The Philippines is both geophysically and meteorologically one of the world’s natural hazard ‘hot spots’. According to the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), which has compiled one of the most comprehensive records on the occurrence of natural hazards in the world since 1900, the Philippines experiences more such events than any other country. 1 Between 1900 and 1991, there were 702 disasters - earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, droughts, landslides and the like - an average of eight a year, causing 51,757 fatalities (Bengco 1993:2). 2 However, modern databases are usually limited by their inability to provide a more extensive historical overview of the incidence and experience of hazard as their documentation rarely extends over more than the last century. Without a fuller historical appreciation of these phenomena, there is always the risk that the disasters caused by natural hazards may be viewed as of recent provenance, simply the product of larger populations, a greater concentration of infrastructure, and, perhaps, accelerated environmental degradation. And while few would deny the importance of these factors in helping explain the increasing impact of disasters on modern societies, the emphasis on the present or the recent past tends to disguise the fact that many land masses such as the Philippines have had long exposure to such events.
An examination of the historical records since the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century reveals the extent to which peoples in the Philippines have been exposed to natural hazards and the ways in which disasters may have actually affected the evolution and adaptation of societies in the archipelago. Even within the islands, the evidence suggests that some areas, and therefore some peoples, have been more vulnerable to hazards than others. The sheer frequency and magnitude of this experience may even have significant cultural implications. First an appreciation of the nature of hazard and the physical environment is explored before the history of disasters is reconstructed from archival sources. Though incomplete and patchy at times, the data still clearly show the magnitude of such phenomena on colonial society in the archipelago. A subsequent analysis attempts to estimate the effect of these hazards in terms of numbers of people affected, damage