22 August 2016

The Practice of Sending Convicted Criminals as Soldiers to Spanish Colonial Philippines

Image credit:  Nephicode.com.

“While this ship was on the point of departure, one of two ships which your viceroy Don Martin Enrriquez1 despatched from Nueva España (Mexico) arrived here, on the fifth of the present month. Through these ships he sends one hundred and fifty soldiers, some married men, and three Augustinian religious.2

So wrote Guido de Lavezaris, second Spanish Governor of the Philippines, to Felipe II, King of Spain, in 1574. The arrival of Spanish troops in the country was not just always noteworthy but also a very welcome event. The Spaniards had not been in the country a decade yet since Miguel López de Legaspi and his fellow conquistadores arrived to “pacify” the country, which was really euphemism for “subdue” and, therefore, colonise.

It was not as though the Spaniards simply walked in, announced that they were taking over and the native Filipinos meekly accepted the inevitable and welcomed them with open arms. There were, indeed, instances when this was so. However, seen as an invasive force which they really were, it was but natural that there was also resistance from some of the natives.

It goes without saying, therefore, that the subjugation of the country was effected, particularly in areas that were unreceptive to the Spaniards, by their soldiers. In fact, what Spanish historical documents called “pacification” of local communities were military operations which resulted into many deaths among natives and the burning of entire villages.

Their advanced weaponry notwithstanding, there were also deaths among the Spanish soldiers, who were in actuality outnumbered by the natives whom they were trying to conquer. There were those who survived the weapons of hostile locals; but fell to the tropical heat and humidity along with the diseases that came with these that they had little or no resistance to.

De Legaspi and others who sailed out with him in 1564 from Nueva España had managed to establish a foothold in the country; but to consolidate Spanish conquest, they also needed to bring in more troops. There was also the added need to secure this foothold against other imperial powers such as the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, who had also started to establish their own respective footholds in other parts of the Southeast Asian region.

It was not, however, as though there was a glut of soldiers in Spain or even Nueva España who were willing to volunteer for assignment to the Philippines. The country was then frontier territory, still in the process of being explored. The vast distance between it and Nueva España was intimidating to say the least. Getting there took anything from five to seven months at sea without sighting land from the time ships left Nueva España until they got to the Marianas.

In Nueva España, a picture of the Philippines was painted by those who did manage to return: the hot and humid conditions, the proliferation of diseases, the hardships of frontier living and the often treacherous crossing of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, an assignment to the Philippines was seen as something of a one-way ticket.

To be able to send soldiers to the Philippines, therefore, the Spanish colonial government in Nueva España in the seventeenth century had to resort to the so-called forzado system. This was the forced recruitment of unruly elements of the underclass of Nueva España – the lowest tier in the social hierarchy – to become soldiers for assignment to the Philippines.

The forzado system was in reality part of the criminal justice system in Nueva España, reflective of the utilitarian tradition of Spanish jurisprudence. Instead of subjecting convicts to imprisonment or capital punishment, they were, instead, put to work. Soldiery was an option. Conscripting convicts and sending them across the ocean to the Philippines served a dual purpose, albeit to the benefit of one party and to the detriment of the other.

The Spanish administration at Nueva España was wary of the growth of a criminal underclass and was anxious to purge or cleanse society of these criminals. A seventeenth century viceroy, Conde de Salvatierra, gave a brief description of the threat posed by these elements to society:

“The citizens of México were always molested by thieves [and] escaladores (climbers) of houses...; the damages increased by the day and the criminals became habitual delinquents, murdering the owners of the houses that they entered to rob, forcing themselves on the women in the presence of their husbands, [and] all this without resistance.3

Apart from thieves, the other types of criminals who were forcibly conscripted under the forzado system were vagabonds (wanderers who had no way to support themselves), highwaymen (roadside robbers), rustlers (cattle thieves), those found guilty of petty crimes and runaway soldiers and sailors.

The vagabonds were a particularly curious group; and especially why the Spanish administration in Nueva España would want them exiled to the Philippines. They were feared because of their tendency to abuse the indigenous population (in Nueva España) and their ability to teach them idleness and other vices so typical of the lower class.

Of course, these very dregs of Spanish society in Nueva España, once they were in the Philippines, were tasked with enforcing colonial order under Spanish rule. The very elements that Nueva España, present-day Mexico, wanted to rid itself of, were sent instead to the Philippines.

The practice of sending these “convict soldiers” went on for more than two centuries. Leopards, or so the maxim goes, do not really change their spots. It goes without saying that these rogue elements and their expected abusiveness would have influenced how Philippine history evolved. More intriguingly, one wonders how much of their influence is to blame for the ills of present-day Philippine society.

Notes and references:
1 Enriquez was the Viceroy of Nueva España or New Spain, present day Mexico, the highest colonial administrator in the Spanish colony in North America.
2 “Two Letters to Felipe II,” as published in the Blair and Robertson series “The Philippine Islands: Volume III: 1569-1576.”
3 Along with other details of the forzado system, from “Unruly Plebeians and the Forzado System: Convict Transportation between New Spain and the Philippines during the Seventeenth Century” by Stephanie Mawson, 2013.

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