If you’re in Manila, one of the best places to learn about the city’s rich history is at Intramuros, the old walled city which was once the seat of the Spanish empire in the Philippines. Dating back to the late 1500s, the fortified complex is home to many historical landmarks, such as the San Agustin Church (blog post here) and the Manila Cathedral. On my last visit, I missed an important place – Fort Santiago – so it was good that I got to stop by this time around.
Fort Santiago is located at the mouth of the Pasig River and was built by the Spanish as a defensive bulwark against invaders. It was named after Saint James the Great (Santiago in Spanish), the patron saint of Spain. The fort also acted as an important port for spice trade to the Americas and Europe for over three centuries.
Perhaps the most notable event in the fort’s history is it’s role as a prison for Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, who was housed here before his execution in 1896. Visitors to the fort will see a pair of bronze footprints embedded in the ground, leading from the interior out to the gate — said to retrace Rizal’s last footsteps.
Just before the fort is a park area with decorative pieces such as cannons and statues.
An abandoned building, the insides hollow and dark, stares mournfully at passers-by.
“Hey bud, gimme a hand?”
Panoramic shot of Fort Santiago, surrounded by a moat filled with water lilies.
The fort has a perimeter of 620m in a triangular form, while its walls are 6.7m high and 2.4m deep. Its most prominent structure, the gate, is 12m high on the south wall, facing the city. Inside are storehouses, a chapel, sentry towers and prison cells. In spite of its defenses, the fort was captured numerous times – by the British, Americans and the Japanese. During World War II, the Japanese used it as a dungeon for hundreds of prisoners, while 600 American POWs died from suffocation or hunger.
War is always a terrible thing, and yet people are bound to repeat the mistakes of history.
The front gate was partially destroyed during bombardment in WWII, but it has since been restored.
Original Spanish coat of arms.
Inside is a well kept lawn with smooth green grass and a figure of Jose Rizal in stone, holding a book.
Next to the lawn is the Rizal Shrine Museum, a replica of his ancestral home in Laguna. This was also the spot where the Spanish held him before his execution.
Jose Rizal is known the world over as a Filipino nationalist and hero. We even learn about him in Malaysian history books (in my day, not sure how it is now!). If there was a person who embodied the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, it would be Rizal.
Born to a wealthy family, he showed a precocious intellect from a young age, going on to study medicine in Spain and becoming an ophthalmologist. He was a polymath, one who is skilled in both arts and sciences. As a writer and poet, his work under the Filipino Propaganda Movement, which advocated political reforms for the colony under Spain, inspired an anti-colonial revolution. Although he had no part in the rebellion directly, his words lit a fire in the hearts of Filipinos to rise against their colonial masters and gain independence.
Sadly, as with many writers and activists today who dare to speak the truth, this led to his execution at the young age of just 35.
Within the museum, visitors will find Rizal’s memorabilia, including poetry pieces, letters he wrote family and friends, replicas of sculptures, paintings and more. (Above) Rizal’s last letter to his family, written in Spanish (the lingua franca of the Philippines at that time)
Letter in German to Rizal’s friend whom he befriended while studying in the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Rizal was well-versed in (it is claimed) a whopping 22 languages, including German, English, Spanish and Tagalog.
A painting depicting his execution.
This is personal opinion, but I think Jose Rizal is like a blazing star that comes only once in a century, the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci or Archimedes. Although he was defined by his political writings, it can’t be denied that Rizal was a genius – skilled in math, science and languages. Who knows what he could have achieved, had his light not been extinguished so soon?
Shells collected by Rizal during his self-imposed exile in Dapitan.
If you’re doing a round around Intramuros, be sure to pay Fort Santiago a visit! Entrance fee is about PHP75.