Colegio de San Juan de Letrán, an illustration of caste and possibly the Spanish Forzado System. Courtesy of the Guam Public Library System.
Colegio de San Juan de Letrán, an illustration of caste and possibly the Spanish Forzado System. Courtesy of the Guam Public Library System.

The Spanish Forzado System

Before the Mariana Islands served as an official penal colony for political prisoners and criminals from Spain and her territories in the 19th century, the forzado system, or forced labor, brought many individuals to the islands in the form of conscripted laborers and soldiers. The forzado system imposed sentences of forced labor not only on those convicted of crimes, but others deemed “undesirable” by governing officials and provincial elite.

Practiced as early as the 16th century in New Spain (Mexico) and later in the Philippine Islands, including the province of the Mariana Islands, the forzado system was used to boost the number of soldiers in Spain’s overseas garrisons, as well as provide sailors for the Manila galleons and skilled labor for the colonies.

It is estimated that close to a quarter of all soldiers sent across the Pacific were forzados. Of those sent to the Philippines, a large number likely were assigned to the Mariana Islands—an unpopular assignment due to the islands’ perceived poverty and geographical isolation—but did not actually stay there. Some forzados originally sent to the Mariana Islands were able to use bribery and other means to get substitutes to serve their time in the Marianas while they stayed in Manila. On the other hand, some forzados sent to the Philippines actually ended up in the Mariana Islands.

The forzados arrived in the Marianas during the early years of Spanish colonization by way of the Manila Galleon Trade route, which was established in 1865 and ran between Manila and Acapulco. Historian Stephanie Mawson, who has critically examined the forzado system in New Spain and the Philippines, argues that the system was not only a method of punishment for individuals sentenced in the Spanish judicial system, or a means of providing soldiers and laborers to the far flung colonies. The forzado system was a complex that helped administrators control the colonies and deal with individuals likely to disrupt the prevailing colonial order. But, Mawson argues, the forzados, especially those working as soldiers, offer insight to acts of resistance against the Spanish as experienced in the colonies.

For the Marianas, forzados initially were brought in to help control the Chamorro natives.  As Mawson points out, the majority of the soldiers sent to Guam to quell the violence of Chamorro resistance when the first Catholic mission was set up by the Jesuit missionaries in the late 1600s were forzados from New Spain and the Philippines. However, from 1680 to 1690, there were at least five mutinies instigated by soldiers in the Marianas.

The forzados also figure into Guam history because it is known that several soldiers married Chamorro women and began families with them, thereby becoming settlers of the Marianas colony. Interestingly, these relationships provided opportunities for Chamorros to encourage their soldier relatives to rebel against their Spanish officers in the mutiny of 1684.  These mutinous acts coincided with the resistance efforts of the Chamorro people against the Spanish and raise questions about the level of loyalty among soldiers to Spain, as well as demonstrate the instability within the Spanish colonies.

Who were the forzados?

In addition to conscripting men into the military, forzados were also sold to private enterprises of all kinds. Usually they were culled from debtors unable to pay their debts. They were then conscripted to work off what they owed. Forzados could be found in textile factories, bakeries, shoe shops, butcher stores and trade shops of every kind. The forzado system targeted undesirable elements in towns and urban centers and performed, as some call it, “social cleansing.”

Spanish documents reveal that high-ranking officials and influential citizens used the forzado system to deport persons they deemed undesirable even if they had not committed a crime. Suspicion of adultery could get a military officer sent across the Pacific to serve time as a conscripted solider in the Philippines or the Mariana Islands. Unruly, lazy or otherwise undesirable sons could also find themselves as forzados in the same islands – sent at their parent’s request.

Menendez and Patch in their paper, Gente de Mal Vivir: Families and Incorrigible sons in New Spain, 1721-1729 say that the forzado system was a “weapon that a husband could use to eliminate other males who might threaten his honor. It was not even necessary for infidelity to take place; just the hint of the possibility could be enough for a husband to take measures to prevent a conceivable public humiliation.”

In some cases parents sought to have their sons sent away. Don Miguel Perez de la Barrera, for example, requested that his 18 year-old son, Don Gregorio, be transported to the Mariana Islands because he did not want to fulfill his obligations. Don Gregorio did not want to become a priest and, in refusing to do so, was dishonoring his family.

