The story of Li-ma-hong and his failed attempt to conquer Manila in 1574

Wednesday October 24, 2012 ()

On the death of Governor-general Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Government of the Colony was assumed by the Royal Treasurer, Guido de Lavezares. During this period, the possession of the Islands was unsuccessfully disputed by a rival expedition under the command of a Chinese, Li-ma-hong, whom the Spaniards were pleased to call a pirate. For the many depredations committed by him against private traders and property, the Celestial Emperor of China, failing to catch him by cajolery, outlawed him.

   Li-ma-hong (Limahong)
   (An artist illustration of Li-ma-hong)

Li-ma-hong also known as Lin Feng or Li Tao Kiem, was born in the port town of Tiuchiu in the province of Cui Tam. At an early age he manifested a martial spirit and joined a band of corsairs which for a long time had been the terror of the China coasts. On the demise of his chief, Tai-La Ong, he was unanimously elected leader of the buccaneering cruisers. At length, pursued in all directions by the imperial ships of war, he determined to attempt the conquest of the Philippines. Presumably the same incentives which impelled the Spanish mariners to conquer lands and overthrow dynasties, the vision of wealth, glory and empire, awakened a like ambition in the Chinese adventurer.

In his sea-wanderings he happened to fall in with a Chinese trading junk returning from Manila with the proceeds of her cargo sold there. This he seized, and the captive crew were constrained to pilot his fleet towards the capital of Luzon. From them he learnt how easily the natives had been plundered by a handful of foreigners, the probable extent of the opposition he might encounter, the defences established, the wealth and resources of the district, and the nature of its inhabitants.

His fleet consisted of 62 war ships or armed junks, well found, having on board 2,000 sailors, 2,000 soldiers, 1,500 women, a number of artisans, and all that could be conveniently carried with which to gain and organize his new kingdom. On its way the squadron cast anchor off the Province of Ilocos Sur, where a few troops were sent ashore to get provisions. Whilst returning to the junks, they sacked the village and set fire to the huts. The news of this outrage was hastily communicated to Juan Salcedo, who had been pacifying the Northern Provinces since July, 1572, and was at the time in Villa Fernandina (now called Vigan). Li-ma-hong continued his course until calms compelled his ships to anchor in the roads of Cagayan (Ilocos coast), where a few Spanish soldiers were stationed under the orders of Juan Salcedo, who still was in the immediate town of Vigan. Under his direction preparations were made to prevent the enemy entering the river, but such was not Li-ma-hong's intention. He again set sail; whilst Salcedo, naturally supposing his course would be towards Manila, also started at the same time for the capital with all the fighting men he could collect, leaving only 30 men to garrison Vigan and protect the State interests there. With the remainder he reached the coast at Parañaque, a village seven miles south of Manila. Thence, with tow-lines, the 400 soldiers hauled their junks up to the beach of the capital.

On November 29, 1574, the squadron arrived in the Bay of Manila, and Li-ma-hong sent forward his Lieutenant Sioco, a Japanese, at the head of 600 fighting men to demand the surrender of the Spaniards. A strong gale, however, destroyed several of his junks, in which about 200 men perished.

Already at the village of Malate the alarm was raised, but the Spaniards could not give credit to the reports, and no resistance was offered until the Chinese were within the gates of the city. Martin de Goiti, the Maestre de Campo, practically military governor, second in command to the Governor, was the first victim of the attack. The Chinese cut off Goiti's ears and nose and presented them later to Li-ma- hong. Goiti's wife was badly wounded but survived.

The flames and smoke arising from his burning residence were the first indications which the Governor received of what was going on. The Spaniards took refuge in the Fort of Santiago, which the Chinese were on the point of taking by storm, when their attention was drawn elsewhere by the arrival of fresh troops led by a Spanish sub-lieutenant. Under the mistaken impression that these were the vanguard of a formidable corps, Sioco sounded the retreat. A bloody hand-to-hand combat followed, and with great difficulty the Chinese collected their dead and regained their junks.

In the meantime Li-ma-hong, with the reserved forces, was lying in the roadstead of Cavite, and Sioco hastened to report to him the result of the attack, which had cost the invader over one hundred dead and more than that number wounded. Thereupon Li-ma-hong resolved to rest his troops and renew the conflict in two days' time under his personal supervision. The next day Juan Salcedo arrived by sea with reinforcements from Vigan, and preparations were unceasingly made for the expected encounter. Salcedo having been appointed to the office of Maestre de Campo, vacant since the death of Goiti, the organization of the defence was entrusted to his immediate care.

By daybreak on December 3, the enemy's fleet hove-to off the capital, where Li-ma-hong harangued his troops, whilst the cornets and drums of the Spaniards were sounding the alarm for their fighting men to assemble in the fort.

