As early as 1591, Gov. Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas recognized the strategic importanceof Cavite as the “gate way to the city” and moved toward itsfortification. It was in fact atthis isthmus, two decades earlier, that Miguel de Legazpi hid his ships priorto the attack on Manila. The kingordered the construction of a fort but for lack of funds and personnel, it wasplanned on a small scale. Workbegan in 1609 and continued to the following year. Storerooms for artillery and fittings of the galleons werekept in the fort. In 1628, news ofthe impending attack by the Dutch compelled Gov. Juan Niño de Tavora to call acouncil of war which decided to build a bigger fort with four cavaliers andembankments, enough for a contingent of 200. The fort was constructed of stone near the beach so that oneside was jutted out to the docks. On the opposite side, a redoubt was built, and connected to the fort bya palisade and a covered walkway to defend the landward side of the fort. Besides he built an earth esplanadefacing the entrance of the port and equipped it with cannons.
Then followed decades when improvements on Cavite’s fortifications drained the royalcoffers as there was no one competent in military architecture. For instance, a bastion was built in1636 but had to be reinforced in 1650 because it was badly made. Gov. Diego Fajardo had to order theconstruction of a palisade surrounding the fort as it was in bad state butcould commit no funds for construction. In 1659 a royal decree ordered a full report on the fortification of Manila and Gov. Sabiniano Manrique de Lara complied in a report of 19 June. This is the first documentary reportwhich gives a full description of the fortification. The report states that San Felipe was built between 1609-16under Gov. Juan de Silva. It wasquadrilateral ion form, with for corner bastions, and had a perimeter of 220feet. It was built to face theCavite port and Manila. Furthermore, a cube or platform, enough for 10 cannons, named SantaCatalina Martyr was nearby. At themost narrow part of this isthmus was an 80-foot wide moat separating theburgeoning town of Cavite. Protecting the moat were two thirty foot round platforms with a diameterof 80 feet, connected by a curtain wall thirty feet in height and eight feetthick. Between the wall and themoat was a barbican 30 feet wide. The northern platform was named N.S. de la Concepcion and the oppositeN.S, del Rosario. From theConcepcion run span of wall 247 feet long and one fathom tall and reached thechurch of the Jesuits. In betweenthe Concepcion and the church was another platform. Facing San Felipe were the ruins of the casa real which hadanother low platform for eight cannons. However, it was in bad estate and had to be repaired. The wall continued for a total of 4230feet, enclosing the town and the churches and convents of San Francisco, SantoDomingo, the Jesuit church of Loretto, and the Recollect church of San Nicolas.
Manrique de Lara’s report was forwarded to Spain where the opinion of the Dutchman Ricardo Carr was sought. Although he was Spain’s prisoner and incarcerated in Madrid he was knowledgeable about Cavite. Carr’s plans was scrutinized by others,namely, Juan de Somovilla, Fuentes Cortes and Juan de Pereña. Neither the plans of Carr nor of Somovilla were fully implemented, rather elements from the plans were realized as resources allowed. Manrique de Lara reported in August 1663 that a cavalier with a capacity of ten canons was built above the gate of San Felipe. The platform of Santa Catalina was completed. Ninety-one feet from the Concepcion platform another 40-feetin diameter, named San Sabiniano, had been constructed and between this and theSanta Catalina a wooden platform was raised completing the fortification of thenorthern flank. At the shore and222 feet from San Felipe another stone platform was completed and still anotherone but of wood, named San José. The area was enclosed by a palisade of facines, revellins, coveredwalkways and moat completed the defenses of Cavite Puerto and San Felipe. But all these works needed thedemolition of four churches.
Under Manrique de Lara’s successor, Gabriel de Curuzelaegui ordered an inspection ofthe fortifications and noted what needed to be repaired, in particular theruined living quarters of San Felipe. Furthermore, the sea was advancing andflooding the port making it necessary to build a breakwater of woodentrunks. The sea would alwaysremain a problem for the next century to come. Cavite Puerto was built on a low sandbar. Its unstable substrate subject to theaction of wind and wave. Militaryengineers would have to contend with this environment.
But on 5 October 1687, an earthquake occurred destroying the royal warehouse, the docks and the living quarters of San Felipe. When Gov. Fausto Cruzat y Góngora assumed office, he ordered the gathering of material for the necessary works in Cavite and further ordered in 1695 a report on the status of Cavite. The report emphasized the destructive nature of the sea and sought tocontain it. In Cruzat y Góngora’stime, a granary called “tambono de arroz” had been raised in San Felipe, aswell as a vaulted chamber for gunpowder. At the N.S. del Rosario a new tower of stone and brick was built. Other works were done but the governoremphasized the importance of finding more permanent and less costly solutionsto contain the advance of the sea.
