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Incomplete Conquests in the Philippine Archipelago, 1565-1700



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Mawson, Stephanie Joy 


The Spanish colonisation of the Philippines in 1565 opened up trade between China, Latin America and Europe via the Pacific crossing, changing the history of global trade forever. The traditional understanding of the early colonial period in the Philippines suggests that colonial control spread rapidly and peacefully across the islands, ushering in dramatic changes to the social, political and economic environment of the archipelago. This dissertation argues by contrast that the extent of Spanish control has been overstated – partially as a by-product of an over-reliance on religious and secular chronicles that sought to magnify the role and interests of the colonial state. Through extensive archival work examining different sites of colonial authority and power, I demonstrate that Philippine communities contested and limited the nature of colonisation in their archipelago.

In making this argument, I challenge prevalent assumptions of indigenous passivity in the face of imperial expansion. By demonstrating the agency of Southeast Asians, particular actors come to the fore in each of the chapters: Chinese labourers, indigenous elites, fugitives and apostates, unpacified mountain communities, native priestesses and Moro slave raiders. The culture and social organisation of these Southeast Asian communities impacted on the nature of Spanish imperialism and the capacity for the Spanish to retain and extend their control. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Spanish presence within the archipelago was always tenuous. A number of communities remained outside of Spanish control for the duration of the century, while still others oscillated between integration and rebellion, by turns participating in and resisting the consolidation of empire. These communities continued to maintain their local and regional economies and customs. Thus, by the end of the seventeenth century, imperial control remained fragmented, partial and incomplete.

The dissertation contributes not only to the historiography of the Philippines – which remains under-explored – but also to the historiographies of Colonial Latin America, Southeast Asia and early modern empires. Conceptualising the Philippines as a frontier space helps to overturn the foundations of the myth of a completed conquest. This dissertation thus raises questions about the inevitability of empire by arguing that indigenous communities were active respondents to Spanish colonisation attempts and that indigenous traditions and culture in this region were both resilient and enduring in the face of colonial oppression.





Sivasundaram, Sujit


Philippines, Southeast Asia, Empire, Colonisation, Conquest, Rebellion, Resistance, Early Modern History, Spanish Empire, Galleon trade, Religious conversion, ethnohistory, Slave raiding, Debt-Servitude, Fugitivism, Colonial Latin America, Frontiers, Malay archipelago, Pacific World


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust Royal Historical Society