Then 1,500 chosen men, well armed, were disembarked under the leadership of Sioco, who swore to take the place or die in the attempt. Sioco separated his forces into three divisions. The city was set fire to, and Sioco advanced towards the fort, into which hand-grenades were thrown, whilst Li-ma-hong supported the attack with his ships' cannon.

Sioco, with his division, at length entered the fort, and a hand-to-hand fight ensued. For a while the issue was doubtful. Salcedo fought like a lion. Even the aged Governor was well to the front to encourage the deadly struggle for existence. The Spaniards finally gained the victory; the Chinese were repulsed with great slaughter, and their leader having been killed, they fled in complete disorder. Salcedo, profiting by the confusion, now took the offensive and followed up the enemy, pursuing them along the sea-shore, where they were joined by the third division, which had remained inactive. The panic of the Chinese spread rapidly, and Li-ma-hong, in despair, landed another contingent of about 500 men, whilst he still continued afloat; but even with this reinforcement the morale of his army could not be restored.

   Port of Li-ma-hong (Limahong)
   (An artist illustration of Li-ma-hong's port)

The Chinese troops therefore, harassed on all sides, made a precipitate retreat on board the fleet, and Li-ma-hong set sail again for the west coast of the island. Foiled in the attempt to possess himself of Manila, Li-ma-hong determined to set up his capital in other parts. In a few days he arrived at the mouth of the Agno River, in the province of Pangasinán, where he proclaimed to the natives that he had gained a signal victory over the Spaniards. The inhabitants there, having no particular choice between two masters, received Li-ma-hong with welcome, and he thereupon set about the foundation of his new capital some four miles from the mouth of the river.

Months passed before the Spaniards came in force to dislodge the invader. Feeling themselves secure in their new abode, the Chinese had built many dwellings, a small fortress, a pagoda, etc. At length an expedition was despatched under the command of Juan Salcedo. This was composed of about 250 Spaniards and 1,600 natives well equipped with small arms, ammunition and artillery. The flower of the Spanish Colony, accompanied by two priests and the Rajah of Tondo, set out to expel the formidable foe. Li-ma-hong made a bold resistance, and refused to come to terms with Salcedo.

In the meantime, the Viceroy of Fokien, having heard of Li-ma-hong's daring exploits, had commissioned a ship of war to discover the whereabouts of Li-ma-hong, his imperial master's old enemy. The envoy was received with delight by the Spaniards, who invited him to accompany them to Manila to interview the Governor.

The Governor willingly accepted the offer of the commander of the Chinese man-o-war to convey ambassadors to his country to visit the Viceroy and make a commercial treaty. Therefore two priests, Martin de Rada and Gerónimo Martin, were commissioned to carry a letter of greeting and presents to this personage, who received them with great distinction, but objected to their residing in the country.

Li-ma-hong still held out, but perceiving that an irresistible onslaught was being projected against him by Salcedo's party, he very cunningly and quite unexpectedly slipped away, and sailed out of the river with his ships by one of the mouths unknown to his enemies. In order to divert the attention of the Spaniards, Li-ma-hong ingeniously feigned an assault in an opposite quarter. Of course, on his escape, he had to abandon the troops employed in this manoeuvre. These, losing all hope, and having indeed nothing but their lives to fight for, fled to the mountains. Hence it is popularly supposed that from these fugitives descends the race of people in the hill district north of that province still distinguishable by their oblique eyes and known by the name of Igorrote-Chinese.

According to Juan de la Concepcion, in his "Hist. Gen. de Philipinas", Vol. I., p. 431, Li-ma-hong made his escape by cutting a canal for his ships to pass through, but this would appear to be highly improbable under the circumstances.

According to Juan de la Concepcion, the Rajahs Soliman and Lacandola took advantage of these troubles to raise a rebellion against the Spaniards. The natives, too, of Mindoro Island revolted and maltreated the priests, but all these disturbances were speedily quelled by a detachment of soldiers.

Some accounts assert that only Rajah Soliman rebelled.

After the defeat of Li-ma-hong, Juan Salcedo again set out to the Northern Provinces of Luzon Island, to continue his task of reducing the natives to submission.

On March 11, 1576, Juan Salcedo died of fever near Vigan (then called Villa Fernandina), capital of the Province of Ilocos Sur. A year afterwards, what could be found of his bones were placed in the ossuary of his illustrious grandfather, Legaspi, in the Augustine Chapel of Saint Fausto, Manila. His skull, however, which had been carried off by the natives of Ilocos, could not be recovered in spite of all threats and promises. In Vigan there is a small monument raised to commemorate the deeds of this famous warrior, and there is also a street bearing his name in Vigan and another in Manila.


  1. The Philippine Islands, A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago, John Foreman, 1906.
  2. Basques In The Philippines, Marciano R. De Borja, 2005/
  3. Photo credit:


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