It’s hard to understand the present-day Philippines without knowing a little of its colonial history. The first to arrive were Malay settlers who bartered with indigenous tribespeople, the descendants of whom now mostly live in remote, mountain and jungle areas. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century the islands had been trading with Chinese merchants for hundreds of years, and Islamic settlers from Brunei lived in the south of the archipelago.
The Spanish turned these disparate islands into a nation and their introduction of Catholicism had an impact which continues to be felt, with most Filipinos today identifying themselves as Catholics.
Throughout the Spanish era, the mountain tribes struggled against colonial rule. A revolution began in 1896 but saw the Filipino forces defeated. They supported the US in its 1898 war against Spain, but the conflict ended with the Philippines being sold to the Americans.
The new occupiers were fiercely resisted for many years, but did improve standards of education and infrastructure. The Americans finally allowed elections in 1935, but just a few years later, the country became a major battleground during the Second World War. The Japanese army occupied the country and many of the major cities (including Manila) were devastated.
After the war, democracy was restored, but it had a rocky path. In 1965 Ferdinand Marcos was elected president and, together with his wife Imelda, he set out to modernise the country and rein in the elite families which had long dominated the Philippines. He declared martial law in 1972, strengthening his grip on power and ruthlessly crushing dissent while plundering the country’s coffers.
Marcos was deposed in 1986 at the hands of a popular uprising led by Cory Aquino – wife of assassinated presidential rival Ninoy. Initial euphoria about a return to democracy turned to scepticism as successive administrations were accused of corruption, cronyism and self-interest. Today wealth distribution remains very uneven, which goes some way to explaining the high number of Filipinos working abroad and sending money home.