The ironically named Fort Santiago

Or why our Spanish colonizers may have had a twisted sense of humor.   

Fort Santiago is one of the more visually stunning attractions in Intramuros, and is certainly a must-see destination for any Manila trip. The most iconic feature of Fort Santiago would have to be its gate. First built in 1714, the gate has been damaged and restored a fair number of times. On top of the gate is a wooden relief of Santiago Matamoros, for which the fort is named after. An ironic name, truth be told.

Before we get to why the name of Fort Santiago is ironic, we need to talk a bit of history here. Fort Santiago was built on the site of a palisaded fort of Rajah Sulayman, the last ruler of Precolonial Manila. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Maynila (Yes, with a “Y”) was a thriving entrepot, rich and powerful due to trade relations with neighboring polities and countries. The city-state was also a satellite state of the Sultanate of Brunei. This is a long story in itself, but what you need to know for now is that Manila was kind of Islamic at this point in time.

Now we talk about Santiago Matamoros himself. Santiago, or Saint James the Moor-slayer in English, is a fictional depiction of James, disciple of Jesus himself. As the legend goes, the Christian king Alfonso II of Asturias died in 842 and was succeeded by his nephew, Ramiro I of Asturias. On Alfonso’s death, the Moors demanded the reinstatement of the tribute of 100 virgins (fifty noble and fifty commoner), which Alfonso had defied. Ramiro denied them the tribute and engaged the Moors at the (also fictional) Battle of Clavijo. As the legend goes, James appeared as a warrior on his white horse with a white banner to help the Christian armies against the Moors. They slew more than 5000 Muslims and Saint James became known as “Matamoros”.

The irony of Fort Santiago, which was erected on the grounds where the fort of the Muslim ruler Rajah Sulayman used to stand, being named after a fictional saint whose claim to fame was killing hundreds of moors/muslims in a fictional battle is pretty blatant, once you know your history. One could almost say the Spanish occupiers must have had a twisted sense of humor naming the Spanish stronghold for Saint James the Moor-slayer. We do need to point out that the iconography of Santiago Matamoros was widely used by the Spanish as they colonized the Americas and the Spanish East Indies as a rival force to the indigenous gods, and protector of Spaniards from the locals. He was usually depicted as a conquistador, because why not. 

For the record, who else would the Spanish name a military fort for anyway? Santiago Matamoros may be as good an option as we’re going to get.

Saint James. Allegedly.

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