Last updated on September 30, 2019
At the time of the Imperial Spanish conquest, writing was a new import and the use of organic medium such as leaf and bamboo, and no pre-Hispanic written accounts of Iloilo exist today. Oral history, in the form of recited epics, has survived to a small degree, with a few recordings made from the last known surviving binukots. But from these oral history and from writings from other sources, one can still glean Iloilo’s ancient pre-colonial past.
The controversial origins of the people of Iloilo is said to be from the state of Pannai, a nation occupying Sumatra. Pannai was a militant nation allied under the empire-mandala of the Srivijaya that defended the conflict-ridden Strait of Malacca. The small kingdom repulsed any unlicensed Chinese, Indian or Arab navies that often warred in or pirated the straits of Malacca and for a small nation, they were adept at taking down armadas larger than itself. They were successful in policing and defending the straights of Malacca for the Srivijaya until the Chola invasion of Srivijaya occurred, where in a surprise attack from behind, originating from the occupied capital, rendered the militant-state of Pannai vulnerable from an unprotected assault from the back flank. The Chola invaders eventually destroyed the state of Pannai and its surviving soldiers, royals and scholars were said to have been secreted-out eastwards. The high-borne scholars, soldiers and nobles of Pannai, “fled to other islands.”
At this juncture, Iloilo came into prominence, when the local settlement called Irong-Irong and was founded by Datu Paiburong, who presumably fled the fallen Srivijaya Empire after he and his fellows within the new mandala of Kedatuan of Madja-as, bought the island of Panay (Which they presumably named after the state of Pannai or the shortening of the Ati word, Ananipay) from Marikudo, the chieftain of the Ati people. The Kedatuan of Madja-as eventually grew a powerful and strong naval presence that it rivaled the nearby states of the Rajahnate of Cebu, the Kingdom of Tondo and the Sultanate of Sulu when it came to wealth and prestige.
By 1512, this state had grown so powerful militarily and economically, their naval power regularly threatened Chinese imperial shipping. So much so, that the Chuan-chou gazeeter specifically reported that the Pi-she-yah (Bisaya) (Another term for people from Iloilo) consistently made devastating raids against the Empire’s commerce
Nevertheless, Spain eventually succeeded on conquering of the island of Panay when Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi moved his headquarters from the island of Cebu and creating the first Spanish settlement in the island in Ogtong in 1566. This is mainly due in part to the rivalries between the Bisaya and the Moro, of which the former found an ally in Spanish against the latter. The Bisaya accepted alliances with Spain, to defend themselves against the enslaving Moros. To this end, Iloilo contributed troops in the Castille War against the Sultanate of Brunei. In 1581, the encomienda in Ogtong was moved to La Villa Rica de Arevalo, because of frequent coastal raids by the Dutch privateers. Furthermore, an attack in the year 1600 (Part of the Spanish–Moro conflict) where there was a large Muslim armada to destroy Iloilo City, led by two Moros named Sirungan and Salikala who lead the Muslim force of 70 ships and 4,000 warriors that had raided and attacked several Visayan islands in order to abduct slaves to sell to their allies in the Sultanate of Demak and the Sultanate of Malacca, eventually caused the move of the city center further on to the mouth of the Irong-Irong river founding what is now Iloilo City and constructing Fort San Pedro to defend it in 1616. Nevertheless, when the 4,000 Moros led by Sirungan and Salikala tried to attack Iloilo City they were repulsed with heavy losses in the town of Arevalo by a force of 1,000 Hiligaynon warriors and 70 Mexican arquebusiers under the command of Juan García de Sierra, the Spanish officer who died in the battle. Spanish christianized the area.
Soon, the area itself began to prosper, due to its successful textile and sugar industry. As a result, it received Chinese immigrants from the west (that worked for its trades) and Latinos from the ports of Mexico in the east (to man its military installations). And over time Iloilo grew to be the most important province outside Manila. The City of Iloilo by virtue of a Royal Decree of 1896 was given the honor of having a coat of arms with the Inscription: “La Muy Leal y Noble Ciudad de Iloilo (The Most Loyal and Noble City) in reward for its loyalty to Spain during the Philippine uprising.
During the American period, Iloilo then became a home to many firsts: including the first department stores and cinema theaters in the nation. Nevertheless, Iloilo experienced a fall from grace after undergoing severe devastation during World War II, followed by a decline during the 1950s to the 1990s. In part due to the great Iloilo fire which ruined the provincial economy and the slow death of the sugar and textile industries that eventually some prominent families (Iloilo then, had the highest concentration of millionaires outside Manila), as well as the provincial bourgeoisie, abandoned the city to go to other areas such as Negros, Cebu, Mindanao and Metro Manila. Still, the large middle-class populace of Iloilo and its agri-business sector has managed to maintain both province and city, despite the exodus of some of its prominent families.