The forzado system was used to alleviate a shortage of labor in the colonies. There was a desperate need for sailors to crew the Manila galleons, and soldiers and religious to help quell the indigenous rebellion and spread Christianity. The long and arduous voyage between Acapulco and Manila made finding recruits difficult. Officials in the Philippines made constant pleas to the Viceroy in New Spain to assist them with the lack of manpower. However, the vast population of possible converts in the islands closer to Manila made the distant province of the Mariana Islands, with its dwindling population, a low priority for the limited skilled workers available.

Eventually the pleas of the officials and clergy from the Mariana Islands were heard and a formal system called Socorro [Relief] was setup to send an annual consignment of goods, money and soldiers to the Mariana Islands. While the sending of forzados was prohibited by Royal decree in 1684, Spanish documents reveal that plenty of convict soldiers and other forzados were, in fact, sent to the Pacific.

The shortage of skilled labor continued to plague the islands due to the inconsistency of the consignment of resources. The situation became so dire in the Mariana Islands that a form of forzado was implemented and islanders were forced to work at least two days a week. In many cases, much more time was required. The islanders were required to do “community work.” Chamorro men were assigned to hunt wild cattle and boar in Tinian and to serve on government vessels as stewards or sailors, and farm. Women were tasked with collecting copra, making salt, oil, and pandanus sails and mats. While the work was supposedly for the community, the products of these labors were shipped off to Manila for sale. The proceeds of the sale of these items, in some cases, lined the pockets of the Governor or other Spanish officials.

Crimes resulting in forzado

One could be pressed into labor in the forzado system for a variety of crimes. Crimes against the royal crown, sins against nature, false witnesses, blasphemers, thieves, deserters, and those that committed treachery were among those sentenced in the forzado system.

In 1640, for example, eleven forzados committed crimes including cohabitating with a woman, selling thread to natives at inflated prices, cohabitating with a mulatta, and inflicting serious injury. But the majority of those charged were convicted of vagabondage.

In 1642, the viceroy of New Spain, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, wrote, “That which it is very convenient to take care with, is in apprehending every year the vagabonds to be sent to the Philippines; because those that are here restless at peace, are considerable over there in war.”

Fifteen years later, the Duke of Albuquerque, writing of 60 highwaymen sentenced to serve in the Philippines, wrote that, with the sentencing, “the earth has been made clean.”

In a registry of forzados transported across the Pacific between the years of 1721-1728, crimes against property accounted for 53% of those sent. Six percent, or 11 men, were convicted of violent crimes while 3.3% were convicted of crimes of a sexual nature. Five were convicted of counterfeiting, and a 16 year-old boy was convicted of throwing stones at a soldier. Those convicted of multiple crimes excluding murder accounted for 3.3%, while wife abuse, military desertion and dereliction of duty accounted for 2.7% each. Two were convicted of blackmail and one person for kidnapping.

However, one-fourth of those exiled during this period had committed no crime. Some had even been found innocent of their crimes but were deemed by royal officials as “undesirable.” Menendez & Patch write that, “Those whose behavior was perceived as a threat to the family honor were put into this category [undesirable].”

Forzados in the Marianas

The registry of those transported across the Pacific between 1722 and 1728 gives an indication of the makeup of the forzados. Of the 220 forzados from New Spain destined for the Philippines and the Mariana Islands there were 141 Spaniards, 31 Mestizos, 7 Castizos [offspring of a Spaniard and a Mestizo], 7 Mulattoes, 2 Coyotes [a mixture of either all three races or of mestizo and Indian descent], and 2 Indians.

Some of those sentenced to the Marianas were:

  • Benito Larraga who was sentenced to two years in the Marianas for throwing stones at the guards of the palace while they were transporting a prisoner. He was only 16 years old and convicted of being an alborotador [agitator].
  • Salvador Manuel who was sentenced to four years in the Marianas for counterfeiting. Manuel was one of only two Indian forzados. It appears that Indians were not often sentenced to forced transportation.
  • Juan Manuel Vázquez was sentenced to serve four years without pay as a soldier in the Mariana Islands.

It is not certain that all destined for the Mariana Islands actually made it there. Some did not survive the long and difficult voyage from Acapulco to Manila, or the relatively shorter distance from the Philippines to the Mariana Islands. In some cases, those destined for the Philippines from Europe and America actually ended up in the Mariana Islands.

In the registry of forzados mentioned above, only three individuals were known to return home after their sentence. Those that did survive to the end of their sentence may have married and become integrated into the community in which they were living. It is reasonable to assume that some did not survive the initial voyage.