Theencroaching sea remained a major problem. This was the period when the government could avail of the expertise ofmilitary engineers and architects who had come from Europe, namely Juan deCiscara, Miguel Antonio Gomez, Tómas de Castro y Andrade, and the Theatinepriest Juan de Uggucioni who had rebuilt the Manila cathedral in 1711. This was period of rapid and effectiveconstruction. Ciscara completedhis work in Cavite in 1710. Duringthe interim in 1745 when, Francisco de la Arechederra, bishop of Vigan, assumed governorship, the threat of attack by the British was in the air, the coveredwalkway between Puerta Vaga and the Baluate de San Juan along with other minorrepairs were made. He bishop alsoadded a baluarte. The
British successful possession of Manila from 1762-64, called for better fortificationsin Cavite. The sea continued itserosion of the sandbar. Castro wascalled to offer his expertise and in 1765 made a report regarding the ruinousstate of the northern flank of the port, and the poor condition of theantiquated fortification San Felipe. Under Gov. José Razon, the engineer Feliciano Márquez made another setof recommendations and plans submitted in 1766. The Marquez plan involved the total demolition of San Felipeand the construction of an irregular-shaped bastioned fort at the tip of the peninsula separated from Puerto by a moat. The plan was never executed.
When Gov. José Basco y Vargas assumed office he had plans made by the engineer TomásSanz, who submitted a report dated 16 December 1778. The report stated the danger posed by ground water rising because of the close proximity of structures to the sea, the north as had beenthe problem for decades continued to show the most rapid deterioration ofstructures. Like previous plans, Sanz recommendations although thorough was notfully implemented. To make matters worse a typhoon hit Cavite in destroying practically all the wall surrounding the northern part of thefortification. All told, as thecentury dragged to a close work on Cavite’s fortifications was dismal. Lack ofdecision, lack of funds, compromise and plain bureaucratic dilly dallyingresulted in an enormous waste to time making recommendations and proposingprojects that by and large were not implemented (Diaz-Trechuelo: 1959:289-329).
Bythe 19th century Cavite lost its prominence with the demise of thegalleon trade in 1815 and the cutting of economic ties with Mexico in 1819 whenthe last of the silver subsidy (situado) arrived from Mexico. In the 19th century, Spainbuilt other ports of call, like San Esteban in the Ilocos, Sual in Pangasinan,Iloilo and Cebu in the Visayas and Zamboanga in Mindanao. With the opening of trade to othernations in 1848 after years of monopolizing trade with the Philippines, Spainset the Philippines on a new course of commerce. Trading houses opened in the Chinese enclave of Binondo. Here British and American establishedtrading houses. Improvement intransportation also meant shorter travel time and heavier traffic in sea going vessels. The banks of the Pasigalong Binondo developed as a docking area.
In 1872, the workers in the naval base of Cavite rose up in revolt. The revolt was quickly quelled butblame was put on local leaders and the priest Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez andJacinto Zamora as the instigators of the uprising. Arrested, some were executed at Bagumbayan, others who werejudged to be less culpable were sent on exile. But the execution of the 13 martyrs of Cavite and of thethree priests collectively known as Gomburza, who were perceived as innocentand whom the archbishop of Manila refused to defrock amidst all the pressureput on him, planted the seed of revolt which was to flower the 1896 Revolutionagainst Spain. Cavite provinceplayed a key role in the revolution because it was in Kawit, across the bayfrom Cavite Puerto that Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence on 12 June 1898.
The revolution against Spain was quickly aborted. Using the Spanish-American War as an excuse, the US sent aflotilla of warships to Manila to besiege it. The defeat of the Spanish navy in Manila Bay proved to bethe beginning of a new era of colonization. United States laid claim on the Philippines by virtue of theTreaty of Paris (10 December 1898). Spain ceded the Philippines to the US and hostilities ceased. Assuming sovereignty over the Philippine Islands, the US military took over Fort San Felipe and theneighboring fortified town of Cavite Puerto.
The fort was planned as an irregular quadrilateral has four bastions with orillonsat each corner. Various maps (e.g 1639, 1738) represent the fort’s bastions ashaving orillons; however, remaining physical evidence indicates that the fort’sbastions were of the more advanced, straight-wall type rather than the moretraditional ace-of-spades layout.
Todayonly the facade and main entrance with flanking curtain walls and two bastions remain. The rest of the fort was demolished by the Americans during the early 20th century to make way for a naval station.