Friday, August 12, 2011

Vigan Visit, The Awesomely Ancient Bantay's St. Augustine Church

This is a continuation post, part 2 actually, about our short stop in the northern Philippine city of Vigan. Time flies, it’s already been more than two months since we were there.

When our kalesa drivers brings us across the river back to “the National Highway” and pulls into the driveway down the hill from the 421 year old St. Augustine church, at the time, I am under the impression that we are still in Vigan. It is only later, while researching for this series of posts, that I learn that this awesomely ancient cathedral is actually in the similarly historical town of Bantay. If there is a sign announcing we have changed towns I don’t remember seeing it.

Truth be known, this country isn’t all that big on directional signs anyway, so I doubt that there is one. After nine years of living and traveling here, generally speaking, I’ve learned that the navigation of streets and roads is a non-friendly-to-traveler process — Having said that, here’s some advice: If you don’t have local knowledge then prepare to ask for lots of directions; and if you’re STILL not sure if you’re going the right way, NEVER go too far before asking AGAIN. For as often as not, you WILL find yourself doubling back—turning around at one mile in the wrong direction is better than ten.

ON that note, I’m absolutely positive that there were NO street signs in the Vigan area back in the 16th century when Salcedo first invaded it in the name of King Philip II. I don’t think it really mattered to those old-time Spanish conquerors anyway what the locals called things and places. Although a story IS widely found on several of the Vigan info sites as to the history of the name of the town:

The agreed upon story tells of a Spaniard checking out the area for the first time (one site even says it was Salcedo himself). He points generally at the overgrown area along the river asking a local for the name of the area. The Ilocano, not understanding Spanish, thinks the Spaniard is asking for the name of a wild plant growing profusely along the riverbank called locally Bigaa (Each a is pronounced separately and not combined into a single sound). Eventually the B is turned into a V as the Spanish tend to do, the n is added and there you go; the place becomes “Vigan,” named mistakenly after a weed growing on a river bank. It’s a good story, but who knows if it’s true or not? After all, 440 years ago is a LONG time.

After Salcedo pacifies the area that is now the coast of Ilocos Sur in the early 1570s (there was not much native resistance by the way), he and his crew of conquistadors settle on the spot that eventually becomes the Spanish colonial town of Vigan. (Actually he names it Ciudad de Fernandina, or city of little Ferdinand). But the intent here is not to comment so much about Vigan, but about the town of Bantay just across the river. It is in THIS smaller town about two decades after the time of Salcedo that Spanish Augustinian monks begin building a church they name after their patron saint, Saint Augustine, who happens to be one of my favorite holy men of all time. (Augustine was a bishop who lived in Roman North Africa, a theological genius from the 5th Century known even today for his mastery of rhetoric and Christian philosophy.)

I’m not sure how it happened this way, but Bantay’s St. Augustine church goes up a good twenty years ahead of Vigan’s primary cathedral called St. Paul. Let me do a quick check online and see if I can find out why:

Aha! Here’s an answer from regarding the history of Vigan’s St. Paul’s: “The first church was built on this site in 1574 (by Juan de Salcedo) and was damaged in the earthquakes of 1619 and 1627. A second was built here in 1641; and the present baroque-style church was built in the 1800s.”

So there you go; I had it mostly wrong. (Don’t hate!) St. Paul’s in its present form is “only” somewhere over 100 years old. Looking at it from close up, I wondered how they managed to make a building from the early 1600s look so modern. The answer is that St. Pauls, compared to St. Augustine, is a relatively “modern” building, completely rebuilt several times since the first Vigan Cathedral was constructed in the late 1500s.

But enough about Vigan things—back to Bantay’s St. Augustine—according to the historical sign on the façade of St. Augustine’s it began to go up in 1590 but had to be rebuilt after being damaged during WWII. Based on that I began to try to find out what kind of battles took place in the Vigan/Bantay area during the 1941-1945 war with Japan.

So here’s what I find: The Japanese easily land their forces in Vigan in December 1941 totally without resistance and occupy it without much incident until the Americans return to that part of Luzon in early 1945. I can find absolutely nothing anywhere about any battles taking place during WWII in the Vigan area. I wondered then how St. Augustine’s could have been so damaged that it had to be rebuilt after the war. I think I found the answer on a site called specifically about Bantay and what happened to the church in WWII:
“During World War II, on April 15, 1945, three big incendiary bombs hit the church but none of them exploded; however five other bombs exploded fifty meters away from it that resulted in the collapse of its roofs but later-on was rebuilt after the cessation of the arm(ed) conflict.”

Finally! Great detail on exactly HOW The Church of St. Augustine is so grievously damaged during the war; it is bombed by Americans.

I have no doubt as to why American airmen would attack a church. In a nutshell, they bombed it because Japanese soldiers were in it. Thick walled old Spanish churches throughout the country were generally some of the first structures taken over and garrisoned by the Japanese. At the time they spat on Christianity, having no respect for any religion (or culture for that matter) other than their own, which at the time for most Japanese in uniform was a nationalistic, very marshal form of Shinto revolving around the worship of their emperor.

