A Little History
The area we now call the Philippines was first colonized by Spain in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain. Magellan named the islands “Las Felipinas” after King Philip II of Spain.
Explorer Ferdinand Magellan
Tobacco was first introduced to the Philippines 1591. 50 kilograms of tobacco seeds were said to have come from the Spanish colony of Cuba aboard the San Clemente Galleon.
The seeds were to be grown in the Philippines as growing conditions were far better suited to tobacco than the likes of Spain or other European countries.
The initial seeds were planted by Catholic Friars in the Cagayan Valley in the province of Isabella, which boasted lush, fertile growing conditions that were held in comparison to the Vuelta Abajo in Cuba.
Illustration of a Catholic friar harvesting tobacco
As European appetite for tobacco continued to grow, ‘the Manila cigar’ was being enjoyed in some of Europe’s finest smoking salons. As a result, the people of the Philippines were put to work growing tobacco for export to Europe and to generate revenue for the crown.
Around the late 1700s, the Philippine tobacco industry was vibrant. Local companies were established, and alongside the farmers, they were able to produce tobacco for export and for the local market as well.
Tobacco production offered a sense pride for the people and became quite intertwined with Philippine culture.
Soon however, Spain established an oppressive monopoly over the Philippine tobacco industry that would result in abuse and horrific conditions for the local population. As a consequence of the monopoly, the Philippines became the biggest tobacco-producing country in Asia while the people struggled under its rule.
This persisted until 1881 when the monopoly was finally abolished under King Alfonso III.
A placard recognizing the abolishment of Spain’s tobacco monopoly in the Philippines. Source: Wikicommons
Shortly after, influential Spanish businessman Antonio Lopez y López founded the Compania General de Tabácos de Filipinas S.A., also known as the Compania de Filipinas (CdF), or by its nickname, “La Tabacalera,” as the privatized version of the tobacco monopoly.
La Tabacalera established “La Flor de la Isabela” (the Flower of Isabela) in 1887. By the late 19th century, primarily through the export of La Flor de la Isabela, ‘the Manila cigar’ became every bit as celebrated throughout the world as ‘the Havana Cigar’.
Around this time, the Philippine cigar industry experienced a significant boom, with La Flor de la Isabella leading the charge. Into the 20th century, La Tabacalera would eventually employ in excess of 5000 people within a state of the art factory.
The Flor de la Isabella Cigar Factory
Sadly, many of Tabacalera’s facilities were destroyed after the WWII liberation of the Philippines from Japan by the United States
Cigar Counter of Legaspi Gardens, a restaurant hangout for servicemen next to Pier 7 in Manila in 1941.
After liberation, the Philippine tobacco industry began to shift its focus more toward the production of cigarettes. This persisted up until the 1980s.
In the 1990s, Tabacalera was repurchased and received new investment. Workers received formal training from hired Cuban specialists (most notably Cubatabaco’s Alfredo Salinas) on the Cuban style of cigar making.
This marked a return to “totalmente a mano” (totally handmade), the way cigars were traditionally made in the Philippines.
A modern-day tobacco worker in the Philippines