Mawson mentions that, “a large number of soldiers who arrived in the Marianas were in fact convicts, or forzados.” Quoting Father Manuel Solorzano in 1681, the garrison in Guam was comprised of “…rogues who are made up of exiles from New Spain to the Philippines because in that very large kingdom they did not fit nor could be tolerated anywhere.”  Mawson adds that the use of indigenous soldiers to conquer other indigenous people was common practice in the Spanish colonies. The Jesuit missionaries continued to desire Filipino soldiers whom they saw as good examples for the Chamorro people. However, corruption among royal officers assigned to the presidio and a chronic shortage of supplies fueled discontent among the soldiers and were factors in the the soldier mutinies that took place in the Marianas in the 1680s.

In 1684, the Chamorros had managed to force the Spanish to barricade themselves in the fort at Hagåtña, holding them there for six months. The frustration of the soldiers during this siege led them almost to complete mutiny against the Spanish governor Damian Esplaña who refused to engage with the Chamorros. During this time Spanish and Filipino soldiers who had married Chamorro women were encouraged by their Chamorro mothers-in-law to rise up against the Spanish governor.  It was not until Sergeant Major Jose Quiroga, who had been fighting the resistance in the northern islands of Saipan and Tinian, returned to Guam that the siege of Hagåtña ended.

The most successful mutinous attempt occurred in 1688 when a forzado captain took control of Guam for three months. After the uprising in 1684, for three years no further aid from Manila or Acapulco resulted in severe shortages in the islands, including money to pay the soldiers.  Esplaña traveled to Manila to petition for aid but was arrested and detained for abandoning his post. While he was away, Mexican-born convict Manuel Salgado, a forzado sentenced to the Philippines but exiled instead in the Marianas in 1685, took over the mutiny within the Spanish garrison, and captured the interim governor Quiroga. Quiroga was held at the fort until the mutiny was broken internally through the encouragement of the Jesuits.

A timeline of the forzado system in the Pacific

The forzado system provided labor, soldiers and skilled workers for Spanish colonies in Mexico, the Mariana Islands and the Philippines. Through the system, rebels, convicts, vagrants and other “undesirable” individuals were shuttled to the colonies. At the request of the Jesuit missionaries, after the 1684 uprising, the King of Spain prohibited the sending of convict soldiers to the Mariana Islands. In 1686 he prohibited sending any convicts to the islands. It was not until 1811 that a royal decree allowed the sending of convicts again to the islands. However, the ban on sending convicts to the islands was not adhered to as hundreds of forzados from both New Spain and the Philippines were sent to the Mariana Islands between 1684 and 1811. In 1861, fifty years after the decree allowing convicts to be sent to the islands, another royal decree was released, ordering the building of a prison in Guam to support the penal colony of the Mariana Islands. The Mariana Islands penal institution was abolished in 1892, yet political prisoners were still being sent to the islands from Manila.

Below is a timeline of the forzado system in the Pacific Spanish colonies.

1626    King Philip IV authorizes the viceroy of New Spain to round up the gente llovida and vagabonds, and transport them to the islands across the Pacific.

1642    Viceroy of New Spain, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, writes that it is very easy to take care of apprehending and sending vagabonds to the Philippines.

1657     The Duke of Albuquerque wrote that the “earth has been made clean” by the sentencing of 60 highwaymen sentenced to serve in the Philippines.

1667    The galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepcíon arrives in the Marianas with convicts from Spain destined for the Philippines. Convicts mutinied but were unsuccessful in taking the ship.

1680     The Santa Rosa reportedly brings first Philippine exiles to Guam.

1684     King Charles II orders that convict soldiers not be sent to the Marianas.

1686    King Charles II prohibits sending of convicts to the Presidio Real de las Islas Marianas.

1688    Soldiers mutiny led by Manuel Salgado, a creole soldier from Mexico, originally sentenced to the Philippines but was assigned to the presidio at Hagåtña.

1690    In June the galleon Pilar wrecks on the reef at Cocos island near Malesso in Guam with 300 people.  Soldiers and forzados from the marooned ship are pressed into labor by Governor Esplaña who works them to exhaustion. Fearing that Governor Esplaña will force them to stay in the Marianas, 80 men comprised of both soldiers and forzados plot to take the incoming Cavite supply ship and escape. Their plot is exposed and the governor has 23 conspirators executed.

1700    King Charles II instructs viceroy of New Spain to send all the convicts and vagabonds that are usually condemned to serve in presidios in the Philippines to Spain instead.

1720    A priest in the Marianas complains that the Spaniards from New Spain are like the “dregs” of its society, indicating that forzados were still being sent from New Spain to the Mariana Islands in spite of the Kings’ directives.