There’s another, perhaps fanciful tale, as to why the Japanese left the Vigan/Bantay area without trying to defend their positions to the last man, as they did in Manila. Luckily for Vigan, the Japanese Imperial Army did not vindictively destroy the town on their way out of it. Check out this romantic little story:

“Before the Japanese withdrawal, they were tasked to destroy the zones they used. The night before they left, they have strategically placed numerous tanks of gasoline and bombs. Apparently, a Japanese military officer had an affair with an Ilocano woman and (she) bore a child. We all know that Japanese have abused women but (this) military officer chooses to take care of his wife and child in secret. He asked the procurator of Vigan seminary that time to take care of his family. The procurator agreed but asked something in return. He asked the officer to leave the town without burning it. Reason is, the townspeople will seek revenge on his family. Thus, the Japanese retrieved (their bombs) and left no marks of destruction.”

There is another site I found (and since lost) that states that this fabled love struck officer was in fact the commander of the Japanese forces in Vigan. If there is any truth to this story at all I would go with that version, since a lower ranking officer wouldn’t have the leverage to disobey an order of that magnitude.

I don’t know though—the whole thing sounds more like a movie script; or, a farfetched fairytale to me.

Long before I knew of any of that though, I found an outside area of the church that looks to be original to its 1590s beginnings. Undoubtedly, few people bother to explore it. Long ago it may well have been a well kept walled garden, but now it seems to be mostly neglected by the caretakers and ignored by visitors. I presume the walls and buttresses here are the original brick; that which is exposed being now much decayed and weatherworn. Here and there on the brick face is a bare hint of the original protective stucco that was probably last applied hundreds of years ago. This unrestored eastern side, well shaded by mango trees, is where you FEEL and SMELL the extreme age of the massive structure. This spot is far more attractive to me than any other part of the olden church. Here, the walls of weathered bricks are moldered and moss covered; plants and vines grow out of deep chinks and on ledges from top to bottom. I must say, when I “discover” this delightfully hidden side of the church I am conveyed to “historical heaven.”

It takes a few minutes before I notice it for what it is, but I begin to get the feeling that this whole side of the building was once part of a warzone. I recognize an area in the brickwork that almost certainly shows battle damage. There are several small pockmarks less than a foot across in several areas across the walls, but there is a decidedly large section of damage that looks as if a small caliber shell or heavy object smashed with high velocity into the bricks there, causing a deep hole surrounded by a missing outer layer of bricks. After I notice that obvious sample of battle damage I begin to look at the other smaller, less obvious dings and pocks, and it sinks in that this whole side of the structure has evidence of ruination caused by weaponry. I suppose at first I don’t realize what I’m looking at because the peacefulness of the place now belies the evidence of its violent past. It makes me wonder what else has happened within the vicinity of that venerable place.

Talking and thinking now about that 66 year old battle damage, and reexamining the photos of it, reminds me of an even older incident that I know also happened right there on the church grounds. I’m speaking of the 1763 rebellion led by Diego Silang. In fact, several times over the centuries it is the church’s highest point location, along with its massively thick walls, plus the unimpeded 360 degree view provided by the hilltop bell tower that has made Bantay’s imposing St. Augustine an automatic choice as a fortification spot.

I don’t want to spend too much more time on Silang since I pretty much covered every aspect of his life and rebellion period in the previous post, but the very fact that The St. Augustine Church existed all those years ago while Diego was active provided a special moment for me, especially while exploring the church, the extensive church grounds and certainly its bell tower. I say that because I KNOW that he frequented these places and was doing so right up until the moment of his death. Stepping in the footprints of history always deeply affects me like that.

And since previously posting on Diego Silang, I believe I’ve figured out WHERE he was killed. If you read my last post you’ll learn that Silang was assassinated by his friend, Miguel Vicos. Based on some clues from the internet, I’m pretty sure this murderous deed happened only a stone’s throw from the church’s main entrance. It would have been just down the hill, near the town’s municipal building in a spot that used to be the town square and now called Diego Silang Park. I’ve created a Google map that shows the site of the church and the possible site of Silang’s death. See it below:
View Bantay Church and Bell tower, also possible Diego Silang death site marked in a larger map
I'm guessing about the Silang death site. I wish I would have actually walked down the hill to the Bantay town hall and police station, as well as the playground now called Silang Park. I think I've got it correct though, based on what I found on this site specifically about Bantay:
"Several battles have spillovers in Bantay, one of which was the Ilocos revolt led by Diego Silang. Here, this heroic figure was killed by a Spanish mestizo nicknamed “Vicos.” The incident took place at Encuentro Street where now stands the Diego Silang Park (Municipal town plaza). Ironically, the Diego Silang Park that was originally constructed in 1763 displays a commemorative monumental figure of Vicos and not of Diego Silang."
(I'm not so sure if the above is absolutely correct though since I've found other historical articles online that claim that the original Spanish inscription honoring Vicos the assassin of Silang was changed a hundred years ago to honor ONLY Silang.)

Once I get my first look at the beauty that is St. Augustine’s I become a photo taking berserker. I didn’t know how much time there would be so I go nuts with the camera. The sky is a brilliant blue; the sun high, and the views around me filled with visual promise. Everywhere I turn there is incredible potential to put together some sublime shots and I am determined to get as many of them digitized as possible before having to depart to see “the next thing.” I have since kicked myself for not having my superior Canon G11 instead of my little handy dandy Cybershot—I did take some gorgeous photos but they would have been even better with the more capable G11.

Approaching the façade of St. Augustine’s I examine it closely with great enthusiasm. After reading that it had been built in 1590 I am immediately skeptical, until I read the part on the sign that it has been rebuilt since WWII.

