Philippines history and timeline

An intricate tapestry of the Philippines' rich heritage, ancient migrations, and colonial clashes have woven a narrative spanning millennia. From the arrival of Negritos over 25,000 years ago to the footprints of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, each thread contributes to the diverse cultural fabric of the archipelago. Join us as we uncover the layers of this fascinating history, exploring the pivotal moments and colorful personalities that have shaped the Philippines' unique identity.

Early times

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Negritos, a broad term for indigenous people of dark complexions, reached the Philippines around 25,000 years ago by a land bridge from the Asian mainland. Waves of Indonesians were followed by sea from 3,000 BC, and Malays got a firm foothold around 200 BC, followed in later centuries by waves of Chinese settlers. 

Most of today’s Filipinos have grown out of intermarriages between indigenous and Malay people. Modern Filipino culture, including language and cuisine, was heavily influenced by the Malays, who also introduced arts, literature, and a system of government.

A few centuries before the Spanish reached the Philippines in the 16th century, Filipinos involved in trade had also met Arabs and Hindus from India, while the expanding Chinese population wielded considerable commercial power. Islam entered the Philippines via Borneo in the late 14th century.

Church Ruins in Camiguin, Philippines © Shutterstock

Church Ruins in Camiguin, Philippines © Shutterstock

The colonial era

The Spanish first arrived in 1521, but did not gain control for several decades. Bands of conquistadors, newly arrived from Mexico, fanned out from Intramuros to conquer Luzon and the Visayas in the 1570s. They met ineffectual opposition, and soon entrenched themselves as lords of great estates worked by the Filipinos. The friars who accompanied them rapidly converted the population, building churches, schools, roads, and bridges, while accumulating vast land holdings for the Catholic Church.


Centuries later, the Philippines were moving towards independence, with charismatic nationalist leaders including Jose Rizal, executed in 1896. Yet after the defeat of Spain in the war over Cuba, the Philippines were ceded to the USA. The Americans, defining their role as one of trusteeship and tutelage, promoted rapid political, economic, and social development. Then World War II saw the Japanese invade, and a brutal conflict ensued. Independence was finally achieved in 1946.


San Agustin Church, Manila, Philippines @ Shutterstock

The Arrival of the Spanish

The Philippines' recorded history began half a world away in a small, dusty town in southwestern Spain. The Treaty of Tordesillas was inked in 1494, dividing between Spain and Portugal the yet-unexplored world. Everything to the east of a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic belonged to Portugal and everything west was Spain’s.

The Portuguese set off to navigate Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in search of the riches of the Spice Islands, while the Spanish headed across the vast Pacific. The captain of Spain’s search was a Portuguese who had taken up the flag of Castile and the Spanish name Hernando de Magallanes; to the English-speaking world, he is Ferdinand Magellan.

First contact

Magellan took 109 days to cross the Pacific Ocean but missed every island in the vast body of water, save the tiny atoll of Poka Puka and Guam. In 1521, he made landfall on the island of Homonhon, off the southern tip of Samar in the Philippines. Calling the new lands Lazarus, after the saint’s day on which he first sighted them, Magellan sailed on through the Gulf of Leyte to Limasawa island. There he celebrated the first mass in Philippines’ history.

Six weeks later, Magellan was dead. He had sailed to the island of Cebu, where he Christianized the local rajah (king) and his followers. However, a chieftain of Mactan – the island where Cebu’s international airport now sits – rebelled against the Rajah of Cebu and his foreign guests. Chieftain Lapu Lapu and his 2,000 men defended their island against 48 armor-clad Spaniards in April 1521. A white obelisk today marks the spot where Magellan was slain.

Kayangan Lake in Coron Island, Philippines © Shutterstock

Kayangan Lake in Coron Island, Philippines © Shutterstock

Gaining control

It was not until 1565 that Spain, under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, gained a foothold in Cebu. Over the next few years, the Spanish pushed northward, defeating Muslim chieftain Sulayman and taking over his fortress of Maynilad, facing what is now Manila Bay. Here, in 1571, Legazpi built the Spanish walled city of Intramuros.

Bands of conquistadors, newly arrived from Mexico, fanned out from Intramuros to conquer Luzon and the Visayas. They met ineffectual opposition, and soon entrenched themselves as lords of great estates worked by the natives, called indios, in the manner as applied to Mexican “Indians.” The friars who accompanied them rapidly converted the population, building churches, schools, roads, and bridges, while accumulating vast land holdings for the Catholic Church.

