Fort Pilar: Bastion of Zamboanga’s Hispanic Catholic Heritage

Nov 24, 2014



Perhaps no other institution has played as big a role in shaping Zamboanga City’s Hispanic Catholic Heritage as Fort Pilar, and has made it the sole city in Asia that can rightfully lay claim to the moniker Latin City.


Started in 1635, it was built at the instance of Jesuit missionaries and Bishop Fray Pedro of Cebu to ward off Moro pirates. Originally called Real Fuerza de San Jose (Royal Fort of Saint Joseph), its cornerstone was laid by the Jesuit engineer Fray Melchor de Vera, on June 23, 1635 on orders of then Spanish Governor of the Philippines Juan Cerezo de Salamanca.


Fort Pilar 1900


This event marks the founding of Zamboanga as a city, heretofore known as Samboangan. However, subsequent events related to the construction of the fort have sealed its place in the Chavacano (or Chabacano, as other compoblanos insist) heritage of the city which it unique among similar local cultures in the Philippines and Asia.


First, because of the shortage of manpower for its construction, laborers from Cavite (including Kampampangans) and Iloilo (where they were also joined by some Cebuanos and Boholanos) had to be brought in to help the Spaniards and Mexicans. Historians have traced this event as the singular event from which the Zamboangue’s Chavacano originated.


Origin of Chavacano


Old Fort Pilar Shrine


In her book, Philippine Food and Life (c1992 by Anvil Publishing, Inc.) Gilda Cordero-Fernando traces the roots of the local Chavacano to Ternate, Cavite.


“The original kingdom of Ternate in the Moluccas – a small island with a volcano, and its twin island Tidor – were the most attractive of the Celebes, being rich in cloves so coveted by the Europeans. They were known as the Spice Islands. Moslem traders had a monopoly of the spice market in those islands, but there was always a tussle for control of it among the Spaniards, Dutch, English and Portuguese. At one point, to avoid persecution from the Moslems, 200 Malay Christians, already speaking a Portuguese-Malay patois in 1674, were evacuated to Manila from the original Ternate of the Moluccas (Kieth Whinnom, 1954).


The families were first settled in Ermita, outside Intramuros. But they were soon embroiled in endless quarrels with the Tagalogs, and so the community was bodily evacuated to Cavite – Tanza, San Roque (or Cavite Puerto) and the new Ternate. The Chabacano of Cavite City is, therefore, the direct descendant of the Moluccas Ternate speech.  The Spanish-Visayan Chabacano of Zamboanga, is an indirect descendant.”  (Gilda Cordero-Fernando, 1992).


Besides indirectly bringing about the birth of Chavacano, which sets Zamboanga apart as a truly unique Latin City in Asia, the fort also played key roles in ensuring the development of Zamboanga’s Hispanic Catholic heritage. By repulsing the Dutch (1646) Moros (1719) and the British (1798), it ensured that the Zamboanga would remain Spanish in culture and Catholic in religion to this day.


Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar Zaragoza


Renamed the Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza (Royal Fort of Our Lady of the Pillar of Zaragoza) in honor of the patron saint of Spain, Our Lady of the Pillar, it was also the venue of many Marian apparitions, most notably on December 6, 1734 when she appeared to a soldier and again on September 21, 1897 when she appeared over the Basilan Strait and saved the city from a tsunami following a strong earthquake.


However, even in those early times, award-winning Zamboangueño novelist Antonio F. Enriquez said the fort already played a key role in defending Zamboanga.


“In his book, Sailing the Sulu Sea: Belles and Bandits in the Philippines, Rear Admiral David Potter of the U.S. Navy’s Supply Corps relates how Zamboanga was already an important city in the eyes of the U.S. High Command in 1899 as the only other point besides Manila where the Philippines came in contact with the rest of the world,” Mr. Enriquez said.


“Through Basilan Strait, which separates Mindanao from the not inconsiderable island of Basilan twenty miles to the southward, British, German, French, and Japanese vessels passed in appreciable numbers. Whenever steamers from Hong Kong, Chefoo, Saigon, or Nagasaki visited Manila, and thence proceeded to Australia or New Zealand, to New Guinea or New Caledonia, they passed through Basilan Strait into the Moro Gulf and on into the Celebes Sea. All such vessels came within a mile of Zamboanga even if they did not stop there.” (Potter, 1940)


It was also during this time that Potter relates how despite a six-month blockade by the American gunboat Castine, Zamboangueño “insurgents” continued to defiantly fly their flag over Fort Pilar.


“And yet, by the time the gunboat Manila was ordered to lend a hand toward the advancement of American interest thereabouts, the flag of Filipino insurgents, commanded by “General” Vincente Alvarez, had flown defiantly over the town for six or seven months, and had flaunted in full sight of every passing steamer. The situation became a hissing and a wagging of the head! After six months of blockade, the town of Zamboanga remained as untaken as Troy at the end of the ninth year of siege.”


With the help of the gunboat Manila and Filipino allies led by Datu Mandi of Sakol and Malanipa and the “Mayor” Miedel of Tetuan, the US Naval forces eventually took Fort Pilar without suffering any casualties on November 16, 1899.


Last February 12-14, 2013, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of Kagay-anon journalists in the Zamboanga City-Cagayan de Oro Exchange Media Familiarization Tour. Our mission was to promote travel between the two cities which is now linked by a direct flight by Cebu Pacific Air three times a week (Tuesday,Thursday and Saturday). Certainly a big relief for travel weary commuters who used to have no choice but take the 12-hour bus ride!


Fort Pilar was on our itinerary on the first day, which focused on the tour of the Old Zamboanga including Plaza Rizal, Plaza Pershing, City Hall, the BPI Museum and Pettit Barracks. I’ve been living in Cagayan de Oro for the past 32 years and in the infrequent times I’ve returned to Zamboanga, I always seemed short of time to visit the Fort or even the shrine.


National Cultural Treasure


Close up of shrine


Fortunately, this time it was on our itinerary and it’s heartening to know it’s being restored to its former glory. Although recognized by Presidential Decree No. 269 as a National Cultural Treasure on August 1, 1973 by the late President Ferdinand Marcos, it was only during the early 1980s that restoration works were started by the National Museum of the Philippines.


As a regional branch of the National Museum, Fort Pilar’s exhibit of the Samal, Yakan and Subanen people’s culture is now undergoing a one-year renovation, as is the fort itself. Across the ramparts where Spanish cannon once stood guard against pirates and foreign invaders now stand the Paseo del Mar and the Zamboanga Convention Center, forever changing the magnificent view of the sea that visitors to the Fort once enjoyed.


The Marian Shrine remains one of the most visited religious shrines in the Philippines, with visitors reaching their apex during Our Lady’s Feast Day on October 12. Just last year, the long-lost crown of the miraculousNuestra Señora La Virgen del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar) which was missing for over 50 years, was found in a safe deposit box of the BPI main branch and properly restored to Zamboanga’s patroness during a mass held at Fort Pilar during the centennial celebration of the bank.





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