Local folklore tells of a Muslim sultan, Mangingsilao, chased out of Mindanao by his brother in a family feud over the heir to his father’s throne in the mid-17th century. With him, says the legend, he brought Christian slaves and settled at the mouth of the river, naming his new domain Balanguigui after his home village in Mindanao1.
A problem with the story is that by the time given for Magingsilao’s arrival, a church had already been established but the same tale also says that the sultan got on well with his Christian neighbours, who must, therefore have already been there. The tale suggests nothing more than that people in Balangiga at some stage learned of the similar-sounding Balangingi (Also Ballongningkin and Balanguingui) in Sulu and created a story to fit it.
It should be noted that the people of Balangingi in Mindanao did raid Samar regularly for slaves, capturing or killing around one hundred people a year between 1768 and 1858, and there is a distinct similarity between ‘Ballongningkin’ and ‘Balangigan’.
Early Spanish documents call the town Balanguiguan (Colin, 1656), Balanguigan (Chrinca, 1758) then Balangigan and finally Balangiga, dropping the final ‘n’. Since the Spanish commonly used ‘gu’ for the sound represented by the English ‘w’, it is possible that the original name was pronounced by the Spanish something like ‘balang-wee-wan’ or ‘balang-wee-gan’.
By the time the first Spanish priest came to the town, it was almost certainly a trading settlement consisting of a few nipa thatched huts with woven sawali walls mounted on sturdy stilts, with up to twenty tree trunks, depending on the owner’s wealth and status, supporting a slatted bamboo floor a couple of metres from the ground. Similar structures were hidden in the forests as hideaways when attacks came from the coast.2
Covered with the tattoos that gave them their Spanish nickname ‘pintados’, and betel-stained black teeth inlaid with gold studs, these were among the first to see the galleons of the early Spanish explorers. Indeed those who ventured with their goods to Basey may even have met some of them.
With the coming of the Spanish came missionaries and in the late 16th or early 17th century a visita church of wood and coconut timber was built in Balangiga, served by a visiting priest.
In 1653 a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Cristobal Miralles rebuilt the church as a fortified structure with four watch towers inside a quadrangle3. This church may have been the key to Balangiga’s permanence and may have been much like Buscada Church in Basey, also built by the Jesuits.
The coral stone remains of the defensive kotas are at the western side of the church beside the river and can best be seen in the alleyway at the back of fishermen’s homes. Some older people recall seeing old cannon atop these walls.
More remains are in the north-east corner of the church compound where a Lourdes grotto stands.
Colin’s Labor Evangelica notes Balangiga (Balanguigguan) among the 10 villages, all with churches, served by six Religious out of Dagami, Leyte4. There were two Jesuit houses on Samar itself, with four priests covering the west coast and six covering the east. Dagami covered some 2,000, or about 10,000 to 12,000 people5. Tributes were paid in kind with wax, rice and abaca, plus coconut-oil in Guiuan.
Early Jesuit churches included a cemetery within the bounds of their property6. Town worthies were interred within the buttressed walls of the churches themselves.7 In later years, particularly in the 1960s and 1990s the discovery of human remains around the church at Balangiga led to the widespread belief that the bodies of Company C, had been discovered. They may have been from the 1897 or 1912 typhoons, or a collective burial when the church changed hands and a new cemetary established to the south east of Balangiga, but no investigation was carried out.
If slave-raiding patterns along the southern Samar coast were similar to those elsewhere in the Philippines8, and there’s every reason to suppose they were, then Balangiga would have suffered several destructions and abandonments prior to the establishment of Fr. Miralles’s church in response to raiding. Among other things, this may explain the relatively slow growth of Balangiga.
Another fort was built along the coast and is mentioned as overgrown in Company C accounts. The last traces of this were swept away by the storm surge that came with Typhoon Yolanda.
It may have been in the Miralles restoration or the earlier pre-existing church that it acquired one of the least known and most mysterious artefacts of the Balangiga canon – an English cannon9 from halfway around the other side of the world10.
How did a seven-foot long, 2.5 inch calibre iron Falcon cannon weighing several tonnes, produced in Houndsditch in London’s East End,11 end up in an almost unknown village half a world away? It bears the characteristic emblem ‘MR’ in raised relief, of Queen Mary 1, dated 1557. The only other known example is in the Tower of London.
