The fort traces its origins to the efforts of the Jesuits who petitioned Gov. Gen. Juan Cerezo de Salamanca to establish a fortification at Zamboanga because of the threat from the Muslim communities in the area, which made evangelization difficult. The governor established a special tribute called “la ganta de Zamboanga,” because a ganta of rice was collected to finance the construction of the fortification.
The first stone fortification of Zamboanga is the work of the Jesuit Melchor de Vera. De Vera, who had knowledge of military architecture, was earlier assigned to the Jesuit mission of Carigara in Leyte. In Leyte, after a devastating raid and the revolt of Bangkaw, he broached the idea to his confreres to fortify the island. Around 1630, he began fortifying the missions on the island.
Toward the end of March 1633, the central government send a contingent to Zamboanga. We might surmise that this force built field fortifications to secure itself and establish a safe perimeter. Two years later (16 April 1635), a military contingent consisting of 1000 Visayans and 300 Spaniards arrived in Zamboanga to augment the forces sent earlier. Under the command of Juan de Chaves, the expedition left Cebu for Zamboanga with the express orders to establish a fort. De Vera arrived with the expedition in Zamboanga, as de facto military engineer. De Vera brought his experience in the Leyte missions to Zamboanga when he planned a fort. Its first stone was laid on 23 June 1635. Once completed, the quadrilateral bastioned fort was named in honor of San José.
From the very start, construction was met with serious objections by those who questioned its utility and the cost of sustaining a military contingent in a place far away from Manila. Gov. Hurtado de Corcuera who succeeded Cerezo ordered a full report on the fort. The council reported that they could not find the proper documents authorizing the construction either from the time of Cerezo or of Távora his predecessor. The question turned academic when Corcuera occupied the Zamboanga fort and paid for the fort’s water system from his own funds.
This earlier fort’s history was fleeting because Gov. Manrique de Lara consolidated the Spanish military might in Manila in preparation for the immanent invasion of the Chinese leader Koxinga, who had forced the Dutch out of Formosa (Taiwan) in 1661. With the troops withdrawn in 1663, the fort was abandoned. Ironically, Koxinga did not accomplish his plan, as he died.
The governor’s action was severely questioned because had not obtained royal permission to do so. Manrique had perforce to write a report defending his actions. In 1666, the Jesuit provincial Luis Pimentel asked the government to rebuild the fort as a security for the missionaries in Zamboanga and to secure Spanish position in the south. The following year a royal order arrived to study the situation and a council of war put together presented its opinion in 1669 that reestablishing such a fort was important. On 26 August 1672, a royal decree ordered the establishment of a fort and permanent garrison, however it was not immediately carried out for lack of manpower and resource and because the Spaniards did not want to antagonize the Muslim leaders of Mindanao with whom they had a good relationship. Another royal order arrived stating that the fort’s reconstruction be done with great caution to avoid undue antagonism.
Although Fort San José was still standing, the native inhabitants tried to demolish it, but succeeded only in destroying the quarters but not its stout walls.
Juan Vargas de Hurtado suggested building an altogether new fortification at La Caldera as the site was more salubrious and had abundant water. He was able to collect 30 thousand the first year, and 10 more for three subsequent years towards the expense of construction. Vargas’ successor, Gabriel de Curuzalegui, ordered a full report on the status of Zamboanga. In reply, a document was drawn up in 1685 stating that quadrilateral fort with the structures outside and protected by a perimeter wall was still standing. But what to do with Zamboanga remained an open debate until the end of the century.
Effective steps to reopen Zamboanga began with an exploratory expedition sent by Gov. Gen. Fernando Manuel de Bustillo in 1718. Sergeant major Gregorio de Padilla y Escalante volunteered to head the expedition with Juan de Ciscara designated as peritus engineer. The questions to be answered were whether it was better to transfer the fortification to La Caldera or not and to assess the work to be done. Instructions were given that the fort was to be renamed Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza and its bastions named in honor of three monarchs, San Felipe, San Luis, and San Fernando, and the fourth in honor of San Francisco Xavier, who was believed to have preached in Mindanao.
Ciscara’s opinion was that the Caldera site was too small, and that although the walls of Zamboanga had been reduced to half its height, it would take about a year to get it and its water system in shape and remodelled to better and more adequate specifications.