Jose Rizal

No self-respecting town in the country is without a statue of the man, or does not have a major street named after him. Reverence for thinker Dr Jose Rizal, who died a martyr at age 35 in the last years of Spanish rule, has spanned a century and spread to foreign lands.

Born on June 19, 1861, in the town of Calamba in Laguna Province, Rizal was to live a short but eventful life till 1896. He had initially studied ophthalmology to cure his mother’s eye condition; he was also a physician, naturalist, botanist, engineer, linguist, sculptor, musician, composer, poet, dramatist, novelist, reformist, thinker, and writer.

Rizal’s two novels – Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Filibusterer) – were written and published in Europe at the time he led a movement for political reforms. The novels were deemed incendiary by powerful friars.

He was exiled to Dapitan, Mindanao, for four years after returning from Europe. There he set up a school, fixed up the waterworks, and wrote music. He also won the heart of Josephine Bracken, an Irish woman who had accompanied her foster father to his eye operation. Their brief seaside romance was marred only by a stillborn son.

Maria Cristina Falls, Iligan, Mindanao, Philippines © Shutterstock

Maria Cristina Falls, Iligan, Mindanao, Philippines © Shutterstock

Exile and imprisonment

Emissaries from Andres Bonifacio’s Katipunan, which favored armed struggle, offered to help Rizal escape so he could return to Manila to lead the revolution. Instead, the writer who advocated non-violence volunteered to serve as a doctor for the war in Cuba. But when his ship docked at the first port on the way to the Americas, a telegram came, ordering his return to Manila.

He was placed under arrest on the grounds of complicity in the revolution, and a quick trial sentenced him to death by musketry. In his cell in Fort Santiago, Rizal composed a long poem in Spanish, Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell). He concealed it inside an oil lamp, which he handed to his sisters on the eve of his execution.

He walked calmly to his death at dawn on December 30, 1896, to a field by Manila Bay called Bagumbayan, later renamed Luneta for its crescent shape. Rizal protested against having to be shot in the back, for he was no traitor. As the shots rang out, he attempted to twist his body to face the rising sun at the moment of death. His last words were “Consummatum est” (“It is finished”).

His martyrdom set the country aflame. A revolution broke out, and soon Asia had its first independent republic, cut short by the Americans’ entry into the Pacific. The new colonial power recognized Rizal as a national hero.

Tributes worldwide

On the centennial of his death, a monument to Rizal was unveiled in Madrid, the capital of the colonial government that had executed him by firing squad. Rizal busts or markers can be found on a plaza in Heidelberg, Germany, at a residential building in London, in cities across the United States where Filipino American communities have strong representation, and in Latin America.

An international conference on Rizal in 1997 took place in Jakarta to give tribute to a man described by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim as “the pride of the Malay race,” a reference to the historical ethnic origins of many Filipinos. 

National Museum of Anthropology in Rizal Park - Manila © Shutterstock

National Museum of Anthropology in Rizal Park - Manila © Shutterstock

Imelda Marcos

Imelda Marcos threw two parties when she turned 70 on June 2, 1999. The first was in Rizal Park, attended by the usual motley gathering of so-called Marcos loyalists. The second celebration involved 1,000 bejeweled guests at a sit-down dinner at Manila Hotel. Madame showed up with a ruby-and-diamond tiara, necklace and bracelets. Together, the parties show a continuing loyalty to her embattled late husband and a focus on personal wealth that still wows the world.

The woman born in 1929 and dubbed one half of a "Conjugal Dictatorship" fled with the ex-president to Hawaii in 1986 amid popular discontent over his iron grip, but returned after Ferdinand Marcos died in 1989.

A continuing saga of the recovery of the fabled Marcos billions unfolds sporadically, destroying the reputation of government lawyers. Ten thousand Filipino human rights victims who filed a class action suit in a Honolulu court were awarded a legal victory, but must contend with the Philippine government over the division of the token amounts recovered. Compromise solutions are ever in the works.

An enigma

Imelda confuses all, both enemies and protectors. One day, she laments her family’s reliance on the kindness of strangers; the next, she boasts that they practically own the entire country. All are public statements, as she thrives in the media limelight.

Her only consistency is that she stands by her man. Imelda regularly pulls out a handkerchief and wipes a corner of her eye, while insisting that Ferdinand Marcos was not just a brilliant hero, but a practical man who built his wealth before he turned dictator.

