3 – The Making Of Samar

The myth of the ‘violent’ Waray still holds its place in the stereotype categories by which many Filipinos judge those who come from other provinces and other countries. It is a myth that echoes those of the Americans who fought there, and many who did not.

As late as 1979 Captain Paul Melshen, USMC, could write “Samar was populated by an extremely violent, primitive society”1. Another American wrote: “For centuries their only trade had been that of arms, practiced in the perpetual wars with the neighbouring Moros and Sulu.”2

In fact, Samar was a generally peaceful island before the Philippine-American War and traded in coconut, coconut oil and the Manila hemp that America’s new navy depended upon.

Samar is one the islands of the Visayas region in the central Philippine Archipelago. It was to these islands that Spanish explorers came in the 16th century, seeking an alternative trade route for the valuable spices and treasures of the Orient. Indeed, the original Spanish term ‘Las Islas Felipinas’ applied only to the islands of Mazzawa, today’s Limasawa, Abuyo (Leyte) and Tandaya (Samar)3 – “Villalobos…to obtain enough food supplies from Abuyo (Now known as Leyte), Tandaya (Samar) and Mazaua (Limasawa), to increase the provisions for the flagship, so that it could start on the return voyage to Mexico. He gave this order in writing wherein he named those islands (Abuyo, Tandaya, Mazaua) for the first time Filipinas.”4

An island of moderate mountains and lush rainforest sliced through by rivers connecting the interior and the coast, Samar was blessed with abundant, and beautiful natural resources but could support only a limited population with food. It wasn’t good food growing country.

In the 1540s the Portuguese governor of the Moluccas, Antonio Galvano, talks of an Abuyo-China traffic using wide twenty metre long boats with a five metre beam called Daya, remains of which have been found in Butuan, a journey that took up to seven days5. St. Francis Xavier, when travelling to China from the Moluccas, stopped at Seilani (Abuyo), which later writers took for Ceylon.

Samar was also called Kandaya allegedly after the name of its chief “Big Boat”.

“All the natives who inhabit them, both men and women, are good-looking and of good disposition, living in better conditions and having nobler manners than those in the island of Luzon and surrounding ones” wrote Antonio De Morga in 16096.

Spain was at the height of its power in the 16th century yet its great ships were no match for the dangerous waters of Las Islas Filipinas. The Spanish Conquistadors sent a force toward the great northern island of Luzon but to reach it meant braving the treacherous eastern seaboard of Samar, exposed to the typhoons that rolled in out of the Pacific, unpredictable storms and rocks.

One other route was available – the narrow north-south passage between the islands of Leyte and Samar, sometimes less than a hundred yards wide in places, tipped at each end by sand banks and islets, the San Juanico Strait. Only the most knowledgeable of pilots could guide the galleons through the rocks and whirlpools awaiting the unwary and many did not make it. The seas around Samar and Leyte became a graveyard for Spanish ships for centuries and remain a rich ground for treasure hunters.

Not only did Spanish cargoes litter the seabed, but stranded Spaniards became part of the Visayan bloodline over the decades that followed. By 1847, Jean Mallat could write: “This province is principally inhabited by mestizos”7, people of mixed local and European blood.

The southern coast of Samar became a raiding ground for Muslim, or Moorish, slavers of the southern islands until the middle of the 19th century. The eastern coast of Samar is protected by dangerous waters, so the southern coast on which Balangiga stands, and the Western coast and the San Juanico and San Bernardino Straits, took the brunt of slaver attacks.

Fearsome climate, vicious seas and slave raids instilled in the Waray a warrior spirit and they displayed their battle honours in the form of tattoos that, in the most experienced, could cover virtually their entire bodies. They are variously described as intelligent, proud, independent and tough. Although politely hospitable, their history taught them to distrust outsiders and rely on themselves. Outsiders only brought trouble. Then, as now, the Waray were fiercely protective of their community, culture and family.

The Visayans were not averse to a little raiding on their own account. Chinese writers in the 13th century describe Visayan raids as far North as Fukien and even centuries later a Jesuit, Father Francis Alcina was gathering tales of Visayan raids into Luzon8. Such raiding was an acceptable, even honourable pursuit at the time, as it has been at different times throughout the world. There was, however, a certain underlying sense of fairness – one could only raid someone who had already raided you9.

Spanish authority acquired only a tenuous hold in Samar; indeed its military and civil administration penetrated little further than the coast10.

The Catholic Church was another matter. Franciscan missionaries and priests who occupied the island were guaranteed freedom from boredom:

“I went quickly to the parish house, put a cannon by the door (and) filled it with grapeshot, intending to rake all standing in the door” reported one priest. “I came running out with a sabre in hand and the bully ran off cowardly like a deer”, said another. Why Visayans should occasionally be less than good hosts is perhaps suggested by a third report: “I sent datus to whip him for not wanting to hear mass and he drew his knife to kill me”11,12.

The Samar priests had come across a significant cultural characteristic of the Samareno, the principle of awod.