The expedition left Cavite on 14 November 1718 and arrived in La Caldera on 1 April the following year. While gathering information on the sites, the expedition they built a temporary fort at La Caldera. By the 5th they were in Zamboanga and on the 8th took solemn possession of Zamboanga and immediately went to work cleaning the area, and fortifying it with a temporary palisade of wood, fascines and parapets of cestones (basket-like containers filled with soil) built over the remaining walls.
The year when Fort Pilar was completed is stated as1719. The restored and upgraded fortification designed by Ciscara was put to a severe test when on 8 December 1720, 100 vessels, bearing thousands of warriors under Datu Dalasi (Dalusi) attacked Fort Pilar. During the siege, Dalasi was struck dead by a large rock hurled at him by the defenders. He fell into the moat and the attackers quickly retreated. But soon the siege was resumed, leadership fell on the shoulders of Dalasi’s brother, aided by the Sultans of Jolo and Maguindanao. Meanwhile, a priest emissary was able to leave the fort, arrive at Manila to request aid for the Zamboanga fort. Although an expedition was authorized, the fleet arrived at Cebu and there laid anchor, refusing to go any further.
The besieged defenders of Fort Pilar had to bear the brunt of attacks for two more months, when the attackers withdrew unable to take the fort and its stout walls.
Meanwhile, doubts about Zamboanga’s viability as a military position was debated in Manila, La Caldera was being promoted by some quarters as a viable alternative. The Jesuits when consulted, however, said that although they favored establishing a community of relocated Boholanos in La Caldera, Zamboanga was to be maintained as the two together formed a formidable barrier. Fernando Valdes Tamon in a report of 1731 gave his opinion that a settlement in La Caldera should not be allowed. Meanwhile, around the Fort Pilar a small settlement had grown. Around 1734 it was a sizable community to which the 100 Boholano families to be relocated to La Caldera were allowed to establish themselves at the cost of the government with the added incentive of acquiring lands and temporary exemption from tribute and corvee labor.
In the 1738 report of Valdes Tamon, we see depicted Fort Pilar with the adjacent town surrounded by a protective wall with bastions (DT 1959: 362-75).
Planned as a quadrilateral Fort Pilar had plain bastions at three corners and one with orillons, facing the sea. The main gate of the fort was remodeled in 1734 and relief of the Virgin del Pilar put above it.
In the 1734 map of Murillo Velarde a town surrounding the fort is depicted. This town is surrounded by a wall. Delgado describes this settlement as “ciudadela cerrada con dos baluartes.” Apparently the citadel was improved to surround the whole area by the turn of the 18th century it was enclosed by a wall laid following an irregular pentagon plan and had five bastions.
The fort was further improved in the late 19th century. Plans for new kitchens at Fort Pilar are in the records of the Philippine National Archives. In the 20th century, the Americans took charge of Zamboanga. While maintaining Fort Pilar, they demolished the remaining walls surrounding the settlement to make way for Petite Barracks. Only the memory of this citadel remains in the name Santa Barbara, given to the district around fort. Santa Barbara was the name of the principal bastion of this enclosed town.
The Americans improved the water system of the fort, building an aqueduct that brought water to the new poblacion of Zamboanga, which was being built around Plaza Pershing and a city hall completed in 1905. The aqueduct’s path, which passed through Petite Barracks, was landscaped with stately palm trees and was a favorite recreation site of Zamboanga.
The Second World War destroyed Petite Barracks, which was never rebuilt. In its place a market, the Barter Trade Zone, was established in the 1970s and the site of Spanish Zamboanga remains today an open field. Fort Pilar was also damaged by war. The National Museum of the Philippines undertook restoration and reconstruction of the fort. Work began in 1980 with the reconstruction of three damaged structures inside the fort. A fourth structure was left as it was. Restored as it looked in the 19th century, the fort is now a museum and an elegant venue for receptions, art exhibitions, and other cultural events. The museum galleries, housed in what were military barracks and offices, has on permanent display the 18th century finds from the Griffin, a ship that sank off Mindanao, and ethnographic and marine biology exhibit. A gallery near the entrance is for changing exhibits. The exterior is a shrine to the Nuestra Señora del Pilar.