1721-1729    220 Individual forzados are transported from New Spain across the Pacific to the Philippines and the Mariana Islands in direct opposition to the Kings’ orders. Three-quarters of those forcibly transported were convicted by criminal courts in Mexico City or in Guadalajara. The remaining were people judged to be undesirable and investigated by a magistrate appointed by the viceroy of New Spain.

1811    King Joseph I issues a decree allowing prisoners to be sent to the Mariana Islands.

1843    In September, Celix Agathon, a first corporal in the 3rd Regiment of the Infantry of the Line in the Philippines is exiled to the Marianas for his role in the Tayabas Regiment Muntiny. In 1856, Governor Felipe de la Corte requests Agathon be pardoned so he can obtain salaried employment with the colonial government.

1848    Guam Governor Pablo Perez requests skilled Filipino convicts (farmers and mechanics) to be sent to the Marianas.

1851    Sixty-five of 67 prisoners requested by Governor Perez arrive aboard the Clavelino. Their death sentences were commuted when they volunteered to go to Guam. Two of the forzados died en route to the islands, 14 were hospitalized and 51 were sent to island farms. Dissatisfied with their plight, the convicts plotted to take over the island government. From their ranks they selected a governor, an administrator and a mayor. They even planned to select wives from the elite of the island. Betrayed by a member of their group, the uprising was unsuccessful. One convict was killed, and two injured in the battle.  The conspirators were all captured and sent back to Manila on 2 February 1852 aboard the Clavelino.

1855    64 Chinese convicts from Manila arrive in Guam aboard the vessel Denia. These men came at the request of Governor De la Corte who wanted farm laborers to help with a labor shortage. De la Corte described these men as “vicious, extremely weak or sick.” He requested additional Chinese more suitable in character and in a better state of health.

A few days later a small group of Filipino forzados arrive. The Filipino exiles were implicated in the murder of a priest. The group included Nicomedes Asuncion and his daughters Juana Teresa, Clara and Fabiana. Also among them was Maria Arayga Bautista, perhaps a relative of Nicomedes, for unknown reasons. This group was productive and turned out to be good citizens. The women started a store and their nephew whose surname was Dungca, worked trading copra. Dungca became very successful and eventually married Fabiana. Their son, Justo Dungca became Guam’s first Justice of the Peace and a leading citizen.

1857    Governor De la Corte was directed to conduct a feasibility study on the creation of a penal colony in the Mariana Islands by the Governor General of the Philippines. De la Corte’s report produced controversy among the Spanish officials in Madrid. While De la Corte condoned the use of forzados, he believed that a penal colony would hinder the effective colonization of the islands. This was in direct opposition to the Governor General of the Philippines who supported the creation of a penal colony in the Marianas.

1860    The Procurador General who originally sided with Governor Dela Corte, changes his view and supports the creation of a penal colony.

1861    On the 23rd of September, a royal decree established the Comandancia del Presidio de las Marianas. Governor De la Corte, makes the following recommendations: A majority of forzados be Filipinos who can handle the heat better; only the number needed should be sent but not more than a total of 200; those sent should be governed by the same regulations as prisoners in the Philippines; forzados should be used in public works; and forzados should be paid low wages for services provided.

1861    One hundred Filipino forzados requested by De la Corte arrive on Guam. The Spanish authorities were pleased with the success of this workforce whose administration followed De la Corte’s suggestions.

1861    The total number of convicts accommodated on Guam was fixed at 200.

1863      More convicts arrive from the Philippines.

1870    Eleven Spanish political prisoners arrive aboard the Shanghai. They are  granted amnesty by the King while they en route to Guam but do not learn of it until 4 February 1871.

1872    Twenty-two convicted in the Cavite rebellion arrive in the Marianas aboard the Flores de María. This group included members of the Comite de Reformadores that was generally composed of eminent mestizo lawyers and traders, priests and scholars. One woman and 10 catholic priests were among this group whose sentences ranged from 2 to 10 years. Many of those convicted were very wealthy and instead of living in the presido they were lodged in the homes of Hagåtña residents.

1873    Over 200 forzados deported from Spain arrive onboard the Panay. Of this group, 54 were incapable of doing any kind of work. One of those included Jose María Delgado García who had lost both of his feet  fighting the Carlists in Spain. Others required constant medical attention.  Lt. Colonel Eduardo Beaumont y Calafat writes that they “were nothing more than a band of thieves, the scum of Spain, ninety percent of who could neither read nor write.”

