Martin was one of the first members of the Order of Saint Augustine to labour in the Philippines. He was born in Pamplona province of Navarra, Spain on 30th June 1533. At the age of twelve, his parents sent him and his older brother to study at the University of Paris. Due to some war conflicts, he was forced to return to Spain, and enrolled at the University of Salamanca.
He entered the Order of Saint Augustine in that city, and made his religious profession there on 21st November 1554. While assigned to the Augustinian monastery (convento) at Toledo in 1560, he volunteered to work in New Spain (Mexico). Alonso de la Vera Cruz O.S.A., a gifted teacher who in Mexico began the first university in the New World, later wrote that de Rada was "a man of uncommon talent, a good theologian and an eminence in mathematics and astrology." (Astrology was then a form of mathematics, and quite different to what is called astrology in popular language today.)
In Mexico, de Rada was assigned to study the Otomi language, and was successfully speaking it after only five months in the area. He went on to write instructional sermons and a book in that language. The talents and administrative abilities of de Rada were noted not only by the Augustinians leaders in Mexico but also by the Provincial in Spain. When in 1564 Augustinians were being chosen to accompany Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A. on the royal expedition to the Philippines that was to sail from Mexico under the command of Don Miguel López de Legazpi, the Provincial in Spain asked that the talents of de Rada be overlooked.
His reasoning was to hold de Rada in Mexico "until it is known about the success of the Armada." Presumably if Spain had succeeded in invading England, the Provincial had a plan in mind for de Rada there. As it happened, de Rada had already sailed in the Legazpi expedition before the Provincial's letter reached Mexico. The Legazpi expedition arrived at Cebu, Philippines on 27th April 1565.
When on 1st June 1565 Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A., accompanied by Andrés de Aguirre O.S.A., began his historical return voyage of exploration to Mexico, Martin de Rada remained in the Philippines with Diego de Herrera O.S.A. and Pedro de Gamboa O.S.A. More recent historians tend to equate Martin de Rada O.S.A. as an equally prominent person in Augustinian history as Andrés de Urdaneta O.S.A. (and as more important than him in Filipino history as an apologist for the cause of the Filipino people in relation to their Spanish overlords).
Urdaneta stayed at Cebu for only five weeks, and then successfully discovered his epic sea route back to Mexico, never to return to Asia because of his old age and failing health. On the other hand, Martin de Rada and the two other Augustinians in the Legazpi voyage remained in the Philippines with those first Spanish conquistadors of Asia. These three quickly learned the Cebuano (local) language.
Martin de Rada O.S.A. remained at Cebu from 1565 to 1572. He is thus considered the apostle of the Christian Faith in Cebu. He also made voyages to adjacent islands, mainly Panay, in the years 1566-1567, and preached there also. In 1572 he became the regional superior of the Order of Saint Augustine in the Philippines. At the time that the Augustinian Province of the Holy Name of Jesus was founded in the Philippines on 7th March 1575, he was its first Prior Provincial. In the monastery of San Agustin in Intramuros, de Rada organised the first centre for study and missionary cooperation in the Philippines. He formalised the study of local languages, and helped in the preparation of grammar books.
He gave impetus to the teaching of the sciences and humanities, and in the monasteries developed the teaching of religion, music, arts and science. He also left behind him a written legacy of the beginnings of the Christian evangelisation of the Philippines. When previously in Cebu he had began to study the Chinese language, such that in 1574 he was acting as an interpreter to a group of Chinese merchants who visited Manila. On 26th June 1575 he and Jeronimo Marin O.S.A. accompanied a delegation of officials to China. He was also the first ambassador of the Spanish King to the court of the Emperor of China, and was one of the first two Spanish missionaries to set foot on Chinese soil.
They reached the port of Amoy on 5th July, in the Hokien province, and visited a number of cities. The group returned to Manila on 28th October 1575. Martin de Rada wrote detailed observations on the Chinese people and their way of life. As a Sinologist, he introduced Europe to the oriental culture of the sixteenth century. In 1578 de Rada was once again placed on an expedition by the Governor of Manila. This one was to Borneo, where there was rivalry within the family of the sultan. The expedition sailed from Manila on 3rd March 1578, but was not successful. On the return voyage many people in the expedition had sickness and disease.
De Rada was one of those less fortunate, and died at sea between 8th and 15th June shortly before the ship reached Manila. He was only forty-five years of age. Martin de Rada O.S.A. is much remembered as a great defender of the Filipino people against the lack of justice of Spanish officials at the local level. In an environment where it was difficult to keep the focus on the catechism appropriately separate from a focus on gold, Martin de Rada established himself as a protector and defender of the Filipinos. Already aware of the negative impact of the actions of the conquistadors upon the promotion of the Gospel, in his letters to Spain he called attention to the motives of the conquista, and gave advice that it would take time and patience rather than brutality and impatience for the Indios to understand and accept the new system that was imposed on them.
Such norms were not clear in the mind of the Governor himself, much less were they clear in the minds of his subjects. Concepts like tributo, ecomienda and religion were new to the Indios. Because the tributo was open to corruption, Martin de Rada organized campaigns to bring a moral dimension to the system. In a sense, he was a humanitarian who pleaded for a moral order and justice for the people, based on Christian law. A key document in this matter was his Parescer del Provincial fray Martin de Rada, agoostino, sobre las coasa de estas tierass ("About the abuses committed against the natives in the collection of tributes"), dated at Manila, 21st June 1575.
Aware of the deficiencies of the encomienda, de Rada lashed out at those who exploited it. He confronted the encomenderos who abused their power and condemned their maltreatment of the native people. In the monastery of San Agustin in Intramuros, de Rada organised the first centre for study and missionary cooperation in the Philippines. He formalised the study of local languages, and helped in the preparation of grammar books. He gave impetus to the teaching of the sciences and humanities, and in the monasteries developed the teaching of religion, music, arts and science. He also left behind him a written legacy of the beginnings of the Christian evangelisation of the Philippines.
There are two Augnet galleries on the Philippines. For the Vicariate of the Orient click here, and for the Province of Cebu click here.
A Short Philippine History before the 1898 Revolution. http://www.sspxasia.com/Newsletters/2001/Oct-Dec/A_short_Philippine_History.htm
Martin de Rada. The Augustinians accompanied the first Spanish expeditions to Panay Island to prevent any harm being done to the natives, as ordered by their Prior. It is Friar Martin de Rada who is said to have been the first to priest to preach the gospel on the banks of the river in Bamban. He was subsequently south to Dumangas in Iloilo to continue his missionary work. http://historicphilippines.com/our-churches/historic-churches-ii/santa-monica-church