The front side of St. Augustine’s does look nice, but it also looks new which is what threw me. The architecture is a very busy with lots of pointed arches; to me, it seems in the mode of Spanish Romanesque, although the sign calls it neo-gothic mixed with elements of pseudo-Romanesque. It’s clean colorful and well kept, but to a historical purist like me it’s a disappointment. Back in 1950 when they decided to rebuild it I wish they would have stayed true to its original look and done it exactly the way it was when the Augustinians first put it up. But that’s just me. For instance, I was extremely unhappy when Sacred Heart Parish back in the Michigan town where I went to high school pulled down its little decades old American gothic style church and replaced it with a blandly squat monstrously modernistic thing. Now it looks more like a fancy elementary school than a church.

Wondering what Bantay’s St. Augustine might have looked like originally, I found online photos of a couple of old churches built in the Philippines that might provide some clues. Oddly enough, both of them are also called St. Augustine’s.

The two candidate cathedrals I found have mostly surviving façades that probably show features that might be representative of what was once a part of Bantay’s church. First, there is Manila’s St. Augustine Cathedral, built from 1586 to 1607, with a start date four years earlier than Bantay’s much smaller version named after the same saint. The other church that I like to think may resemble what Bantay’s used to look like is another St. Augustine’s located north of Bantay in the town of Paoay in Ilocos Norte.

The problem with Paoay’s church is that it WAS built well into the age of baroque, which is all about overdone decoration and embellishment. In the photos of the church (see it to the right), other than the fancy Javanese looking stone caps rimming the entire perimeter of the roof edge, not much else looks all that baroque to me, that is until I take a closer look. That’s when I notice that there appears to be a lot more ornamentation on the façade than at first meets the eye. It looks as if a lot of the original adornment and color has been lost to weathering and neglect.

I suspect then that Bantay’s St. Augustine probably resembled more the far simpler post Crusade style of Romanesque cathedral built right around the same time (late 1500s) inside Manila’s Intramuros.

(Boy, those Augustinian friars sure weren’t very imaginative; I mean, they seemed to want to name just about every church they built after their own patron saint.)

Check out the two photos of Manila’s St. Augustine. (The photo to the left is a modern view of it with the missing left belfry) There is nothing elaborate about it. Other than the double stacked decorative columns bracketing its front entrance the only other décor is provided by the few symmetrically placed windows.

Bantay’s front exterior, replaced just 61 years ago, looks to have a lot of extra side-by-side arches pasted on its walls (although after a second look perhaps these arches were part of the original since I notice these same arches in evidence on the old eastern side walls); and instead of using simple round columns to frame the façade, the refurbishers of the Bantay church went with decorative projecting box columns that probably add very little if any functionality.

A final clue that Bantay’s St. Augustine’s probably used to look very similar to Manila’s slightly older St. Augustine’s is that basically the two buildings’ façades are extremely alike structurally. Each has, or had in the case of Manila’s church, two belfries on each front corner that bracket a triangular topped façade with a round single window in the middle of the façade peak. (As seen in the right photo it lost its left belfry to a huge earthquake in the late 1800s.)

All the above of course is pure conjecture, at least the part is on what St. Augustine's facade once looked like; I would love to see a photo of the church before it was reconstructed in 1950 to see how much of my guesswork is true. Surely, such a photo exists somewhere?

Spending a few minutes inside, enjoying the dark cool of the church I snapped several photos there as well. Compared to other churches dating back to colonial times Bantay’s has a very simple interior. I enjoyed the mausoleum feel of the deeply inset tunnel-like front alcove where they keep the image of “Our Lady of Charity.”
The inscription states that it was found long ago by fishermen in a floating box on the Bantaoay River. It is said that at the time only Bantay folks could carry the image, while others from other places could not, thus it is considered miraculous. The sign doesn’t state how long ago this is supposed to have happened.

Last and certainly not least we trek up the long flight of stairs up the hill to the old bell tower. The tower and its bells are amazing. We look out and marvel over the views of city, mountain and country. Over the centuries, undoubtedly thousands of others have done the same thing, including Diego Silang himself, and all the other soldiers and visitors from various countries and times. I’ll let the pictures and captions speak for themselves.

The rest of this post is devoted to the best of the photos I took of this building and of the equally fascinating bell tower situated on a rise above the church, which is itself already located high above its surroundings.

* A side view of the unrepaired eastern side of Bantay’s St. Augustine. This is what you’ll see when you first peek around the corner of the left belfry and lower alcove corner of the church. It doesn’t look like much but that didn’t stop me from going in and checking it out.

* Also on the eastern side of the church, this is a view looking directly up the wall in the corner formed by the backside of the left belfry / alcove structure. Some of this damage may well be from WWII.

* This is obviously looking up at a dome, but I can’t remember where in the church it is. It’s probably inside the top of one of the alcoves, but don’t hold me to it.

* View from behind the statue of the boy in the semi garden area in the unrenovated eastern side of the church. Looking at some of the ruined areas, I’m sure a lot of it is simply caused by weathering. If the caretakers do not start removing the plants the roots will eventually turn what you see above into a pile of rubble.

* The brick here still has a hint of the encasement stucco that once protected the brick from the elements. Without it, you get what you see, ruination.

* From inside the church looking up at the stained glass window a few feet inside from the main entrance.

* A close up of the stained glass window image of “Our Lady of Charity,” to which the church has been made a shrine in her honor.

