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On a Glance at the British in Manila

Unlike Paul Revere’s warning shouts that the “British are coming” to wreck havocs to the people of Boston, precipitating the American Revolution against Britain, the British did come to the Philippines, stayed for 20 months, and left almost in a huff with nary a marker to their visit. But their coming did mark an episode in the country’s colonial history of sea battles affecting Manila and its harbors.

In what the historians called the Age of Discovery, the British Monarchy in the middle of the 18th Century had their eyes on the then profitable galleon trades between Spain and the Philippines. Britain had been wanting to have access to the goods coming from China, but the sea routes, especially those from the ports of Manila to Acapulco, Mexico, were controlled by Spain, the Philippines having been a Spanish colony for centuries. The chance came in 1756 when France attacked the British Colony of Minorca, one of the group of Balearic Islands in the western Mediterranean. The French incursion precipitated the war between France and Britain which went on for years, later called the Seven Years War.

The Spanish government maintained her neutrality as the war progressed. But a string of major French losses at the hands of the British were becoming a threat to the Spanish interests. On January 4, 1762, Britain declared war on Spain, to which Spain issued her own declaration of war against Britain on January 18th of the same year. France earlier negotiated successfully a Family Compact Treaty with Spain which was signed on August 15, 1761. A secret provision under this treaty had made Spain a party committed to making preparations for war against Britain.

Even before the signing of the treaty between Spain and France, Britain had nurtured an interest in establishing trading bases in the Spanish Philippines and within the Sultanate of Sulu, and especially in Mindanao. Barely two days after declaring war against Spain, the British Cabinet approved a “Scheme” authored by the then Colonel William Draper to attack the islands of Martinique and Grenada, Havana, and Manila, “the greatest Spanish fortress in the western Pacific,” and to establish free trade with China. Draper was then a commander of foot soldiers stationed in Madras, India. Upon the approval of the “Scheme,” Draper was promoted to brigadier general.

Under Draper’s and Rear Admiral Samuel Cornish’s command, a small but “technically proficient” force of the British army regulars and the British East India Company soldiers, supported by ships and men of the East Indies Squadron of the British Royal Navy sailed from Madras on September 23, 1762 into Manila Bay. The news of the fleet’s arrival to the archipelago came to Manila the day before, which was forwarded to the Archbishop of Manila Miguel Rojo then the acting Governor-General. The Spanish forces in Manila was unaware of the declaration of war but nevertheless made preparations against the invaders and put Manila in a State of Defense and sent a force to Cavite to protect the port.

Upon the British’s fleet arrival in Manila Bay, a Spanish forces’ emissary delivered a note to the commanding officer to ask about their nationality and their intentions. The British replied by sending messengers of their own to declare the Orders of King George III, namely, to capture the city of Manila and the surrender of the Spanish in the city. On the morning of September 24th, the British forces proceeded to attack Manila by deploying their troops on the shore but they met resistance. Archbishop Rojo later recounted that the Spanish opened fire at the British with little effect. The British originally planned to attack the port of Cavite first in order to sow confusion among the Spaniards. Cavite eventually was captured on October 11, 1762.

The battle for Manila continued for several days resulting in the destructions of the fortifications in the walled city, including the capture of Fort Polverista and the breaching of the bastions of St. Andrew. The bombardment of mortar shells by the British fleet continued in the month of October. The British troops continued their advances and captured the foundry and attacked the Royal Gate. On October 5, 1762, the final preparations were made for the final push to the walled city. At daybreak of the following day, October 6th, the final offensive started with continued firing of mortal shells against the walled city. Resistance was futile, and eventually the Spaniards surrendered to the British.

The fall of Manila was followed by widespread pillaging that lasted for 40 hours and was blamed for the atrocious acts of the “domestics” of the Spaniards, the Chinese, the natives, and the British soldiers. The Governor-General would later write in his journal that the pillaging was cruel, “without excepting the churches, the archbishopric, and part of the palace.” The British demanded a ransom of four million dollars from the Spanish government to which Rojo agreed to avoid further destruction.

Looted by the victors were not only money and valued assets but also important documents and records. So extensive was the pillaging by the British that Jose Rizal himself was awed by the collection of Philippine and Spanish artifacts he had discovered at a British Museum many years after the occupation of Manila. In a letter to his friend Mariano Ponce, he described the collection as one that “cannot be found anywhere else.” Rizal spent two years in London researching and copying the different Filipino-Spanish books at the Museum, including Antonio de la Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas.”

The conquest and occupation of Manila by the British ended by the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, ending the hostilities between France and Britain. The British occupation of Manila, however, extended towards the north, including Bulacan, Pampanga, and parts of the Ilocos Province. In the 20 months of the British occupation, Spain’s prestige was damaged and convinced the natives that Spain’s stronghold could be broken by rebellion, arriving at a mindset contributing to the instability of the Spanish Colonizing Rule. Philippine history has recorded the courageous resistances, although ending tragically, exhibited by Diego Silang and his wife Gabriela.


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