All About Cebu

Sugbu: Where East and West Met

The settlement of Cebu or Sugbu gave the name to the whole island where the Christian faith was first established.

Cebu is the homeland of the Cebuano or Sugbuanon to use a more ancient name. European travelers described the ancient Cebuano as “painted,” this is, both their men and women wore tattoos. Tattoos covered men’s bodies almost totally, while women were tattooed in parts that were exposed. A book of illustrations, known as the Boxer Codex, depict the Visayan nobles dressed in long loose robes, held together at the waist by a sash. The sash was ornamented with gold bangles. The robe was called sanina. The nobles wore gold ornaments. Both men and women proudly displayed their earrings, breast plates, bracelets, anklets and gold belts, some wound around the body.

The ruling class or the datu were supported by their retinue, the timawa. The timawa formed a class of warriors, who knew how to use a canon and who wore armor made of carabao hide or shark skin, reinforced with metal. At the bottom of Visayan society were the oripon or ulipon, some captives from raids, others bound to work for the timawa as servants because of crime or debt.

The ulipon are often called or described as slaves in Spanish chronicles. This misrepresents the complex and reciprocal relationship between the ulipon and the datu and timawa. They were not like slaves of classical times. Some ulipon were members of the timawa household, holding esteemed positions. Others, who lived apart from the timawa, enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy, but were bound to them through service. The closest contemporary analogy we have to the ulipon are household help or tenants who work a landowner’s farm. In some cases, help might even be poorer relatives.

The ancient Visayas had their own script, as reported by Fr. Pedro Chirino in the 1600s. They used the script for their daily transactions, but apparently not for literature which remained largely oral. The were animists and had not been affected by the proselytizing activities of Islam. Women were held in esteem in Visayan society and some became bailan or babailan, or asog, spirit medium that could talk to nature or ancestor spirits. The Visayans traded with the Chinese and other Orientals who came to their islands. The Visayan islands produced birds’ nest, seashells, sea cucumber, honey, wax, hardwoods and other natural products which found a ready market in Asia. Gold was also mined.

Ancient Visayans buried their dead together with some earthly belongings like porcelain plates, jewelry, cloth and other offerings. Some were buried with gold ornaments covering their orifices.

The Cebuanos first encountered Spaniards in 1521 with the expedition of Magellan. The initial friendly reception soured after the debacle of Magellan’s interference in the local affairs. The next encounter was in April 1565 with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and his colonizing band. And it all began with the loud crack of canon fire.

After bombarding the village of Sugbu, 2000 Cebuano warriors amassed on the shore sought safety; and when Spanish soldiers under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi landed on shore they discovered the settlement in flames and abandoned. It was 28 April 1565, when the Spaniards landed on shore to begin colonizing the Philippines.

Although Ferdinand Magellan had landed in Sugbu more than 40 years previous (16 March 1521), Magellan’s expedition was exploratory and his untimely death on Mactan Island cut short all plans, if any, to settle. The Sugbu that Magellan had seen was a settlement built along the littoral. Dwellings were built no more than one house deep in most places and stretched as far as present-day Mandaue City. Pedro Chirino, writing in 1604, remarks that he saw house posts still standing where a village used to stand. Archaeological excavations in Cebu confirm Chirino’s observation of a sizable settlement in Sugbu prior to Spanish colonization.

Upon forcing the inhabitants of Sugbu to capitulate, Legazpi ordered the construction of a triangular-shaped fort on the land presently occupied by Fort San Pedro. Then he proceeded to lay out the town while his colonizing band used the abandoned dwellings of the Cebuanos as temporary shelter. He also designated a site for the Augustinian church and convent.

After four years in Cebu, Legazpi was forced to move the bulk of the colonizers north. Cebu Island’s arid, rugged limestone mountains and narrow plains could hardly support the new colony. Legazpi moved north to Pan-ay on Panay Island where extensive rice fields promised better prospects for provisions. Two years later, he moved his colony to Manila after attacking the stronghold of Rajah Sulayman, the ruler of Manila.

In 1571, Sugbu received a royal charter making it a city of the Spanish realm with the name “Ciudád de Santissimo Nombre de Jesús.” With the royal charter came another creating Manila into a city and making it the capital of the colony. The economic consequence on Cebu was apparent. Although the first galleons sailed out of Cebu and there was a lively industry of building galleons in Cebu, by the 17th century economic activity moved to Manila. Cebu’s economy became moribund.

In the 19th century, Cebu’s economy picked up with the opening of Cebu’s port to foreign ships in 1860. Spurred by opportunities to trade sugar, coal, cloth, coconut and other produce and commodities made in the Visayas, capital began pouring into the island. By the 19th century Cebu had a sizable Chinese community living in the Parian, a district beside the Cebu cathedral. The district had its own church dedicated to San Juan Bautista and administered by the secular clergy. It was reputed to be the most affluent parish, whose altars were embellished not with silver candlesticks but with gold. The parish was closed because of jurisdictional conflict with the Convent of Santo Niño, a stone’s throw away from the Parian.

Parian developed into a street of sturdy bahay na bato whose lower floors were store and shops. For the comfort of customers, store owners built wide overhanging awnings that covered the sidewalk and provided shade from the sun.

In 1905, Daniel Burnham, the noted American urban planner, proposed a plan for Cebu. It was in the 20th century that Cebu began to expand. A new provincial capitol was built in the 1930s and a wide street, called Jones Ave., linked the capitol with the older district of the city, and a graceful fountain and rotunda marked the boundaries of new development.

The development of Mactan Island as an international airport, the extensive reclamation and the upgrading of Cebu’s harbor, the many hotels, high rise buildings, malls, subdivisions and other developments attest to Cebu’ s dynamism, and the center of much economic growth in the Visayas.

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