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The Early History of Chavacano de Zamboanga (1635 - 1718)

Researched and written by:®

June 23, 1635 should be symbolically known as “Dia del Chavacano de Zamboanga.” Why you might ask? This was the day that a permanent foothold was laid on Zamboanga by the Spanish government with the construction of the San José Fort, and the subsequent evolution and proliferation of a unique dialect based on ancient creole Spanish that is called Chavacano de Zamboanga. This is our history, this is our culture...

Let us begin the account by saying that as a result of continued Moro Pirate attacks on the Spanish controlled Visayas and Luzon Islands, a lingering plan to take possession of the strategic Mindanao peninsula and its town of Jambangan in the center of Moroland would be finally commenced at the urging of Bishop Fray Pedro of "Santissimo Nombre de Jesus" (Cebu) to the interim Governor-General of the Philippines, Don Juan Cerezo de Salamanca.1 Governor Salamanca resolved to take possession of this strategic peninsula, hoping in this manner to strike a heavy blow on to the Moro power. A fortress in Jambangan would command the Basilan Straight, the waters of which was the ordinary course of the Moro Pirate vessels infesting the coasts of the Visayas. Salamanca hoped to divide the unbroken front between the Sultans of Sulu and Mindanao, and his efforts would prove successful.2

After due preparation for their voyage, a conquering force of 300 well armed Spaniards from Luzon Island and 1,000 Cebuanos with a few of their Jesuit priests from the Visayan Islands under the command of Captain Juan de Chaves landed at Jambangan on April 6, 1635. There, de Chaves temporarily founded the town of Bagumbayan, which was the first Spanish-given name for Jambangan, and from this station he soon attacked and cleared the town of Recodo in Caldera Bay, and eventually the rest of the Jambangan peninsula, of Moro Pirates. Their two-month long campaign would provide them a temporary relief from the Moro Pirates and allow them to start construction on the fort. Upon careful choice of locating the fort at the southern-most tip of the peninsula for its military vantage point, the foundation of the grand fortress of Fuerza de San José was laid by Father Melchor de Vera, a Jesuit priest and engineer for the Spanish army, on June 23, 1635, establishing a permanent Spanish presence here brick-by-brick.2

Before we proceed with the happenings after they laid the foundation for the fort, we will take you back just a little farther to the time of their preparation for the voyage enroute to Jambangan. We will present to you a short chronological scenario of how the events that transpired resulted in the creation of a new Chavacano dialect. There were three (3) principal groups of people who made up the trip to Jambangan, and they are itemized below in their manner of contribution to the creation of a new dialect in Zamboanga.

The representatives listed below were the primary contributors, and consequently became the founding fathers of the "Chavacano de Zamboanga" (CDZ). We will group them in the following order:

1. The Cebuanos

They were indigenous people mostly from the island of Cebu who numbered about one thousand (1,000), according to historical accounts2, and tasked mainly as laborers in building the fort for the Spaniards. History however never gave due diligence to the importance or makeup of these numerous Cebuanos, and thus we hereby present that they would be consisted of the best warriors and craftsmen that the Christianized "Datu" of Cebu could recruit for this mission, in coordination with the Bishop of Cebu and Governor Salamanca. It was evident to us that because of his dwindled resources from constant Moro Pirate attack, and especially worst the year previous, the Datu of Cebu alone could not muster the type of force needed for the Jambangan attack. Foremost as a military mission, the Datu of Cebu may have strategically called upon his other Datu friends of the neighboring Visayan Islands to help contribute some of their best warriors and craftsmen towards a united front against their arch enemies, presenting a formidable Visayan force. Historically, the valiant warriors of Bohol Island, located about twenty-five (25) kilometers east of Cebu Island, were known to be victorious against Moro Pirate attacks on their island when others failed, and were likely to be part of the Visayan contingent.3

The Visayans were all too familiar with the numerous and incessant atrocities the Moro Pirates inflicted upon their people during the past century, and were not about to let this opportunity to deliver vengeance fail them. It must be remembered that the primary focus of the voyage to Jambangan was military conquest. These chosen Visayan warriors will initially help the well-armed Spanish soldiers in eliminating the Moro Pirate stronghold upon arrival in Jambangan, and later on when the fort construction is initiated. Everyone was cognizant of the battle prowess of the Moro Pirates, and will not let this mission fail. Other accounts of a much smaller Visayan invasion force would have met their match against the Moro Pirates, and would not have been successful in their mission, making the larger number more viable.

The Cebuanos will inevitably take with them their primary language called Bisaya and their long-standing Spanish creole dialect we will refer to as Visayan Chavacano (VC). We reason that Cebu was the first island to be established by Spain under Miguel Lopez de Legaspi on April 27, 1565, and as a result the locals there have already been Christianized and schooled by the Spanish priests in the resultant VC, for the past sixty (60) years. VC was the common dialect that the Cebuanos and the Jesuit priests took with them to Zamboanga, along with their respective native tongues - Visayan and Spanish.