* A view of St. Augustine’s bell tower from below its first retaining wall.

* The bell tower from the bottom of its steps.

* Divine standing in the entrance of the bell tower. Notice that there is still a bit of the original stucco or cement covering that once coated all these orange bricks.

* Divine posing in one of the viewing windows, one that looks out over Bantay's cemetery to the southeast.

* Bantay's cemetery. The gap in the hills in the distance I believe is where the Abra River passes through the hills on its way to the sea.

* Well, it IS a bell tower, and it does have plenty of them. Everyone of them appear to be antiques going back more than a hundred years.

* A view to the west of St. Augustine's left belfry and Vigan spreading out in the distance down the hill from there.

* A Close up of the belfry, same view as described in the photo above.

* The bell tower's dome from directly below it through some boards being used for internal support.

* The altar at the front of the church.

* A close up of one of the bell tower bells.

* I LOVE this view of the tower from the bottom of the hillside staircase.

* A statue holding holding holy water at the side rear of the church.

* This one cracks me up. Notice that the ironworks spells out "In Memory of the late." Its funny to me for two reasons, first it's an example of the "interestingly humorous" way Filipinos can use English at times. Obviously, in this case "the late" refers to "the dead." But also, if you are around Filipinos much, especially here in the home land, you'll know about "Filipino Time," which refers to the national tendency to be late, probably even for their OWN funeral. I showed this pic to my wife just to give her a little jazz telling her, "See, this little chapel is devoted to ALL Filipinos!" She's a good sport; I mean, she didn't smack me all THAT hard!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Vigan Visit, I learn of Diego Silang

After finishing the accounts of our eight dives up in Claveria I took an unplanned blog break. Sometimes it happens that way. I go on a tear for a few weeks before losing steam and falling into unintentional hiatus, always meaning to write but not quite getting around to it.

Actually though, I haven’t been completely out of it. After uploading the last of the trip pics into my Flickr photostream I began to research the place of our last notable stop on the trip, that being the famously intact old colonial town of Vigan. That was over a week ago and STILL I’m reading. The way it works, I start into a subject that leads to questions, which leads to other subjects and still more questions. And so it goes.

And I haven’t just been researching and surfing; I HAVE been writing. In fact, coming back up here to the top of these pages and pages of meandering writings, all of it inspired from our short stop at Vigan, I’m not sure how to post it all. My thoughts bounce around all over the place, and now there’s so much that I’m not sure how to break it up into comprehensible installments. And STILL I’m not done! Oh well, it’s not perfect, but I need to start posting—so here goes.


We pull into Vigan around lunchtime. I was only aware of its obvious major attractions, that being its old and beautiful architecture unique to the Spanish era of the Philippines. And there’s plenty of that to see for sure. In fact, everywhere, even in non-tourist areas, it’s easy to spot obviously old structures.

Although usually decrepit, the commonalities of these ubiquitous old buildings are their fired clay bricks. Most of these weathered reddish orange bricks are covered with a layer of cement or plaster, much of it long since cracked or broken off to expose the original brickwork beneath.

Something I find fascinating about Vigan’s brick buildings are the necessarily thick walls of these antique structures. Depending on how tall the walls, some are five or six feet thick. The really large churches and bell towers are even thicker at the base than that. And the REALLY big churches, the ones that soar into the sky, not only have super thick walls but also have add on bulwarks called buttresses for extra support.
These add on’s, often beautiful in their own right, some gigantically immense, are also constructed of brick and keep the high heavy stout walls from bowing outward and collapsing. For me, the Iguig Church, built starting in 1765, provides one of the best local visual examples of the super support version called flying buttresses. I saw this beauty by chance during a visit to the Cagayan Valley about 7 years ago. St. Paul's buttresses seen in this photo are not very imposing, and certainly don't "fly," but its easy to see how they work to keep the walls up. (And I've learned since originally posting this that these squat buttresses are designed this way to make the building more "earthquake proof," even as the flying ones are "earthquake prone.")

Don parks in the plaza in front of the Vigan cathedral, called Saint Paul’s, built in the early 1600s. We eat a quick lunch at the McDonald’s located cattycornered to the cathedral. Later, I notice that the design of this Micky D's, or McDo's as they call it here, resembles the look of the nearby cathedral and bell tower, as seen in the photo. I’m tickled after noticing the resemblance — very clever.
A line of horse drawn buggies, called kalesas, are parked along the south side of the cathedral on Burgos Street, a thoroughfare that splits the Cathedral from its bell tower.

Don assures us that a buggy ride is THE best way to see the best of Vigan. I am not so sure about getting into another kalesa after being ripped off by one in Manila’s Intramuros to the tune of about $50 a few years ago (it’s a long story); but after Don guarantees nothing like that will happen in Vigan we happily load up into two kalesas and begin our tour of the town.

The kalesa driver takes us up Burgos past Salcedo Plaza then right up Quezon for quite a ways until we reach the National Highway where we turn right. After passing the plaza there is nothing much remarkable to see; I wonder what the deal is, but after only a short distance up the highway our drivers cross the highway and let us off in a driveway leading up to a beautiful church with a separate bell tower quite a ways from it on a hill to the east. It is quite a sight.
“Ah, now THIS is more like it!”

Until I sought to learn about this particular church, called St Augustine's, I mistakenly thought we were still in Vigan; I even loaded my Flickr photos of it under the caption of “St. Augustine Church, Vigan.” But no, it’s actually located across the Mestizo River in the town of Bantay. (Note to self: change the Flickr set title from Vigan to Bantay).

