HomeThe Journal of Historyvol. 65 no. 1 (2019)

Spies, Informers, and Castaways: How the Spanish Invaders Knew about the Philippines

John N. Crossley



In their first endeavors to colonize the Philippines the Spaniards needed local knowledge. It is true they had maps, most of them not very detailed. Sources of information were vital – but that information had to be in a language they could understand. Even Magellan had an interpreter when he “discovered” the Philippines in 1521. When Legazpi came to settle the islands in 1565, he used a number of different people as interpreters and guides. However, being a go-between could be highly dangerous, even deadly. From accounts in the Lilly Historia manuscript from about 1600 it is possible to supplement what is in the standard sources. I give an account of the roles of a number of interpreters and other informers in the Spanish period up to 1600. We know the names of a handful of them, such as Cabocotan, though the Spaniards usually only noted names of chiefs. Surprisingly, despite the Spaniards’ intolerance of Muslims, some were not just employed; they even had good relations with the invaders. I also provide more information about Juanes, a Mexican castaway on Samar from the Villalobos expedition, who promised to be very valuable but turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment at first. Of course, the Spaniards also had their own spies, for example Brother Gaspar Gómez, a Jesuit lay brother who was sent to spy on Maluku. As now, information is power.