Fort Santiago’s site was formerly occupied by a palisade built by the Muslim ruler of Manila, Rajah Sulayman, who was related to the sultans of Borneo. Sulayman ruled over the Tagalog, the indigenous peoples that lived along Manila Bay. Sulayman was related to other rulers who lived north of the Pasig, namely Lakandula or Lacandola and Rajah Matanda. Legazpi’s conquest of Manila in 1571 forced the Tagalogs to relocate to the northern banks of the Pasig River. Sulayman’s fortification was strategic as it controlled access to the Pasig whose headwaters is Laguna de Ba-i, situated east of Manila. This largest lake in Luzon was dotted with villages of the Tagalogs, who were trading actively with Chinese merchants before the coming of the Spaniards.
On 19 May 1571, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and his troops occupied Rajah Sulayman’s village. They took over the palisade (kuta) in which the Rajah’s residence was built. That year, on 24 June, Manila was constituted a city of the Spanish realm, formalizing the occupation of the city. Temporary fortifications at the site of Sulayman’s palisade began as soon as the Spanish took charge of the settlement. In 1591, construction of the fort in stone began under Gov. Gen. Perez de Dasmariñas. Work on the fortification continued off and on until the 18th century. By the early 18th century, Santiago had been effectively cut off from the rest of Manila with the construction of a moat before its principal gate. Manila Bay’s safe harbor and the location of Sulayman’s fort, now overrun by the Spaniards, was an excellent nucleus for the creation of entrepôt that catered to the China trade.
Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, was incarcerated in one of the barracks of Santiago on the last week of December 1896. He was executed 30 December. His death sparked the revolution of independence against Spain. Santiago was the site of much bloodshed during World War II. Subsequent reclamation in the early 20th century has pushed the shore further west, some 500 meters. The fort was damaged greatly in February 1945 and was the prison for many prominent Filipinos. The fort, restored, is a national shrine. In it is a restored building which houses the Rizal Shrine. A ruined barrack is now Rajah Sulayman theater.