From the historical sign on the church façade, three items immediately strike me—1) it was built starting in 1590; 2) it was damaged in WWII, after which it was rebuilt/repaired; and finally,
3) it mentions Diego Silang, who leads an Ilocano rebellion against Spain in 1763. And now that I've more closely examined the sign, and realize there's a mispell on it, I can now see that it states the church is the site of fighting during the rebellion. I'll bet you its close to the place where he was murdered even! It IS after all the highest spot in Bantay; so what better place for the rebels to have their fortifications?

From there, my quest for information begins—for me, that's ALWAYS where the REAL adventure begins:

So, the church of St. Augustine goes back 421 years—very impressive to a guy like me who appreciates such things. Even so, the town of Vigan, just across the river, becomes a colonial town under Spanish domination almost 20 years before that, in 1572, the year that Juan de Salcedo (Vigan's main plaza is named for him) subjugates the area for King Philip II.

As Spain was want to do, it rules over the indigenous people here with a heavy hand. It takes over the land and resources, and forces the locals to work as slave labor. This cruelty continues for hundreds of years and results in a string of rebellions until the final one against Spain in 1896; although it could be said that the very last one was against the American occupation starting in 1899, and I would even add a final final one, the People Power Revolution against Marcos in 1986. And while we’re at it, let’s back up a bit and add the Filipino Resistance against the Japanese from 1941 to 1945.

And that brings us back to Vigan and Diego Silang, the fellow from 1763 mentioned on the St. Augustine Church informational sign. Uprisings like the one he led that flared up across the archipelago during Spanish times have intrigued me to no end. I was unaware that there were so many until I took a Philippine History class in 2004 during my short college career here. (

A fascinating thing about these numerous insurgencies is how the Spanish managed to quell them all and mostly quite easily. They did this even though there were never all that many actual Spaniards here, only a few thousand Spanish soldiers at any one time.

Keeping in mind the great expanse of the Philippine archipelago, no matter how many troops there were they couldn’t be everywhere at once. How then is it that the Spanish, relatively few in number, were able to so easily subdue indigenous mutineers each time they rose up, time after time, for 350 years? (Although there was one rebellion on Bohol that went on for 75 years; it only ended when its leader finally died of old age! Even so, “the damage” was contained as there was little danger of it spreading to other provinces.)

Actually the scheme to maintain control was quite simple, and in a twisted way, ingenious. It comes down to the simple adage of “divide and conquer.” From the beginning there is nothing to unite the scores of diverse ethnic groups dispersed across hundreds of miles and thousands of islands of what the Spanish artificially compiled into “The Philippines.”

In fact, much like the continuous warring between the native tribes of America, the various clans here also tended to be contentious and suspicious of each other. All the Spaniards had to do then was to maintain that animosity by keeping the various peoples isolated from each other, physically, culturally and socially.

The ugly truth is that for over 300 years, rebellions in the Philippines are put down mostly by the natives themselves. For instance, say a revolt breaks out among the Ilocanos; the Spanish might simply deploy forces made up of troops from other areas, perhaps Tagalogs or Cavitenos, men with absolutely no affinity for those they are ordered to put down. (There is nothing unique about this, the British during its days of empire also used native regiments to good effect. The US did much the same thing during The Indian Wars, and also used native forces in the Philippines called The Philippine Scouts).

Profoundly perceptive and cruel, the Spaniards are no fools; they learn from their mistakes. Magellan himself provides the very first lesson in how NOT to do things here when he foolishly leads an attack against Mactan’s Lapu Lapu, even telling his new allies, the Cebuano chieftain Humabon and his warriors, to stay put, while he and just 60 Spaniards take on Lapu Lapu’s hundreds. The overconfident Magellan is overwhelmed and killed in the surf just off the a Mactan shore along with many of his men—lesson learned. In the decades that follow Spain rarely fights exclusively with their own forces against insurgents, preferring instead to use “native troops” to do their dirty work.

It seems to me then that the primary way that Spaniards keep the native peoples alienated enough to willingly kill each other across their far-flung Philippine possession is to discourage a common language. I haven’t been able to find any source stating that wholesale teaching of the Spanish language is actually outlawed among the masses; nonetheless, it isn’t until a more liberal period begins in 1863 that Spain finally begins teaching Spanish en masse to common Filipinos. That’s when Queen Isabella makes public education mandatory, including the teaching of Spanish. Even so, with few proper schools ever built and even fewer teachers available to staff them, most of the population never learns Spanish.

I’m still not sure then if Spanish as a common language was officially banned, or if it just happens that way, perhaps it is because so few natives have any real contact with Spanish speakers, except of course with priests; but most of these friar types serve their flocks using the local dialects.

I remember reading in a Philippine History text book a few years ago that it actually WAS outlawed to teach Spanish indiscriminately, but so far I’ve found nothing to confirm that on the internet. I’m leaning towards it being purposeful. I think they did this only here because unlike their American territories, which were fairly easy to reach in a few weeks, getting to the Phils took many months, even years depending on sea conditions. Hence, ruling the Philippines from Spain was a logistical nightmare. In fact they didn’t even try; it was actually administered by way of the viceroy in Mexico. (

Regardless of why the Spanish language does not take hold among the masses even as it certainly does throughout all of Spain’s other colonies in Latin America, the fact that most native Filipinos can not converse between ethnic groups keeps all rebellions local affairs, and thus more easily crushed. That is, until the very last one, called the Philippine Revolution in 1896.

