Iloilo City's historic journey to urbanization (1500s -1900s).

Modern day Iloilo City was built at the estuary of Iloilo River, resembling a nose-shaped islet surrounded by mangroves that were covered by water during high tides. These marshlands, especially the southwest bank of the river, were later filled in and reclaimed.  
From a Mangrove Swamp to a Promising River Port
Iloilo's geographical feature and strategic location are significant factors towards its eventual urbanisation in the 19th century. Its strategic location is accorded by its river mouth facing a narrow strait protected by the islands of Guimaras from monsoon winds, typhoons and tsunamis.  It's strategic location  as an inter-island port with natural harbor gave impetus to the town's urbanisation. The flourishing of the handicraft weaving industry, the opening of the Port of Iloilo in 1855 and the boom in the sugar industry in Western Visayas were the catalysts in the development of the town of Iloilo as an urban center.

Iloilo's transformation from a fishing village to an urban center began with the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century.In 1566, the Spaniards under the leadership of Miguel de Legazpi came to Panay and established the first colonial outpost in Oton in 1572. Later, the seat of power was moved to Arevalo in 1581.

Present day Iloilo City only gained prominence after the town of Arevalo was razed to  the ground by the Dutch attack in 1614 and the subsequent  British incursions in Panay in 1700s - pillaging Arevalo and destroying its galleons.  It prompted the governor-general to transfer the seat of power from Arevalo to the town of Iloilo which was then a mere suburb of Jaro.  The seat of government was built in the area known as "La Punta" .  In 1602, a mini fortress was built to serve as a barracks for the two companies of civil guards who would defend Iloilo from the possible Dutch, British and Moro attacks.  This structure was replaced  by a solid fort, Fort San Pedro, in 1616.
Development of Commercial Weaving Industry and the First Urban Concentration (1750-1854)
By  the mid-18th century. southeastern Panay's agricultural plain, including the town of Iloilo,  underwent transition from subsistence farming economy to commercial textile production.  This phenomenon left a mark on the morphology and demography of the six towns which later comprised the urban area - the first urban concentration in Western Visayas.  Financed and managed by urban commercial elite or mestizos, mostly of mixed Filipino-Chinese parentage, a big  number of women weavers crowded into small factories located in sub-urban residences of Molo, Arevalo and Jaro. By the 19th century, textile production of Iloilo had already reached a remarkable degree of development that it was referred to as the "textile center of the Philippines."

Financed and managed by urban commercial elite or mestizos, mostly of mixed Filipino-Chinese parentage, a big number of women weavers crowded into small factories located in sub-urban residences of Molo, Arevalo and Jaro.

Opening of the Port of Iloilo in 1855
The opening of the Port of Iloilo to foreign trade and international shipping in 1855 gave rise to export economy that served as the backbone of Iloilo's unprecedented progress in the 19th century.  This resulted to structural transformations that changed the landscape of six urban textile centers from proto-industrial towns to network arteries of port trade.

In 1859, Sir John Bowring, British Governor of Hongkong, visited the Philippines. According to him, "Of the three ports lately opened to foreign commerce, Iloilo is the most promising".

Iloilo's prosperity and development in the 19th century was brought about by the boom in the sugar industry. The commercial cultivation of sugar cane began with the arrival of Nicholas Loney in 1856 who served as the first British vice-consul in Iloilo.

From a proto-industrial and manufacturing town, Iloilo became an international port city specializing and catering to the growing sugar trade. Its phenomenal urban metamorphosis brought the core of economic activities from textile centers to the waterfront.

With the expansion of the sugar export trade and the rising vitality of international shipping, Iloilo became an economic enclave for foreign merchants and traders.This sub-urban conglomeration led to the establishment of Board of Trade, consular offices and merchant houses.

The first-Anglo-Chinese commercial enclave that emerged as a result of the booming sugar trade was Calle Real (J.M. Basa Street today). Located in this street was the first department store in the Philippines to introduce fixed price policy - the Hoskyn's which was established in 1877. Notable specialty shops, Chinese retail stores and local hotels and restaurants also lined the street.
The brisk trade and commercial activities, the expansion of the town brought primarily by its opening to the world trade, and the growth of the sugar industry, ushered Iloilo's transformation of becoming the "Queen City of the South" in the closing decades of the 19th century.On October 5, 1889, the Queen Regent of Spain raised Iloilo to the status of a city.  The formal inauguration, however, took place four years later.

Iloilo's phenomenal metamorphosis into a commercial center in the last decade of the 19th century, made its port experience heavy traffic of people and goods.

Linking the waterfront with the heart of the city was Calle Progreso. It served as a brokerage center, the site of the city's banks and commercial offices and some of the most expensive residential commercial real estates.

The extent of Calle Progreso ended up on a public square known locally as Plaza Alfonso XII (Plaza Libertad).

From Plaza Alfonso XII, Calle Real was the site of diverse European, Chinese and American retail stores as well as firms dealing in maritime and life insurance. The whole length of Calle Real was the busiest section of the city.

At the extreme end of Calle Real was the Casa Real or Government Royal House, built of wood and stone. It was built in 1869 during the incumbency of Spanish governor Manuel Iznart.

Iznart Street in 1895.

Plaza Libertad was formerly called Plaza Alfonso XII. Iloilo became the last capital of the Spanish colonial government in the Philippines after they have capitulated Manila to the Americans. In Dec. 1898, however, Governor General Diego de los Rios under the pressure from revolutionary forces evacuated the city and sailed to Zamboanga. In the morning of Dec. 25, 1898, the Ilonggo revolutionaries staged a triumphal entry from Jaro to Plaza Libertad.

A view from one of the main streets of Jaro in 1909. Under the Americans, Iloilo lost its city status and was reverted to just a town. Molo and Mandurriao were also separated from it and became independent towns. However, Iloilo retained its prominence as the prime urban enclave outside Manila. Its commercial activity especially the expansion of sugar industry and the prosperity that accompanied it continued unabated during the American regime.

Credits: Story


Center for West Visayan Studies Collection
Joyce Christine D. Colon
Jorge S. Ebay
Jo Amadeo Tarossa


Funtecha, Henry, 2004. Pasana-aw, Vignettes on Bisayan History and Culture, Vol. 1., Iloilo: University of San Agustin.

Madrid, Randy, 2003. Urban Landscape, Structural Transformation and Other Developmental Concerns in Iloilo City from the 19th century to the present, Iloilo: UP CIDS Diliman.

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