1875    Guam has so many prisoners on Guam that when the steamer Patino arrives with 473 deportados they are sent to Saipan. Taking advantage of the situation, Bully Hayes went into business smuggling prisoners out of Guam aboard his ship for $24 each. Hayes loses his ship the Arabia when several Spanish deportados  steal his ship. His ploy was to trick the prisoners who had paid him for transport, into disembarking the ship before leaving. This plan backfired when he was arrested near the shore trying to entice the prisoners to bathe before leaving. The deportados made off with his boat.

1876    King Alfonzo XII freed all the deportados and most were repatriated, leaving mainly the civilian and common criminals in the islands. Many stayed on Guam and married local women.

1892    The Mariana Islands Penal Institution is abolished and all prisoners sent to Manila.

1896    On the 11 September the steamer Churruca arrives on Guam with 57 Tagalog political prisoners, including two women. On 17 December the Saturnus arrives with 207 convicts including five deportados and six women. Three women familiar with the prison tell the others how easy it is to escape from the prison. This conversation, overheard by the guards, alerts the officials to a planned escape. One is killed and five injured when some prisoners attempt to escape through a window. Several days later a larger number of prisoners attempt to escape. The soldiers assisted by the citizens of Hagåtña thwart their attempt. Ninety-seven prisoners are reported dead and 46 injured. The four ringleaders of the escape plan were executed the following morning. The remaining prisoners were sent back to Manila. The political prisoners that arrived aboard the Churruca were said not to be involved in the escape.

1901    The last group of political prisoners arrive in Guam. These prisoners were sent by the United States during the Filipino Insurrection. Among them were three Filipino general, 54 political prisoners and 14 of their servants. Among them was Apolinardo Mabini who was the Prime Minister of the First Philippine Republic. Several of these people stayed in Guam, including Leon Flores, a teacher, attorney and father to Archbishop Felixberto Flores; Pancracio Palting who later became a judge; and Maximo Lorenzo Tolentino, a cook.

By Jillette Leon-Guerrero

For further reading

Cope, R. Douglas. 1994. The limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Cook, Mary Ellen. 1980. A Survey of Exiles in the Mariana Islands. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. University of Guam, April 1980: 3.

Cunningham, Lawrence J. and Janice J. Beaty. 2001. A History of Guam. Honolulu: Bess Press.

Driver, Marjorie G. 1988. “Cross, Sword, and Silver: The Nascent Spanish Colony in the Marianas,” in Pacific Studies, July 1988, 11(3): 21-51.

Driver, Marjorie G.  2005. The Spanish Governors of the Mariana Islands and the Saga of the Palacio. Mangilao, GU: RFT Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.

Farrell, Don A. 2011. History of the Mariana Islands to Partition. Chalan Kanoa, CNMI: Public School System, Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands.

Konetzke, Richard (ed.) 1958. Colección de Documentos para la Historia de la Formación Social de Hispanoamérica, 1493-1810. Vol II. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, p. 290.

Madrid, Carlos. 2006. Beyond Distances: Governance, Politics and Deportation in the Mariana Islands from 1870 to 1877. Quezon City, Philippines: CNMI Humanities Council.

Stephanie Mawson. 2015. “Rebellion and Mutiny in the Mariana Islands, 1680–1690,” in The Journal of Pacific History, 50:2, 128-148.

_____. 2013. “Unruly Plebeians and the Forzado System: Convict Transportation between New Spain and the Philippines during the Seventeenth Century,” in Revista de Indias, vol. LXXIII no. 259: 693-730.

Menendez, Beatriz Caceres and Robert W. Patch. 2006. “Gente de Mal Vivir: Families and Incorrigible Sons in New Spain, 1721-1729,” in Revistas de Indias, vol LXVI, no. 237: 363-392.

Navarro, Atoy M. 1999. “Philippines-Marianas Relations in History: Some Notes on Filipino Exiles in Guam,” in Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 8(1,2).

Rogers, Robert. 1995. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Salazar, Zeus A. 1999. “The Exile in Philippine History,” in Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 89 (1, 2).

Sanchez, Pedro C. 1998. Guahan Guam The History of our Island. Agana: Sanchez Publishing House.

Viana, Augusto V. de. 2004. “Filipino Natives In Seventeenth Century Marianas: Their role in the establishment of the Spanish mission in the islands,” in Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. 3(1,2).

_____.  2004. In the Far Islands. Manila: University of Santo Tomas.

White, Lorraine. 2001. “Spain’s Early Modern Soldiers: Origins, Motivation and Loyalty,” in War and Society, 19/2 (Campbell, ACT, October, 2001): 19-46.