It has been suggested that the cannon came from a shipwreck, or acquired during one of Britain’s regular conflicts with the Spanish, the truth maybe both simpler, and more romantic.
Queen Mary of England was a Catholic, closely allied with the Vatican, who married King Philip of Spain and died in 1558. In 1557 she allied Britain with Spain in a war against France, a war that beggared King Philip’s coffers. It seems reasonable that a wife would want to give a hand to her husband by loaning, selling or giving weaponry to him, particularly since she committed her nation’s armed forces to her husband’s cause.
Ultimately, Mary managed to lose a piece of England’s prime European properties, Calais, and became an unpopular queen. She died in 1558 with ‘Calais written on her heart’, to be replaced by her half sister, Elizabeth, who became, at worst, the second greatest queen Britain ever knew.
There was no conflict between Brtain and Spain during Mary’s reign to explain the presence of one of her cannon.
In 1569, Spanish Catholic missionaries set off for South America and 23 years later set off for the Philippines, in fact to Samar. The Spanish send weapons to the missionaried to defend themselves against slave raiders, which is the most reasonable pathway for the cannon to reach Samar.
Magnificent though it was, such a beast of a cannon was probably only of decorative value. Its size and weight limited its mobility such that it would be little value against the fast-moving raiders. Iron ball and shot would have been difficult and expensive to obtain and even allowing that one could replace these with stones there probably wasn’t enough gunpowder in the whole of Samar to keep the beast firing until the 1900s when, ironically, Lukban was producing his own.
One can imagine a 16th century Jesuit priest looking at this lump of useless iron sent to him by someone who probably thought they were being helpful, scratching his head and saying “What in the name of the Grand Artificer do they expect me to do with this?”
It seems reasonable to link the cannon with another feature of Balangiga, long lost in the surrounding undergrowth until its discovery by members of the Balangiga Historical and Cultural Foundation – a fort, known properly as a baluarte, or kota, some three kilometres east of the town.
Possibly built with the help of Fr. Miralles, the two storey coral block structure provided good coverage of Balangiga itself, approaches to the Balangiga river and the rest of San Pedro Bay to the east. Immediately in front of the structure irregular coral rock leads into shallow waters providing natural ‘tank traps’ over which raiders would be forced to abandon their vessels and resort to running across difficult, ankle-breaking terrain.
The baluarte and the fortified armed church12 provided an excellent defence system. Moro raids were frequently accompanied by long sieges. Such a siege would be almost impossible with Balangiga covered by the baluarte and the baluarte covered by Balangiga itself.
In the 18th century the Jesuits were removed from the Philippines under an edict issued by Charles III. From 1768 to 1796 the church was abandoned13 except for the brief appearance of an Augustinian priest in 177014, until the arrival of Franciscans. At the end of those 32 years tropical wildlife had overtaken the cemetery around the church, rotting away the wooden markers laid down by generations of Balangiganons.
In the interim, Balangiga became a mere visita of Guiuan, without a permanent priest. It may not have had a priest but by 1815 it was big enough to have its own mayor, or gobernacedillo.
Gobernacedillos were elected by a strict ritual imposed by Spain. Much as American would-be presidents are today elected by an electoral college rather than the electorate, so Spanish era mayors and vice mayors were elected by a principalia consisting of the town’s worthies15.
In 1850 a Father Manuel Valverde rebuilt the church again and added a convento, a priest’s house of stone16. A new cemetery was established on the other side of town.
By 1864, the new town boasted a population of 3,609, of whom some 603 paid taxes17. The overall population figure would included villages within the municipality such as Quinapundan, Giporlos and Lawaan but would still have been unreliable. These are church figures and would not include those who either did not have the money, or the inclination, to pay the local priest for baptism. Similarly, the number of taxpayers is not a guide to those with enough income to pay taxes, which would be rather lower. That said, the fact that around 20 per cent of the population were financially capable of paying taxes, or were willing to do so, itself suggests a growing and vigorous economy.
Even so, by 1901, the municipality allegedly boasted a population of about 5,00018, an increase of 1,400 in 32 years, an increase of little more than 1 per cent a year, possibly due to the toll taken by smallpox and the 1897 typhoon.
One date in particular would stand out for a culture deeply held by the Roman Catholic Church – September 27th 1859. On that day Balangiga acquired its own resident priest and elevated itself into a full-blown parish. It was a date to become significantly forgotten exactly 40 years and one day later.