When we talk about Fort Santiago these days, we often associate it with Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero as it was where he was imprisoned, tried, and where he would spend his final hours before his execution on December 30, 1896. While it is a distinction that deserves merit, this often overshadows to the actual importance of Fort Santiago. It was, first and foremost, the military headquarters for Spanish, British (during the 1762-64 occupation of Manila), American, and Japanese forces. As such, for a long while it held a very strategic importance as it was believed that gaining control of the fort provides one the greater advantage of gaining control of all the country.
Even its very name evokes a military heritage, with a bit of Moorish phobia in between. It was named after Santiago Matamoros or St. James the Moor-slayer, the representation of the Apostle St. James the Greater (AKA the brother of St. John) who is venerated in Spain for having said to have helped the Spanish forces defeat the Moors in battle. Considering that Fort Santiago was the site of the old seat of the Muslim-dominated Kingdom of Maynilad, the choice of the fort’s name may have been intentional, perhaps a threat as well to the Filipino Moros who would dare attack Spanish colonial rule, especially in Manila.
When the Spaniards constructed the Fort Santiago that we know today, it was built in the style of the forts in Europe, especially those built in the Middle Ages, with thick stone walls and a moat surrounding the fort that serves as a means of defense. In fact, the whole of Intramuros was surrounded by moats before they were filled with land by the Americans due to them being “unsanitary.” Fortunately, the moat at Fort Santiago was untouched; thus it remains as the only surviving moat in the Walled City.
Another thing you may notice is that the bridge crossing the moat does not directly lead to the fort’s main entrance. And that setup was actually intentional. Since the bridge that was constructed was not a drawbridge, what the Spaniards did was to place the fort’s entrance a bit farther to the right as a defense mechanism. So when enemy forces come to attack Fort Santiago, it will take them a bit longer to at least reach the gate, thus helping the Spanish forces bide sometime to either attack or flee the premises.
In addition to the aforementioned entrance setup, the fort’s entrance is guarded to two baluartes: the Baluarte de San Miguel on the left and the Media Baluarte de San Francisco on the right. Once inside, one will immediately see the view of the open green space that is Plaza Armas. Surrounding the plaza are mostly ruins of the old military barracks which were destroyed during World War II. Reportedly, there are plans to restore the barracks, though one of the ruined barracks was converted into an open air theater named after Rajah Sulayman (Dulaang Rajah Sulayman), the last ruler of Maynilad whose throne was located within the present fort’s premises. This area used to be inaccessible to visitors except when there would be a performance. But now, the area is now open and has become a tourist attraction itself.
The Urban Roamer already visited the Rizal Shrine so we will not be delving much into it here, except that it served once as barracks for the military personnel. While Rizal spent time inside the barrack’s jail cell, on his final night before execution, he was actually transferred to another cell, located at the side of what is now Dulaang Rajah Sulayman.
Nearby the cell is an exit leading into the Pasig River, Known as the Postigo de la Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Postern of Our Lady of Solitude), this area provided the Spaniards in the Fort easy access to the Pasig River. In fact, Governor General Simon de Anda used this exit to escape the invading British forces during the British Occupation from 1762-64. It used to be closed but now it has been opened so people can now stroll the riverside promenade outside the walls that is being developed at this time of writing.
Leading to the higher-elevated portion ofthe fort is the storied dungeon. Like other structures in the fort today, it used to be a restricted area but since April this year, it has now been opened as a tourist attraction which leads to the part of the fort’s fortification called the Falsabraga de Media Naranja. The presence of the dungeons and what purpose it served remains a mystery. It’s been said that the dungeon served as a prison where prisoners were locked up and were subject to being flooded by the river’s high tide. But to date, there has been no documentation that confirms this to be true. However, it is interesting to note that when the Americans took over Fort Santiago, they saw about 20 bodies inside the dungeon.
Near the tip of Fort Santiago by the Pasig River stands the imposing structure known as the Baluarte de Santa Barbara. First built in 1599, it first served as powder magazine and barracks of the Spanish forces. During World War II, the Japanese used it as prison cells where guerrillas and civilians were arrested and eventually killed. It is in their memory that a white cross placed in front of the Baluarte de Santa Barbara was dedicated to.
As mentioned previously, work is ongoing for the Fort Santiago’s restoration and development at this time of writing, as there are some new structures being planned. Talks say there are plans to have the Intramuros Administration offices be moved to Fort Santiago and the development of a promenade that will link Fort Santiago to the Maestranza complex. One thing for sure is that it will be exciting to see what comes next for the revitalized Fort Santiago complex and here’s hoping for better days ahead for this storied landmark.
Acknowledgements to the Intramuros Administration and Vic Torres’ “Ciudad Murada: A Walk Through Historic Intramuros”