Gems of History

Spaniards and Chinese: first encounter

Most people, including historians, think that there were no female Chinese immigrants in early Philippine history. Data from 1870 show there were only 193 female and 22,807 male Chinese in the Philippines.

Early Chinese immigrants in the Philippines seem, logically, to be generally made up of Chinese males who went overseas to seek better livelihood to support their families in China.

However, a document entitled “Relation of the Voyage to Luzon,” which appeared in Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands (vol. 3), reveals otherwise. It said that as early as 1570, there were already Chinese women in Manila.

Among the prisoners were Chinese wives of some of the Chinese who had married and settled in the town, and although it would have been justifiable to make them slaves because their husbands had fled with the Moros, the master-of-camp was unwilling to do so, but simply handed them over to the Chinese of the ships. One of the Chinese women wished to come with us, and we have found since that she was insane, now she is with the governor who will send her back to her own country.

“Relation of the Voyage to Luzon” narrates the events of the voyage led in May 1570 by Martin de Goiti from Panay, the first expedition of the Spanish colonizers from their first settlement in Cebu to Manila, with 1,570 people, 90 arquebusiers and 20 sailors.

Sangleys, as depicted in the Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas (1734), by Pedro Murillo Velarde, Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suarez –, Public Domain,

It documents the first encounters of the Spaniards with the Chinese in the Philippines along the way to Mindoro and in Manila. Below are excerpts:

News reached the master-of-camp that, in a river five leagues from the place where the ships had anchored, were two vessels from China, the inhabitants of which these natives call Sangleyes.


At break of day, the praus which had preceded the others reached the river where the Chinese ships were anchored. The Chinese, either because news of the Spaniards had reached them, or because they had heard arquebuse-shots, were coming out side by side with foresails up, beating on drums, playing on fifes, firing rockets and culverins, and making a great warlike display. Many of them were seen on deck, armed with arquebuses and unsheathed cutlasses.

The Spaniards, who are not at all slothful, did not refuse the challenge offered them by the Chinese; on the contrary they boldly and fearlessly attacked the Chinese ships, and, with their usual courage, grappled them.

This was certainly a rash move on their part, for the Chinese ships were large and high, while the praus were so small and low that they hardly reached to the first pillar of the enemy’s ships.

But the goodly aim of the arquebusiers was so effective that the Chinese did not leave their shelter, and the Spaniards were thus enabled to board their ships and take possession of them.

There were about 80 Chinese on board the two ships; about 20 were killed in the affray. The soldiers searched the cabins in which the Chinese kept their most valuable goods, and there they found silk, both woven and in skeins; gold thread, musk, gilded porcelain bowls, pieces of cotton cloth, gilded water-jugs, and other curious articles – although not in a large quantity, considering the size of the ships.

The decks of both vessels were full of earthen jars and crockery; large porcelain vases, plates, and bowls; and some fine porcelain jars, which they call sinoratas. They also found iron, copper, steel, and a small quantity of wax which the Chinese had bought.

Captain Juan de Salzedo arrived with the rear-guard of the praus, after the soldiers had already placed in safety the goods taken from the Chinese ships. He was not at all pleased with the havoc made among the Chinese. The master-of-camp, Martin de Goite, who had remained behind with the large ship, showed much more displeasure, when he heard of the occurrence.

As soon as he was able to cast anchor with the junk in the river of Bato (the name of the place where the Chinese vessels were found), he made all haste to make them understand that he was sorry for their misfortune, and that they had done wrong in sallying forth against the Spaniards. Nevertheless, he said he would give them, besides their freedom, a ship, in which they might return to their own country without any hindrance – besides whatever was necessary for their voyage.

This was highly appreciated by the Chinese, who, being very humble people, knelt down with loud utterances of joy.

After this proposal had been made clear to the Chinese, and gladly accepted by them, the master-of-camp entrusted the chief notary, Hernando Rriquel, with the repairing of one of the ships – ordering him to have the hatchway taken out, and to send all that the ship contained to the port of Panay.

Seeing that the sails, masts and rigging of the vessels were so different from ours that none of his men had any knowledge of them, the master-of-camp thought best to ask the Chinese to send three or four of their sailors with the junk to Panay, in company with some friendly Moros of Lucon, who were with the Spaniards.

The Chinese very willingly agreed to that and provided the required men. Thus the ship was dispatched with 12 Lucon Moros, four Chinese, and four Spanish soldiers of the guard.

In this river of Bato was found some green pepper growing on trees as small as shrubs, with their clusters like agias. Here they learned that the town of Mindoro, which is the capital of that island, was five leagues from Bato, and that three more Chinese ships were there.

The Spaniards entered the town , and set free two Chinamen, who were kept there in chains. They learned from these men the ostensible reason for their imprisonment, as follows.

Two Chinese ships had come to trade with the Moros in this river; but, hearing of our presence in Mindoro, they desired to betake themselves thither. The Moros would not allow them to go away.

In the quarrel that ensued over the question of their departure, the Chinese fired a culverin from one of the ships and killed a Moro chief. The Moros assembled to avenge him, and overtook the Chinese as they were about to sail out to sea through the estuary.

It seems that the vessels were wrecked on certain shoals at the entrance to the estuary, and the Chinese with all their possessions fell into the power of the Moros, who inflicted on them a severe punishment – seizing them all, and putting them to death by inches in a most cruel manner, flaying their faces, and exposing them on reeds and mats.

When the Spaniards entered the town, they encountered not a few similar sights; and so recent was this deed that the flayed faces of the Chinese were still bleeding.


The town was situated on the bank of the river, and seemed to be defended by a palisade all along its front.

Within it were many warriors, and the shore outside was crowded with people. Pieces of artillery stood at the gates, guarded by bombardiers, linstock in hand. A culverin-shot from us, and close to the houses of the natives, were four Chinese ships.

Immediately, the Chinese came in their skiffs to visit the master-of-camp. They brought him brandy, hens, winnowed rice, a few pieces of silk, and knick-knacks of little value.

They complained to the master-of-camp of the Moros of Menilla, saying that the latter had taken away by force the helms of their ships and the best of their goods without paying for them.

The master-of-camp received them kindly; but, desiring to be at peace with all, he waived that question.

Then having dismissed the Chinese, he sent the interpreter ashore to tell King Soliman that he wished to confer with him, and to make arrangements therefor.


The town was rapidly burning. The master-of-camp hurriedly took the artillery from the Moros – 13 pieces, small and large. He took care to protect the vessels of the Chinese, who had been greatly frightened.

He ordered the return of the sails and helms which the Moros had taken away from them; and the Chinese, attaching the helms to their ships as quickly as they could, proceeded to cast anchor near the junk, so that the firing should do them no harm.
… In the town lived forty married Chinese and twenty Japanese.


Thus we set sail in company with only the Chinese and their four vessels; these said that they had no articles of trade in their vessels except some large earthen jars and porcelain.

Many of the soldiers bartered trifles of little value with them in exchange for wax, which the Chinese greatly value and even buy with gold.

From what we could see and hear of them, the Chinese are a very humble people. It seems that they observe among themselves a certain form of politeness and cleanliness.

They became great friends with us, and gave us letters of security, which consisted of white cloths that they had with them, upon which were painted the royal coat of arms.

They promised to come the next year to this river of Panay, and to establish trade with the Spaniards. All that the Chinese asked was given them, which pleased them much, and they were shown the best possible treatment. Then they left us, and, according to what they said, went to Mindoro.

The encounters mark the beginning of Spanish engagement with the Chinese in the Philippines. — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 28, no. 5 (August 4-17, 2015): 5-6.