Iloilo City, the capital of Iloilo province, is on the southeast coast of Panay, the Ilonggos or Hiligaynons’ homeland. Iloilo City is on the Iloilo River’s wide mouth, which juts out into the Guimaras Strait. The offshore Guimaras Island shelters it.
Iloilo is one of the country’s loveliest Spanish colonial settlements. Iloilo City is a charming place known for its 16-century churches, ancestral mansions, beautiful gardens, unspoiled beaches, and bustling markets in addition to jusi (raw silk) and piña (pineapple fiber) fabrics.
Iloilo is also the cultural, religious, educational, commercial, manufacturing, and transportation center of the Western Visayas. It has retained some of the period’s genteel charm while remaining the most important port in the region since international shipping opened in 1855. Fortunes were made in sugar during the late 19th century, and some fine old mansions still stand. Life is more relaxed here than in Manila or Cebu City. There is no rushing the Ilonggo residents.
Among the early migrants to Iloilo were 10 Bornean datus fleeing the repression of the Sri Vishayan (or Swirijaya) Empire. Two or three of the 10 Bornean datus pushed farther north to Balayan Bay in Batangas. In the early 13th century, the datus bartered gold for the coastal and lowland areas, where they bought from Marikudo, a native chief. Among these areas was Irong-Irong, meaning nose-like.
Ancient Indonesians, Malaysians, and Vietnamese, and later the Indian, Arab, Chinese, Korean and Japanese merchants were already trading with the Ilonggos long before the arrival of the Mexicans, Spaniards, and other Europeans.
Hearing of Iloilo’s excellent harbor and the danger of another Portuguese attack, the Spaniards led by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi removed their camp from Cebu in 1566 to Iloilo, which they considered a safer place. They found thriving towns that had enjoyed relative peace and prosperity for about 300 years. Legaspi established the first Spanish settlement in Ogtong (now Oton) in 1566 and proclaimed him governor.
In Panay, the conquest of Luzon was planned and later launched on May 8, 1570.
In 1581, the capital in Ogtong was moved south to La Villa Rica de Arevalo because of frequent coastal raids by the Dutch privateers. Furthermore, an attack in the year 1600 (part of the Spanish-Moro conflict) destroyed Iloilo City. There was a sizeable Muslim armada of 70 ships and 4,000 warriors, led by two Moros named Sirungan and Salikala. They raided and attacked several Visayan islands in order to abduct slaves to sell to their allies in the Sultanate of Demak and the Sultanate of Malacca. They were repulsed with heavy losses in the town of Arevalo by a force of 1,000 Hiligaynon warriors and 70 Mexican arquebusiers under the command of Juan García de Sierra, the Spanish officer who died in the battle. Spanish then Christianized the area.
Because of repeated raids by Moro pirates, the Dutch, and English, the capital was moved again in 1667 to Irong-Irong, where the river mouth provided better protection resulting in the founding of what is now Iloilo City.
The ruling Spanish government later encouraged these foreign merchants to trade in Iloilo, but they were not given privileges like land ownership. Foreign merchants and Spaniards intermarried with the locals, and the Mestizo class was eventually born from their union. The Mestizo offspring of the local nobilities later emerged as the ruling class of the Ilonggos.
The Ilonggos accepted alliances with Spain to defend themselves against the enslaving Moros. To this end, Iloilo contributed troops in the Castille War against the Sultanate of Brunei.
The pre-Spanish settlement was extensive, but the seaport remained until 1855, when it was opened to foreign trade. The great sugar exports of the nearby island of Negros were an additional spur to its growth, and for a time, Iloilo City rivaled Cebu City as the main port of the Visayan Islands. While freight traffic dropped with the construction of artificial ports on Negros, passenger traffic remains high, for thousands of migrant laborers annually journey through Iloilo City, which is linked by rail with Roxas City, on the north coast, to Negros’ sugar plantations.
The economy of Iloilo grew rapidly. By 1855, Iloilo was the center of commerce and trade in the Visayas, the second most important city in the country (Manila being the first).
During the American colonial period, Iloilo became home to many firsts: the first department stores and cinema theaters in the Commonwealth of the Philippines. Under the Americans, Iloilo gained more prominence in the nation’s politics, industry, and agriculture. The infrastructure – roads, extensive railway lines, and the airport – was excellent. The fishing and sugar industries flourished.
Iloilo became a chartered city on July 16, 1937. During this time, Ilonggos, who received American grants to study architecture abroad, returned and brought American architecture to their homes. Most Commonwealth features were the eagle, scroll, and olive leaves.
Progress was hindered during World War II as the Ilongos challenged the Japanese forces. Iloilo experienced severe devastation during the events of World War II.
By the end of the war, Iloilo’s booming economy was in ruins. Decline in the sugar economy and the exodus of people and investors to other cities such as Bacolod and Cebu led further to its economic demise.
It became a province of the newly fledged Republic of the Philippines when the archipelago gained independence from the United States on July 4, 1946.
The postwar recovery was slow but sure. Today you can see the genteel and cultured Ilonggo history mirrored in the ancestral mansions, pleasant dialect, artistic crafts, and imposing churches.
Philippines Guide – Jill & Rebecca Gale de Villa