Of course, even the 1896 revolt turned out to be a failure, although undoubtedly the most successful, mostly due to the rise of Filipino nationalism, which must be directly attributed to two things: 1) The increased use of Spanish across the colony, and 2) the end of a more tolerant liberal period of rule in 1871, when Spanish hardliners regain power and reinstate a new era of cruelty and terror. It’s ironic then that the most successful Philippine revolt of all is actually made possible by the Spanish themselves. Once they let the cat out the bag it is impossible to get it back in there.

But that is more than 130 years after the time of the Ilocos rebellion led by Diego Silang, the Ilocano man mentioned on the display at the Bantay church of St. Augustine.

Actually, even as I read it there, Silang’s name was vaguely familiar to me; I’m sure I read about him a time or two, but after being right there in the place where he makes history I am compelled to examine more closely the life and times of the man.

At the moment I'm writing this I believe that Diego Silang probably comes from a fairly privileged family. (Interjection: but wait, I'm reading on several sites now that he is actually orphaned young; so much for having a family!)

He is raised an Ilocano in the Vigan area (his dad is from Pangasinan, his mom Ilocano). Because he can speak Spanish, a pretty good clue that his family is well off (well, maybe not, if he was orphaned at a young age!), he is able to work for a Vigan priest as a courier; as such he makes many trips to and from Manila. Naturally his travels give him an expanded view of the world so that he learns to hate the Spanish abuses he sees all around him; his powerlessness in the face of injustice must gnaw at him. He probably dreams of throwing the bums out some day.

His opportunity to do exactly that comes when the English take over colonial control of the Philippines during The Seven Years War; although, all they actually manage to control is Manila only.

Diego uses that time of Spanish weakness to ask the Spanish authorities to give Ilocanos positions of authority in exchange for his allegiance against the invading English. They imprison him instead. A priest friend, Fr. Millan, gets him released, but as soon as he’s freed he makes further demands, such as the removal of certain badly acting Spanish.

When authorities in Vigan deny his new demands he incites an armed rebellion. After his forces take Vigan and imprison all the church powers that be, the Brits jump on the “Silang bandwagon” and make him their man in charge of the Ilocos region. The problem is that they never do anything more than that—even though they promise troops and arms.

It turns out he should have executed the captured clergy; if not that, then he should have kept a closer eye on them for these so called “men of God” conspire to pay one of Silang’s friends, a Judas named Miguel Vicos, to assassinate Diego.

Vicos, known to be Diego’s friend, is allowed to pass through Ilocano lines. Diego warmly greets him and they begin to converse. Vicos, seemingly benign, shoots Diego in the back even as they are still talking. He dies in his wife’s arms.

Gabriela, Diego’s wife, well-to-do from an earlier marriage, attempts to continue the rebellion, but with no help from the Brits a strong Spanish force sent from the south, along with many native troops, repulses the Ilocanos. She is captured and hung right there in Vigan’s Salcedo Plaza along with her men.

What a story! Reading it makes me angry, but most of all it is "déjà vous all over again." It’s a reminder that Luna too was assassinated by his own disloyal troops, and again how Bonifacio dies at the hands of his own people as well. Combined with the use of native colonial troops, this sort of internal backbiting, which happens in several revolts here, allows a relatively few Spanish to control a population that greatly outnumbers them.

Note that the leaders of the following revolts are all betrayed internally: Pampangenos Revolt (1585), Conspiracy of the Maharllikas (1587-1588), Magalat Revolt (1596), Silang Revolt (1762-1763), Palaris Revolt of 1762-1765, The Philippine Revolution (1896-1898) and The Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902).

I haven’t been able to find much on the traitor, Vicos, the man who kills his friend, Diego Silang, evidently for a handful of coins. This particular site claims that he “was a Spanish Mestizo who bore grievances” against the man he kills. Obviously, whoever wrote that seeks to lessen the stigma of the act. No mention is made of the relationship between the two men, and by describing Vicos as “Spanish” the inference is that it wasn’t really a betrayal at all. Then again, it could be that it is simply referring to the description “Spanish Mestizo” on the inscription that was on the Bantay monument built in honor of Vicos’ treachery, a monument that I assume no longer exists. (If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know.)

Another bit of information is in the Wikipedia article on Diego’s wife, Gabriela, where the writer claims, “he was assassinated by order of royal and church authorities in Manila.” This reference to Manila seems to remove any blame from priests located there in the Vigan area. It is also incorrect since Manila at the time is held by the British; the Spanish governor, Anda, was then at large, holed up in Bacolor Pampanga out of reach of the Brits. But after further reading I may have to stand corrected on that point since the British did not interfere with church goings on at all in the Philippines, even with the Catholic authorities in Manila. (I'm not sure why the Brits didn't put a stranglehold on the friars too, since they ran this place every bit as hard as the governor general and crew did--not very smart of the Limeys if you ask me!)

