History of land transport in the Philippines (1/4)



Author’s note: These are Sections 1-7 of “History of Philippine land transport”, which in turn is Part II of a draft framework paper on Philippine mass transport that I’ve been writing with the help of representatives of KMU, PISTON and a few others.

We saw the value of tracing the roots of our current-day transport problems through the broader socio-historical context, in order to better appreciate the challenge of seeking long-term solutions. Historical accounts are also inherently fascinating, like unearthing one’s ancestral lineage. 

As specialized histories typically require specialized research, this historical backgrounder will obviously stand as a work in progress. It is not comprehensive, but rather imparts focus on land transport trends related to urbanization. What was supposed to be Section 8, on the last 30 years (1986-present), will be included in Part III which will dwell with the current-day land transport conditions and problems.

Here we trace a brief history of Philippine transportation especially with the country’s entry into world commerce in the 19th and 20th century, and offer some insights about the patterns of growth of our transport system in the broader context of developing Philippine society and economy.

1. Pre-Spanish period

First of all, we consider long-term and very slow-changing geographic factors that shaped Philippine transportation. Foremost is that our country is a big archipelago of 7,500 islands, and a very long total coastline (estimated at the world’s fifth longest). Each major island has a mountainous interior, with narrow or fragmented plains and valleys along the coasts and in the interior, and crisscrossed by very numerous rivers. These geographic factors greatly influenced the early patterns of population growth, density, distribution and movement, which continued through the next centuries.

Prior to the introduction of horses and wheeled vehicles by Spanish colonizers, our ancestors moved by raft or native outrigger boat powered by paddles and sails, hopping from island to island or coastal point to point. They reached interior valleys by trekking along estuaries and rivers (by water and on foot) and through trails across mountains. They eventually settled along or near the coasts, lakes, rivers and major creeks where there was enough access to land, water, and food sources.

Most of these communities were economically self-sufficient and politically independent. However, impelled by locally evolving class structures, growing populations and diminishing resources, these communities gradually formed among themselves regular ties of trade, intermarriage, peace pacts and war rivalries. These further helped shape the major overland and inter-island travel routes and the regular movements of people and goods along said routes.

Around the 10th century CE, certain communities in locations with defensible harbors and sufficient supply of food and water evolved into entrepots, e.g. the Manila area, Sugbu (Cebu), Butuan and Sulu areas among others. These attracted traders from within the Philippine archipelago, as well as from the Malay archipelago, mainland Southeast Asia, and Arabia. Eventually, by the 13th century, South China traders using better boats broke the Arab trade monopoly and became dominant. The local ruling classes, by controlling the ports and key points along the route, grew fat on tribute paid by traders, on payments for settling trade disputes, and on profits from their own trading expeditions. Growing trade further fueled economic and population growth and class stratification, which in turn further reinforced regular trade routes, both inter-island and inland.

2. Spanish period

The establishment of Spanish rule in most islands paved the way for the colonial and feudal socio-economic system to take root, and alongside this, expanded modes of transportation that served the expanding needs of colonial and feudal rule.

As early as 1591, Spanish rule was already entrenched in 236 encomiendas in 10 broadly defined provinces from Ilocos to Panay. From these first bulwarks, Spanish forces fanned out to pacify tribes, punish rebellious ones, impose reduccion (resettlement into pacified towns), collect tribute, requisition goods, and harness corvee labor. All these required the building of ships, ports and wharves, and inland roads, bridges across rivers, and horse trails across mountains. Many Spanish-period trade and travel routes were merely expanded and interconnected versions of pre-Spanish routes.

The colonialists selected Manila as their seat of government and trade because of its already established population, its strategic position vis-a-vis trade routes, its fine harbor, and its easy access to the nearby regions’ rich human and natural resources. The emergence and growth of Manila and its immediate suburbs as the dominant economic, political, and cultural center of the country throughout the Spanish period are well-documented. Other colonial centers, new towns, and political-military comandancias built their own military garrisons, religious houses and residencia; maintained communications with Manila; enforced tribute and corvee labor (which they shipped to Manila or to where it was needed); built public works and operated ferries.

The Manila-Acapulco galleon trade and increased visits to Manila of Chinese traders (who fanned out to outlying provinces as merchants and artisans) further impelled the growth of regular shipping and overland transportation between Manila and the provinces throughout the 1600s. The Spanish colonialists monopolized trade and operated shipping lines. Ship-building became a major industry, with shipyards in Cavite, Panay, Albay, Marinduque and Masbate. The need for rope, rigging and canvas sails turned Bicol and Ilocos respectively into plantation economies producing abaca and cotton, with direct links to Manila, while iron (for ship fittings) was exported from China and Japan.

By the 1700s, the Spanish-instituted colonial and feudal system had taken deep roots and served to determine the patterns of population distribution, growth and migration, the local class structure, other features of the social economy, and modes of governance throughout the country. From 1760s onwards, a major push for expanded agriculture resulted in a vast hacienda system producing export crops such as tobacco, indigo, cotton, sugar cane, abaca, cacao and copra, in addition to traditional commodities such as rice, and the semi-handicraft processing of textiles, alcohol and tobacco products.

Tightly linked to all these was a system of transportation that gradually expanded to serve the growing needs of the social system. The rapid growth of export crops and mainly Manila-based foreign trade—especially starting in the 1825-1834 period, and after the Suez Canal opened in 1869—further fueled domestic inter-island and inter-province (overland) trade throughout the 19th century. Expanding trade and incipient manufactures encouraged labor migration between provinces and to the cities; incipient commuting emerged within Manila itself, between the walled city and its arrabales (districts) and nearby towns.

All these resulted in some advances in the country’s transport system. Since most trade and transport were across the seas and along the coasts, the earlier impetus was in maritime, inter-island and riverine transport by various kinds of watercraft, from big steamers to native boats with outriggers (paraw) to flat-bottomed cascos. Even within the Manila area, rivers (e.g. Pasig and Marikina rivers), esteros (tidewater channels) and man-made canals (e.g. Canal de Maypajo, Canal de la Reina) served as major arteries of trade linking outlying areas and the Intramuros and Port of Manila, with the cascos as the workhorse watercraft.# (Continued Next Week, Railways in the last decade of Spanish rule)

(Note: We could not find major sources of the country’s Spanish-period shipping for our research beyond the Manila-Acapulco galleons and other foreign shipping. A study on Philippine ports notes that only the Ports of Manila, Cebu and Iloilo were equipped and allowed to handle the loading and unloading of big ships in the 1875-1898 period.) # nordis.net

Continued next week


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