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It's All History by Jon Malek

Fray Domingo de Salazar,

the “de las Casas” of the Philippines

By Jon Malek

The first Bishop of the Philippines, Domingo de Salazar, was a Spanish Dominican friar. While his contemporary, Bartolomé de las Casas, is more widely known for his defense of the Aboriginal peoples in Central America, Salazar is a lesser-known figure. Often, the Spanish Empire at the turn of the fifteenth century is portrayed as a bloody rampage intent on pillaging local natives of gold, silver and other valuables. Undoubtedly, these aspects of this story are true – and figures like the conquistador Hernán Cortés testify to the cruelty and greed that often drive empires and colonizers. Of course, the Spanish were not the only ones responsible for this horrendous activity – all colonial powers, whether in the Americas, Africa, or Asia, manipulated and exploited local native populations in one way or another. After initial reports of the atrocities being carried out in Central America – by advocates such as Bartolomé de las Casas – the Spanish monarchy entered a state of moral crisis because, being a devout Catholic, King Philip II of Spain wanted native populations to be preached to and converted, not harassed and harmed.

Spanish presence on the Islands began in 1521 with the arrival and subsequent death of Ferdinand Magellan in an encounter with the chieftain Lapu-Lapu. However, sustained Spanish settlement began in earnest in the 1560s, a number of years after de las Casas had written his condemnation of Spanish atrocities in the “New World” in a book called A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (written in 1542, and published in 1552. This can be found online for free at In the sources, it seems clear that the Spanish king intended the Philippine colony to be more humane, and that a strong focus was to be on Christian conversion. For example, in a letter to the Governor Manuel de Legazpi on 1 September 1564, he is instructed to ensure that members of the religious community (such as friars and priests) be visibly present and held in high esteem during contact with local Indios (the term used by the Spanish to refer to the native inhabitants of the Islands), so that these religious individuals be held in reverence and respect. In the same letter, Legazpi is instructed to “labour diligently to make and establish sound friendship and peace with the natives” and to “represent to them his majesty’s affection and love.”

Of course, this harmonious relationship was not easy to maintain. In a letter from June 1574 by Fray Martin de Rada, an Augustinian friar who had accompanied Manuel de Legazpi in the 1560s, he declared that none of the Islands had come into Spanish control by legitimate means. Instead of coming as friends to the local Indios, he states that “we have gone everywhere with the mailed hand” gaining converts and subjects by fear rather than friendship. By the time Bishop Salazar arrived in Manila in 1581 to serve as the city’s first bishop, controversy was rampant in the Spanish colony over the alleged abuse and forced extraction of tributes from the local population at the hands of the Spaniards.

Bishop Salazar was a student of the “School of Salamanca,” which was a group of university-based theologians renowned for their work on moral philosophy and legal thought. He was a student of de las Casas’ writings and attended lectures of theologian Francesco de Vitoria, who wrote on the legitimacy of Spain’s claim over native-held territories in the Americas. This School was well known for their staunch defense of native rights at the time and it is no surprise that Salazar was a product of this group of thinkers.

Before being selected as Bishop in Manila, Salazar spent time in Mexico where his condemnation of the ill treatment of local natives by the civil authorities landed him in jail. Given the moral crisis that King Philip II felt with his colonial expansion, it was this outspokenness and the reputation of the School of Salamanca that led to Salazar being sent to Manila. Upon his arrival, he would spend the next fifteen years until his death in debate with civil authorities over the treatment and rights of the Indios population (including the converted and non-converted). The Governor at the time of Salazar’s arrival, Gonzalo Ronquillo, refused to enact any of the king’s instructions regarding the treatment of local populations and, in direct opposition to this governor, the Bishop called a council in 1582 to debate the issue. The Council determined that Spanish forces had no just cause to seize native lands or to enforce tribute payments, and that the only right the Spaniards had to be in the Philippines was to spread the Gospel. As the Council saw it, this right did not include the right to depose natives of their lands, “since the gospel deprived no one of whatever was his by natural right, nor had the pope or king any right to so dispossess him.”

This Council did not have many options in terms of enforcing their decisions upon the governor, however. Bishop Salazar, as well as other religious advocates in the colony, would frequently write to the king complaining of the continued injustice, but the civil authorities in the Philippines just as often would write saying the claims were false or over-exaggerated. Given that communication with the king was very infrequent – letters arrived and were sent out about once a year – and that the king was given conflicting reports that could not be verified, Salazar had a very frustrating task in defending the rights of the natives. However, Salazar was able to keep the issue of Spanish abuse and maltreatment in the spotlight. Colonialism is a dirty affair in which those involved never really benefit, but this case of Bishop Salazar demonstrates that, while the spread of Spanish colonialism and culture was often conducted immorally and unethically, there were voices within these religious communities that advocated and fought for the native populations of their colonial territories.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at

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