Because so much written online is suspect, often skewed by those seeking to further their own agendas, much of what I find here I take with a huge block of salt. For instance, one site states that at one time Silang is captured by the Spanish but escapes or is released with the help of a friendly Spanish priest named Millan. This short article states that the Spanish Governor, named Anda, orders Silang to surrender or be branded a traitor. At this Silang goes to the Brits for succor, which they gladly provide.
But then the author goes on to claim that it is Anda who actually plots Silang’s murder by approaching Vicos and another conspirator named Pedro Becbec. I’m not sure how this could happen with the Governor Anda being so far away. It would have been someone local, who knew of Vicos' friendship with Silang that would have arranged that kind of nasty little detail. There’s no mention of any priestly involvement at all, except for the kindly Millan—which makes me believe the writer seeks to keep any negativity away from the church.

This site has a version that makes a lot of sense and I’ve read similar accounts elsewhere: “While Silang initially wanted to replace Spanish functionaries in the Ilocos with native officials, and volunteered to head Ilocano forces against the British, desperate Spanish administrators transferred their powers to the Catholic Bishop of Nueva Segovia (Vigan) who in turn rejected Silang's call. Silang's group attacked the city and imprisoned its priests. He then began an association with the British who appointed him governor of the Ilocos in their behalf and promised him military reinforcement. The British force never materialized.”
The above piece has Silang appealing to the Spanish Bishop in Vigan to assign native Ilocanos to positions of authority, which means at first he is still willing to work with the Spanish. That sounds plausible. But when the church headquartered in Vigan says no he takes the town, imprisons the bishop and his monks, and THEN goes to the British. This shows that Silang is practical; he realizes he doesn't have the resources alone to make his dream of an autonomous Ilocos happen and is willing to work with anyone to make that happen, be it Spanish or English. Notice Silang isn't a nationalist, but a proud Ilocano who desires self-rule for HIS people.

On that note, there is a final opinion statement in the Wikipedia article on Silang that I find outrageous:
Diego Silang could have been a real leader of the people struggling against oppressors. Unfortunately he opted for compromise and shifted his allegiance in a most servile manner from one master to another.”

What the heck is THAT all about? Talk about subjective and just plain wrong! It’s why I caution against using ANY source exclusively, ESPECIALLY Wikipedia, when that site allows something so blatantly opinionated as that to be the last word on a subject.

Aside from accuracy, sometimes the internet just doesn't provide enough data period. I seek specifics, as in “God is in the details.” For instance, I still desire answers to the following questions: Where does Vicos shoot Silang? What happens to this back shooting traitor? Is he then reviled for all time by Ilocanos, even as he is praised and celebrated by the Spanish? And where are the interred bodies of Diego and Gabriela, and even of the collaborator Vicos?

Aha! Some info and an answer or two! I found something on this entry in The writer claims: “Lastly, it was also in the town of Bantay where Diego Silang was killed by Vicos, on a street named Encuentro at the town plaza, now named Diego Silang Park. There also used to be a monument to Miguel Vicos at the town square.” (Alas, yet again, it turns out that part of this claim may be incorrect as Silang is probably not killed there in town, but on a nearby fortified hilltop. See below.)

And still more info from this very well-crafted blog post authored by someone who, based on his wording, appears to be a very proud Ilocano indeed, and so his article on Silang IS subjective; which I have few problems with as long as the facts are correct and not confused with opinion. Here are some interesting assertions from it that I have yet to read elsewhere:

1. His baptismal certificate gives his full name as Diego Baltazar Silang y Andaya.
2. Orphaned at an early age, he is taken in and educated by the Spanish friar cura of Vigan.
3. Surviving a shipwreck off the coast of Zambales while doing his job as a church courier, the savage Zambals kill all else, except Silang who is spared due to his youth.
4. He is ransomed free by a Recollect missionary.
5. Spanish friars depict him in writings as wise and brave, speaking excellent Castilian.
6. The capture of Manila by the British in October, 1762 inspires Silang to petition the Spanish to redress the grievances of his people; instead they arrest him for sedition. His imprisonment enrages his followers. Provisor Tomas Millan secures Silang’s release.
7. Once released, Silang submits demands to the Spanish which they reject: (Read the five demands in the blog post. I must say, this piece on Silang is the most complete I’ve yet read).
8. On December 14, 1762, Silang proclaims a free Ilocos. Near Santo Domingo, about ten miles from Vigan, he defeats the Spanish. On to Vigan he goes, and wins again. Bishop Ustariz and government forces flee across the river to the fortified convent of Bantay. Alcalde Mayor Zabala also flees.
9. Silang besieges Bantay and captures it. He allows the Bishop to stay unmolested in the convent. Zabala is captured at San Estaban by other Ilocanos and he too is kept safe by the intercession of Silang.
10. Silang rules well and fairly. News of his success reaches the British who offer their protectorship if he allies himself with them. Silang agrees and the British governor promises troops and war supplies.
11. At this point Bishop Ustariz and crew plot to end the rebellion once and for all by having Silang assassinated. They choose a friend of Silang, Miguel Vicos to carry it out.
12. After receiving the blessings of Bishop Ustariz at the convent, Vicos and Buecbuec ascend the hill (Pandok ni Silang). The guard captain lets them pass knowing them to be Silang’s friends. Silang, inspecting the battery of the fort, sees his friends, and welcomes them. While talking Vicos shoots Silang in the back. He falls, calling out to his wife nearby: “Matayakon, Maria!” (I am dying, Maria).
13. Years later the Spanish authorities, to glorify Vicos, erect a monument to him at the Bantay municipal building. It was a monolith of brick with the figure of a dog on top and inscribed: “In honor of Miguel Vicos, a Spanish Mestizo, for having shot and killed the seditious traitor Diego Silang in the year 1763, after having invoked the blessings of the Holy Virgin of his deed.” The dog of the monolith represented the “fidelity” of Vicos to Spain.
14. In 1914, Don Juan Villamor, provincial governor of Ilocos Sur, orders the removal of the dog on the monolith and replaces the Inscription with one honoring Diego Silang.