Born to poor relations of the landed Romualdez clan of Leyte province in the Visayas, she never forgot or forgave her early station in life. She won a beauty contest and, as Miss Manila, was swept off her feet by the dashing Marcos in a whirlwind seven-day courtship. As a partner, she enhanced Marcos’s political campaigns, singing onstage and providing glamor, or as how she describes herself, “the heart that gave the poor a glimpse of beauty.”

As Ferdinand Marcos consolidated power, Imelda became Metro Manila Governor and Minister of Human Settlements. Her love of the grand gesture prompted the building of cultural and film centers to showcase “the good, the true and the beautiful.” In 2004, the documentary film Imelda swept international film festivals. Imelda, despite having participated in its making, attempted to have its screening blocked in Philippine cinemas. The documentary was shown anyway.

Congresswoman at 81

In 2010 the 81-year-old former first lady won a congressional seat representing a part of her late husband’s native Ilocos Norte province.

In another comeback sign, ex-president Macapagal-Arroyo stopped the auction of jewelry collections confiscated from Imelda as she protested the sale of treasures worth an estimated P15 million. But Imelda Marcos is still known the world over for having owned 3,000 pairs of shoes, a testament to her glamorous tastes. 

Minor Basilica Saint Lorenzo Ruiz Manila © Richie Chan/Shutterstock

Minor Basilica Saint Lorenzo Ruiz Manila © Richie Chan/Shutterstock

Philippines historical timeline

  • c.40,000 BC - Migrants cross land bridge from Asian mainland and settle in the archipelago.
  • AD 900 - Chinese establish coastal trading posts over the next 300 years.
  • late 14th century - Muslim clergy start to bring Islam to the Philippines from Indonesia and Malaya.
  • 1521 - Explorer Ferdinand Magellan lands on Cebu and claims the region for Spain. Lapu Lapu (Rajah Cilapulapu), in defending his island of Mactan, slays Magellan.
  • 1543 - Next Spanish expedition led by Ruy de Villalobos lands in Mindanao. He names the archipelago “Filipinas,” after Crown Prince Felipe II.
  • 1872 - Uprising in Cavite, south of Manila. Spain executes Filipino priests Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez, and Jacinto Zamora, martyrs to the cause of nationalism.
  • 1892 - Jose Rizal founds La Liga Filipina, is arrested and exiled to Dapitan, Mindanao. Andres Bonifacio founds the Katipunan with aim to revolt.
  • 1896 - Spanish colonists imprison and kill hundreds of Filipinos in Manila. Bonifacio and the Katipunan launch the Philippine revolution. Rizal is executed.
  • 1898 - The United States defeats Spain in war. Treaty between the United States and Spain grants the US authority over the Philippines.
  • 1941 - 42 - Japanese land on Luzon, overrun Manila. Roosevelt rejects Philippine neutrality. 
  • 1944 - MacArthur and Osmeña land in Leyte and begin the Allied effort to retake the archipelago.
  • 1945 - Allies recapture Manila, which is subject to intense bombardment. Much of the city is destroyed.
  • 1946 - On July 4, the Philippines is granted independence. 
  • 1972–81 - Martial law imposed. President Marcos accumulates a vast fortune. His wife, Imelda, dominates Manila government.
  • 1984 - “Parliament of the street” holds frequent anti-Marcos demonstrations. Spiraling economic crises.
  • 1986 - Violence escalates before elections, at least 30 are killed on election day. Election rigging enrages Filipinos and millions join in uprising against Marcos regime. On February 26, Marcoses flee. Corazon Aquino elected to presidency. New constitution drafted. 
  • 1991 - Dramatic eruption of Mt Pinatubo. Americans pack up and leave the Philippines.
  • 1992 - Fidel Ramos, Aquino’s defense secretary and a strong ally who backed her during coup attempts, wins presidential election. His pragmatic leadership defies traditional perceptions of inept Filipino government. Foreign investors return.
  • 2002 - US military joins the Philippines in large-scale exercises in the southern Philippines to rescue kidnapped American tourists.
  • 2010 - Benigno Aquino III, son of former president Corazon Aquino, wins the presidential race; a year later his government holds landmark talks with Muslim rebels.
  • 2012 - China and the Philippines clash over Scarborough Shoal in the contested South China Sea, seeding a high-level diplomatic dispute. Breakthrough ceasefire and agreement in the long-running dispute with separatists in the south. 
Olga Sitnitsa

written by
Olga Sitnitsa

updated 13.12.2023

Online editor at Rough Guides, specialising in travel content. Passionate about creating compelling stories and inspiring others to explore the world.

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