Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sites in the Book: Fort Santiago

"By late morning he still hadn't shown up. This was not him, something was wrong."

Fort Santiago is one of the best maintained parks in Manila- and so it should be. The city started here, possibly dating all the way to prehistoric times, on the banks of the Pasig River. When the Spanish first arrived in the 1500s, the site was the wooden fort of Rajah Sulaiman at the mouth of the Pasig River. Much like their Conquistador brothers in South America, they made war on the natives, destroyed the fort, and started building their own triangular stone bastion in the 1590s. It would later grow and merge into the original Spanish city of Intramuros.

So much history has happened within its stone walls: Pirates, plagues and foreign invasions. It was the starting point of the Manila Galleon trade. It was a prison and a military barracks. Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal, was imprisoned here before his execution. 

In 1941, Fort Santiago was the headquarters for the US Army. After the fall of Manila and the occupation by the Japanese, the fort became a dreadful prison and intelligence center, where hundreds (possibly thousands) of Filipinos were sent for interrogation and detention in to the medieval dungeons below. During the war years, the mere mention of of being sent there was enough to make a suspected Allied collaborator wet his pants: the stories of sadistic torture, amputation, starvation and other brutal conditions were all true.

After its liberation during the Battle of Manila in 1945, the bodies of over 600 Filipinos civilians were found crammed on top of each other in the small stone dungeons, locked behind thick wooden, iron-framed doors. It was determined that they had either died of starvation and/or suffocation. Another horrible war crime that adds to the ghosts that must surely walk the grounds of Fort Santiago. God bless them.

Nephew Kong touches history.
Yet today, a typical unaware tourist would never suspect its bloody history. The Fort is now a national park and has been well renovated in recent years. The grounds have been landscaped into gardens; you will see Pinoy families having picnics there. The stone walls have (mostly) been repaired. Happy, plastic statues of historic figures (including American General MacArthur) recline in realistic poses on benches and light poles. A few of the former military barracks remain on the sides as picturesque ruins, with authentic World War Two bullet holes still in their walls. There is even a welcome center. 

But for those of you who want to feel Fort Santiago’s history, take my little tip: Walk all the way to the back, to the river’s edge. The stones get mossier and more broken. The vegetation gets wilder on the edge of the timeless Pasig River. You will see stone steps that lead into the dungeons. You won’t be able to go inside. You don’t need to. Just stand by the entrance silently and feel the humid heat and smell coming from below. There is nothing Disney-like about this experience- it is funky. It is 1590s, 1690s, 1790s, 1890s...

Now imagine spending an hour in that dungeon. A day. A week. A lifetime. Did a shiver just go up your spine? Good. Now you understand what history really is.

Click on photos to see larger size.


  1. Are you mostly in Philippines nowadays? How is Philippines or Manila compared to Jakarta? Which one is better? Maybe you should also write about these kind of places in Jakarta? Or do we actually have any historical site in Jakarta? I only see malls.... darn!

  2. Hi Santa. I am traveling the world now. Thanks for the idea: Manila vs Jakarta. I have enough observations to write an interesting comparison. As for sites in Jakarta, that may have to wait until I've written a book about it. Google Jakarta historical sites to see for yourself. Jakarta has lots of wonderful (but hidden) historical treasures. Cheers! John