Although there is no trace of the Visayan Chavacano, it does not preclude its past existence. Since the Visayan language is the predominantly spoken language in the Philippines today (over fifteen million), it is our conclusion that the VC was absorbed very early on into the native Bisaya before or after the Spanish influence waned.

It is a known fact that anytime you combine two different types of people and their foreign languages, the prolonged evolutionary result will be an emergence of a cross-language (creole is the term linguists use to describe it today) that will be used to communicate between each other, and will eventually rise up to be the main language of both groups of people if everything between them are equal. Therefore, we consider VC to be the oldest form of Chavacano or Chabacano (another terminology used to describe the end result of a convergence of any language with Spanish) in the Philippines.

2. The Jesuit Priests, Order of the Society of Jesus

Along with the Cebuanos came just a "few" of their island's Jesuit priests who were "entrusted" by Bishop Fray Pedro of Cebu to do the religious conversion of the natives in "Samboanga," and provide religious guidance to the Spanish troops and their Cebuano people.5 Surprisingly, historical accounts also show that the Jesuits did go to battle with the soldiers. We present that they also acted as translators between the Spanish soldiers and the Visayan warriors. The most recent common dialect they had experience with was the VC, and it would be their logical choice as a precursor to the creation of the CDZ. Eventually, after laying the groundwork for the type of communication they will use with their new subjects in Zamboanga, we conclude that the Jesuits would subsequently teach everyone else how to communicate with each other in the best logical way they can devise - the Chavacano de Zamboanga.

The Jesuits are historically known to be one of the most educated and diversely trained missionaries in the world, and are credited for saving the Roman Catholic Religion from its early demise in assuming a prominent role in the Counter-Reformation defense and revival of Catholicism, with Saint Ignacius of Loyola as their spiritual leader and founder. Their legendary emphasis on education and missionary work instilled in them tremendous knowledge of language and effective education, as many Jesuit school graduates can attest today, and was also relied upon by the Bishop of Cebu. The Jesuits' rapid growths numbered them to be over 15,000 by early 1600, and were working throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World. It is therefore our conclusion that the Jesuits have mastered the many local languages as a result of their above skills, and in return taught their subjects the King's Spanish, and/or the simpler Chavacano dialect.

In 1595, the Society of Jesus founded a grammar school in Cebu that was later named "Colegio de San Ildefonso" in 1606, and which today is called the University of San Carlos.6 This much needed school allowed the Jesuits to educate the Cebuanos in many lessons, including Latin.3 The early emphasis on education by the Spanish missionaries only strengthens our reasoning that contrary to popular theories, there existed many various forms of creole Spanish/Chavacano around the Philippine Islands used by the various Catholic priests to educate and communicate with their already literate Filipino subjects. Majority of the Cebuanos who went to Jambangan would have been, or will be, well educated by the Jesuits, and adapted to reading and writing.

The first Jesuits to arrive with the conquering force were Father Alejandro Lopez and Father Melchor de Vera7, who was degreed as an engineer/architect and the premiere builder of some of the most historic forts around the islands for the Spanish army. We hereby submit that Father de Vera spent valuable time training his crew of Cebuano craftsmen in fort building skills before they made the journey to Jambangan from Cebu, and consequently did not recruit any "skilled" fort builders from Manila, as other theories would want us to believe. Father de Vera came prepared to build a mighty fort, and his people were properly trained to deliver it.

The numerous Jesuits, numbered around forty (40), later recruited by the Bishop of Cebu to help establish Zamboanga and the neighboring areas would mean that they became the key to the proliferation of the CDZ, and we contend that they could methodically be considered its "creator."

3. The "Castilian" Soldiers

The armada of Spanish ships bound for Jambangan via the island of Cebu would carry these well-armed Castilian soldiers numbered around three hundred (300), according to historical accounts, with plenty of room to spare for their one thousand (1,000) Cebuano warriors and craftsmen, and a few Jesuit priests. As conquerors, their aristocratic and superiority tendencies will place them in charge of the mission and will influence the CDZ to be heavily based on ancient Castilian Spanish, as the case is today. Their position in the Zamboanga hierarchy will dictate that the locals learn more of their dominant Spanish language in order to understand them, and a little less of the opposite for them, leaving the Jesuits to fill in the rest.

The influx of Spanish soldiers into the newly built San José Fort will be increased as the victorious Governor Corcuera took personal command of the Zamboanga campaign and declare a "Holy War against the Mohammedans" in 1637.2 As author Vic Hurley sums up:

"In all the history of the Spanish conquest, these two names stand out to eclipse all others. Corcuera and Arolas, the first in 1635 and the second in 1885, were the only two Spaniards to command the whole-hearted respect of the Moros. They were fighting men of the first caliber and equal to the best traditions of the conquistadores."2

The effect of this concerted Zamboanga campaign would bring forth the heavy influence of ancient Castilian Spanish into the vernacular of the early CDZ as hundreds of additional Spanish soldiers will arrive and be based here, and the influx will continue for many years to come. Contrary to other linguistic theories, we conclude that there were no other forms of Chavacano that would influence the CDZ at this time period because the soldiers from Luzon were pure Castilian (Spanish) and that any form of Chavacano they knew from their exposure to natives of Luzon would not be transferable or applicable to their new co-habitants from the Visayan Islands and Jambangan, who themselves spoke totally different languages than the natives of Luzon Island. Consequently, the only intelligible language they could use to communicate with the Cebuanos would initially be their native Spanish, and later the CDZ. It must be noted that during the early stages of the Zamboanga occupation, life of the Spanish troops, the Jesuit priests, and their Cebuano warriors were mostly centered inside the guarded walls of the fort, providing an environment conducive to the growth of the CDZ. We therefore conclude that the early CDZ will subsequently become an independently created Chavacano dialect.

