law, Herminio Aquino, is a Congressman, as are Emigdio ‘Ding’ Tanjuatco (cousin), and Teresita Aquino-Oreta (sister-in-law). footnote4 A maternal uncle, Francisco ‘Komong’ Sumulong, is majority floor-leader of the House of Representatives. Nor was Corazon herself, on becoming President, quite the simple housewife of her election broadsheets. For thirteen years she had served as treasurer of the Cojuangco family holding company, which controls a vast financial, agricultural, and urban real estate empire. footnote5

Yet there is a core of truth in President Aquino’s claims of 9 March 1987 and this core offers a useful guide to understanding the peculiarities of modern Philippine politics. The ‘-co’ suffix to her maiden name is shared by a significant number of other dynasties within the national oligarchy: Cuenco, Tanjuatco, Tiangco, Chioco, etc. It originates from the Hokkienese k’o, a term of respect for older males; and it shows that her family originated among the Chinese mestizos who bloomed economically under the Spanish colonial regime and consolidated their wealth with political power under the Americans. footnote6 It is the dominance of this group which decisively marks off the Philippines from Spanish America (mestizos frequently in power, but not Chinese mestizos) and the rest of Southeast Asia (Chinese mestizos, indeed any mestizos, removed from political power, with the ambiguous exception of Siam). How did this happen?

By the time the Spanish arrived to conquer, in the 1560s, the empire of Felipe II had reached its peak, and the islands, named after him, were the last major imperial acquisition. Iberian energies were absorbed in Europe and the Americas. The few Spaniards who did travel on to the Philippines found little on the spot to satiate their avarice. The one substantial source of rapid wealth lay not in mines but in commerce with Imperial China. Manila quickly became the entrepôt for the ‘galleon trade’, by which Chinese silks and porcelains were exchanged for Mexican silver, to be resold, at colossal profit, across the Pacific and eventually in Europe. It was not a business that required much acumen or industry; one needed merely to be in Manila, to have the right political connections, and to work out relationships with the Chinese traders and artisans who flocked to the entrepôt. footnote7

The absence of mines, and, until much later, of hacienda-based commercial agriculture, meant not only a concentration of the Spanish in the Manila area, but the lack of any sustained interest in massive exploitation of the indigenous (or imported) populations as a labour force. At the same time, the fact that the pre-Hispanic Philippines (in contrast to Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Vietnam or Java) lacked any states with substantial military or bureaucratic power meant that relatively little force was required for the initial conquest and for its subsequent consolidation. Small garrisons, scattered here and there, generally sufficed. footnote8 Hence, in the provinces, to a degree unparalleled anywhere in the Americas except Paraguay, Spanish power in the Philippines was mediated through the Church.

The ardently Counter-Reformation clerics were fortunate in finding the great bulk of the indigenous population to be ‘animists’. Buddhism and Hinduism had not reached so far. And though Islam was sweeping in from what today is Indonesia, it had consolidated itself only in parts of Mindanao and adjacent southern islands. There it could be contained, if never subdued. footnote9 Meanwhile a vast proselytization was launched which has resulted in the contemporary Philippines being 90 per cent Christian. footnote10 (Only in twentieth-century Korea has Christianization in Asia been comparably successful.) The most noteworthy feature of this campaign was that it was conducted, most arduously, not through the medium of Spanish, but through the dozens of local languages. Till the very end of the Spanish regime no more than 5 per cent of the local population had any facility with the colonial language. Spanish never became a pervasive lingua franca, as it did in the Americas, with the result that, certainly in 1900, and to a lesser extent even today, the peasants and fishermen in different parts of the archipelago could not communicate with one another: only their rulers had a common archipelago-wide speech.

Two other features of clerical dominion had lasting consequences for the evolution of Philippine social structure. On the one hand, the quarrelling Orders, parcelled among out the various islands by Felipe II in the sixteenth century, pioneered commercial agriculture in the later eighteenth century, at the prodding of Carlos III’s last, enlightened governor, José Basco y Vargas (1777–87). It was they who built what, in effect, were the first great haciendas. But these ‘conglomerates’ remained institutional, rather than family (dynastic) property. The friars might liberally father children on local women, but they could not marry the women, or bequeath property to the progeny. In due course, the conquering Americans would dispossess the friars of their lands, as the eighteenth-century Bourbons had dispossessed the Jesuits; and these lands would fall like ripe mangoes into the hands of the likes of President Aquino’s immediate ancestors. footnote11 The Philippines thus never had a substantial criollo hacendado class.

On the other hand, the Church, at least in its early days, had serious dreams of Christianizing the Celestial Empire. From the start it set eagerly to converting those whom the Spanish generally referred to as sangleys. footnote12 Usually unlucky with the itinerant fathers, they were spectacularly successful with the children fathered on local mothers. Spanish colonial law helped by assigning these children a distinct juridical status as mestizos (in due course the word meant, typically, not the offspring of Spaniards and ‘natives’, but of Chinese and local women). Christianized through their mothers, organized in their own guilds (gremios), compelled to avoid political transvestitism by wearing a distinctive costume and coiffure, these children, and their in-marrying further descendants, came to form a distinct stratum of colonial society.