Francisco Rodriguez: British Spy or Banking Pioneer?

19th Century Philippines. Looking north Hotel de Oriente (left) and La Insular Tobacco and Cigar Factory (right). Binondo Church is to the right just out of the picture. Perhaps this is the closest image that we could imagine about the time when Francisco Rodriguez founded the Rodriguez Bank. Photo owned by John Tewell.

Back in the days when Spain ruled the Philippines, the locals or the natives were called ‘Indios’ and not Filipinos. Spaniards who were born in the Philippines were the ‘Filipinos.’ This means that anything Filipino was identifiably Spanish.

One such Filipino was Francisco Rodriguez (1790-1857), a wealthy gentleman who founded the first privately-owned financial company in the Philippines. (Most sources claim that it was also the first ‘bank’ in the country but others sources say that it was more of a “loan association” and it was only a bank by name.)

What is interesting about this gentleman is not actually about the ‘bank’ that he established but the series of events that brought him there. There was a certain twist of circumstance that followed the life of this banking pioneer. At the time that he launched the Rodriguez Bank circa 1830s, he was no longer Spanish or Filipino but British.

The Expelled Who Excelled

After the failure of the Novales Revolt of 1823 (which only lasted for a day), señor Francisco Rodriguez was accused of being involved. The Spanish Colonial government expelled Rodriguez to Spain as a political prisoner. Luckily the Filipino managed to escape to London but his family and friends refused to offer help since he was a fugitive.

Without other means of support, he found himself living with a Quaker community from the United States based in London. For five years Francisco adopted their faith, ways, and trade. His stay in London became favourably rewarding for him. After some time, Spain granted pardon for those who were accused of taking part in the 1823 revolt. By this time Rodriguez was already a British national and a Quaker.

A Prisoner Who Became a Pioneer

He returned to Manila as a wealthy banker dressed as a Quaker. His former colleagues and associates found him odd and eventually attempted to expel him out of the country once more. But that did not happen. Embittered by the Spaniards and Filipinos who wanted him out; Rodriguez resorted to communicating only to those who could speak English.

Rodriguez Bank mainly supported British and American companies doing business in the country. Rodriguez himself provided seed money for British firms making investments in the Philippines. His financial support served the growth of their investments, some of which were:

  • The first railway system in the Philippines,
  • The modern sugar mills in Iloilo and Negros, and
  • A warehouse for Fleming & Company in Manila.

A source even said that Don Rodriguez was also a “secret agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society, the most active mission society distributing Bibles and bible translations around the world at the time.” Rodriguez and British Consul Nicholas Loney made arrangement with British commercial ships to bring Bibles into the country to be distributed to the locals. Does this mean that Britain was still interested to take back Manila by economic invasion? Did they regret giving “Manila back to Spain in 1764”?

Señor Francisco Rodriguez died on 10 March 1857. He gave his fortunes to Her Majesty Queen Victoria of England and to the widows and children of British soldiers who died serving Britain in the Crimean war (1853 – 1856).

Epilogue: Interesting Impact of His Work

As a response to Quaker Rodriguez’s pioneering success in banking business, the Spanish Colonial government founded its own banking institution. On 1 August 1851 the El Banco Español Filipino de Isabel II (The Spanish Filipino Bank of Isabel II) was established, named after Queen Isabel II of Spain. It was the first bank in Southeast Asia. And on 1 January 1912, the bank became famously known as the Banco de las Islas Filipinos (“Bank of the Philippine Islands” or BPI).

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