Another forum post out of Germany titled “Diego and Gabriela Silang - Los Indios Bravos” is also quite comprehensive and provides a few more additional insights.

And here is yet another well written account of the Silang story posted by Wolfgang Bethge.

So far though, none of the many online articles, blogs and forums on Diego & Gabriela Silang talk about the “after story,” which to me is the “Miguel Vicos Story.” Did he REALLY kill his friend for profit? If not, then why? Did he hold a secret grudge against Diego, and was this resentment SO great that it allowed him to kill his friend? Perhaps the bishop got to Miguel with the rationale that he would be “doing God’s work” with this murder. Then again, maybe he actually did it for the money?

I've read a couple of conjectures that Vicos may have been convinced that Silang intended to execute the bishop. Based on Silang's actions up to that point I find such a thing implausible. He was not that kind of a man. Raised in the church, he prayed daily, some of his best friends were priests, and he had spent most of his life in service to the church. By virtue of his magnanimity he prevented his people from killing the hated mayor as well as other Spaniards that his followers would rather have seen dead. He is a moral man, a very good man, who may well have died because he WAS so good. What's that we Americans like to say? "Nice guys finish last!"

If I had a time machine I’d go back to the time just before the murder takes place. I want to see and judge Vicos’ comportment as he greets and begins to banter with Silang. From what I’ve read, Diego was astute; everyone he encounters at all levels, including high ranking clergymen, say so. Why then didn’t he sense the treachery to come? Surely Vicos must have shown some hint of the tension that MUST have been boiling within.

And what of Vicos’ accomplice, Buecbuec; what was his purpose? Did the bishop assign this coconspirator as a second gunman? Was he also armed? Or, was his job to be an intimidator, an ever-present threat to make sure Vicos actually goes through with it?

The written story, at least what’s on the internet, of the Silang murder ends as he dies in the arms of his wife. We know that she goes on to attempt to continue as the rebel leader, but she too soon dies, ending the rebellion.

But what happens up there on “Pandok ni Silang” in the moments after the fatal shot rings out? In the pandemonium are Vicos and Buecbuec able to escape? Does a call go out for their capture? Do Ilocanos everywhere then revile them?

We know that the Spanish are so appreciative that they build a monument to Vicos right there in Bantay, a brick monolith that stands for almost 150 years (and perhaps its STILL there?). How do the locals feel when they pass it by over the decades? Is it a reminder of their fate if they ever dare to rise up against Spain again? Does the sight of it rancor the generations that follow, or do they even know what it means? After all, the inscription was in Spanish next to the image of a dog, and the average native couldn’t read. It could be that after only a few years the meaning of the Vicos monument becomes obscure to the average Ilocano.

What happens to Vicos after that fateful day? If he's captured and killed by Silang’s people I’m sure we’d read about it today. I’m thinking he made good his getaway and lived out his life elsewhere in the archipelago. I would hope that he was unable to exist anywhere in northern Luzon, but with memories being so short here, he may well have. THAT could be why no one now writes about the fate of this horrible man, because maybe he did what he did and well profited from it. If so, it’s not something to be proud of, like the murders of Luna and Bonifacio, something best ignored and swept under the rug. Personally, I’d like to know where the man’s body lies so I can go there and curse it, but that’s just me. I’m not nearly as forgiving and forgetting as the average citizen of this country, and shame on me for that.

I’d better end this installment now before it becomes too long. It may well have reached that point already for many readers. Just remember though, I’m not done talking about Vigan by a long shot.
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Update: I came across some more online information from which I derived the following. I've also included it in my next post about Bantay's St. Augustine:

And since previously posting on Diego Silang, I believe I’ve figured out WHERE he was killed. If you read my last post you’ll learn that Silang was assassinated by his friend, Miguel Vicos. Based on some clues from the internet, I’m pretty sure this murderous deed happened only a stone’s throw from the church’s main entrance. It would have been just down the hill, near the town’s municipal building in a spot that used to be the town square and now called Diego Silang Park. I’ve created a Google map that shows the site of the church and the possible site of Silang’s death. See it below:
View Bantay Church and Bell tower, also possible Diego Silang death site marked in a larger map
I'm guessing about the Silang death site. I wish I would have actually walked down the hill to the Bantay town hall and police station, as well as the playground now called Silang Park. I think I've got it correct though, based on what I found on this site specifically about Bantay:
"Several battles have spillovers in Bantay, one of which was the Ilocos revolt led by Diego Silang. Here, this heroic figure was killed by a Spanish mestizo nicknamed “Vicos.” The incident took place at Encuentro Street where now stands the Diego Silang Park (Municipal town plaza). Ironically, the Diego Silang Park that was originally constructed in 1763 displays a commemorative monumental figure of Vicos and not of Diego Silang."
(I'm not so sure if the above is absolutely correct though since I've found other historical articles online that claim that the original Spanish inscription honoring Vicos the assassin of Silang was changed a hundred years ago to honor ONLY Silang only.)

I suppose the only way to be SURE is if someone familiar with THAT place can either confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of the monument, and what is now on it by way of inscription. Anyone?