As far as we can gather, the number of Spanish soldiers who influenced the CDZ can be traced to the following countries of origin or recruitment/reinforcement, but may not necessarily be natives of those countries (IMPORTANT NOTE: Regardless of where these soldiers came from, the only language contribution they brought with them into Zamboanga during this time frame would be Spanish):

A.) Spain - The original source of almost everything, including the Castilian Spanish.
B.) Nueva España (Mexico) - The Viceroy of which The Philippines was under, and main trade partner of the Manila Galleons. Numerous reinforcements for the Philippines will come from here, but may originate from elsewhere.
C.) Peru - They arrived in June 25, 1635, via Acapulco, Nueva España, along with the new Philippine Governor Don Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera. Their possible involvement will have to be placed post-settlement of Zamboanga, during the time Governor Corcuera personally commanded the "holy war" against the Moro Pirates.

In an effort to isolate a reference term for the three groups of people mentioned above (1,2, & 3), we will call them the Zamboanga Conquistadores or ZC for short. The ZC first got acquainted with each other on board the Spanish war ships enroute to invading Jambangan. During their maiden voyage, the Jesuit priests would become the de facto translators between the Castilian soldiers and their Cebuano people when needed.

It is logical to conclude that this first meeting amongst the ZC was not all that difficult language-wise, and their communication was more rudimentary than difficult, thanks to the VC. The Visayans who spoke VC would logically try their best to help the other Visayan warriors, who did not speak it, understand the Spanish language, if the Jesuits were not around to help.

The secondary contributors to the CDZ will be grouped in the following order:
4. The Subanons of Jambangan
The second wave of language infusion to the CDZ would come from the founding fathers of Jambangan - the resident Subanons who numbered in the "thousands." The Muslims' attempt to convert the Subanons to their Islamic religion was met with fierce resistance, and would never take root in their society. On the other hand, the Christian precepts of the Jesuits' preaching would find in them some form of acceptance, and provide the Jesuits an eventual ally in their religious conversion of Zamboanga. They would also be hired as additional laborers for the construction of the fort. Their intermingling with the primary contributors would help infuse their language into the CDZ, and more so later on when the colonizing of Zamboanga will continue.
5. The Yakans of Basilan
The third wave of language infusion to the CDZ would come from the Yakans, when the Jesuits commenced their conversion of the Basilan Island nearby, a year or so after they arrived in Zamboanga. The early contact made with them by the Jesuits will make their contribution to CDZ a collective part of the whole evolution of early CDZ.

The Subanons of Zamboanga and the Yakans of Basilan have been trading and socializing with each other for hundreds of years, and their contribution to the CDZ is still evident today with the presence of many words from their language.

We shall then combine and call the result of the aforementioned five groups of language contributors the "Early Chavacano de Zamboanga" (ECDZ), and will call these peoples the new "Chavacanos." The ECDZ lasted for over eighty-three years (83), until a new wave of language infusion was brought in when the San José Fort was retaken and rebuilt in 1718.

Governor Sabiniano Manrique de Lara signed a decree on May 6, 1662 ordering the military evacuation of the fort in Zamboanga, and of other Spanish colonies, including that of Ternate in the spice islands of the Moluccas. The Spanish garrisons returned to defend Manila from a threatened invasion by Chinese pirate Koxinga, which never happened. The Zamboanga fort was finally abandoned sometime in 1663 by the last remaining Spanish troops.

After the first twenty-seven (27) years (1635-1662) of colonizing Zamboanga and the surrounding areas, and spreading the ECDZ to many towns and people, the Jesuits and the other Chavacanos, who were both already numerous and influential by this time, will be left behind to tend to the religious and governing affairs and try to "hold the fort down" until the troops returned. The troops however would not return.

As fate will have it, the ECDZ and the Chavacanos, Jesuits included, will amazingly endure another fifty-six (56) years (1662-1718) of isolated existence and proliferation amidst the hostile threat and return of the Moro Pirates who overtook and destroyed the abandoned fort. The Chavacanos were by this time already living within the confines of Zamboanga and its people. Curiously, there will exist a fragile cessation of hostilities between the Moro Pirates and the Spanish troops during this time period, with none wanting to irritate the other for retaliatory reasons. The Moro Pirates would somehow turn against each other and continue their fighting ways. Although Koxinga died about a year after his veiled threat to invade Manila, which caused the recall of Spanish troops to defend it, there was no formal reason given as to why the Spanish government refrained from returning their troops to Zamboanga. The year 1718 will change it all.


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