Awod is a Waray word meaning, loosely, shame or loss of face created by public belittlement or abuse13. It can only be removed by the victim taking revenge equally publicly. For ancient Visayans not taking revenge only invited further abuse and could also invite retribution by supernatural forces14. Thus taking revenge was not merely a matter of saving face, it was a punitive measure intended to discourage further infractions . It was to play an important role in the events of late 1901.

Earlier uprisings against friars can be traced to awod. One Franciscan wrote that these events were due to “reprimands (by friars) of drunkenness, laziness, non-compliance with ecclesiastical customs and evil customs”. These, in fact, are precisely the conditions that existed prior to the attack on Company C. in Balangiga.

On April 10, 1745, a priest on Samar was killed because he’d publicly censured one of his flock for allowing his mother to die without the sacraments15.

It was not only a slighted individual who could exact revenge, so could a community, as the Spanish discovered when they faced the first serious threat to their authority in the Philippines, which began in Samar, although it rarely rates a mention in most Filipino history text books.

Samarenos were highly prized for their skills and often ‘impressed’, or forced, to work in the shipyards, leaving their homelands untilled, with resultant starvation. In 1649, the townspeople of Palapag, Northern Samar, finally reached the end of their tether, rose in protest against the demands of the Spanish shipbuilders and the abuse of local Franciscan Friars. Lead by Juan Ponce Sumoroy, the parish priest was killed and the town sacked. The revolt took off like wildfire, spreading across Samar itself, northwards to Bicol in Southern Luzon and south as far as Mindanao.

This may be the incident that Balangiganons retailed to American soldiers in their town two hundred and fifty years later, possibly as a polite, circumlocutory warning16.

Despite those revolts, Samar’s history has in fact been among the most peaceful in the islands of the Philippines, a reputation known even in Manila at the end of the 16th century. In three centuries only three periods of revolt are known and petty violence was rare17.

Several uprisings between 1884 and 1886 are particularly noteworthy. The first was the rise of a millennial-style movement in the wake of a cholera epidemic. Its leaders predicted the arrival in Catbalogan of a foreign steamship carrying a king who would say that the Visayas did not belong to Spain, an intriguing foreshadowing of Kobbe’s arrival in the next decade. Spanish authorities forcefully suppressed the movement18.

Known as the Dios-Dios, several members of the movement were captured in October 1886 and told interrogators that a new king would arrive in the middle of that month aboard a ship manned by Germans. The curious link with Germany was to be recycled during the Philippine-American War almost exactly five year later: “…the local chief of La Granja, Victor Reyes, says that German steamers are sailing our seas, and on one occasion… a large white German steamer with three masts fired twelve rounds against an American steamer…”19

Another factor to play a role in the Balangiga incident, if a modest one, was alcohol. The arrival of the first westerners in the islands, that of the doomed Magellan in March 1521 on Homohon, was almost immediately followed by a jar of alak – distilled liquor. The Visayans impressed the Spaniards with their ability to take their booze. In 1601 Father Chirino wrote: “It is proverbial among us that none of them who leaves a party completely drunk in the middle of the night fails to find his way home: and if they happen to be buying or selling something, not only do they not become confused in the business but when they have to weigh out gold or silver for the price… they do it with such delicate touch that neither does their hand tremble nor do they err in accuracy”.

Alcina commented with some insight: “When practical matters come up, whether for public projects, orders from the king or his officials, or any other work, and they discuss among themselves the best, quickest and most equitable way to carry it out, if they meet dry and without a little wine first to enliven their interest, they talk little, discourse poorly and slowly, and decide worse: but after drinking something, he who proposes does it with eloquence, those who respond, with discretion, those who decide; with attention, and all with fairness”20.

One can only agree with Loarca: “It is good that they rarely get angry when drunk”21.

The main tipple of choice is tuba, the sap of the coconut palm, which is collected early in the morning and left to ferment. In a couple of hours it becomes a sweetish, yeasty brew later becoming bitter and acidic.

Western reactions to tuba vary. First Lieutenant Edward Avery Bumpus of the ill-fated Company C. United States 9th Infantry wrote: “one man deserted while crazed with tuba, the native drink, and has probably died in the woods. Tuba comes from the juice of the blossom of the cocoanut (sic) tree, and when fresh tastes like cider, and is hell on fire when fermented”22.

On the other hand, William Gibbs, a private in the same company who may have had rather more experience with tuba says of the same man: “He drank this stuff called tuba. It is made from cocoanut water (sic), and a man has to drink an awful lot of that before he becomes intoxicated23.

By the late 19th century, Samar had a thriving economy based on the export of hemp and coconut oil, such that, like modern day Singapore, it didn’t need to be self-sufficient in food production, especially rice. When war came to Samar at the opening of the 20th century, this was to prove a critical weakness.

Samarenos were farmers, fishermen and traders. By the end of the 19th century at least two British trading houses had been established on Samar and its sister island of Leyte. The expatriates who managed the businesses seem to have given little cause for conflict with the people of the island and worked peacefully with them. Perhaps for this reason, when America formally and forcibly annexed the Philippines in 1899 and sought intelligence about the island from foreigners living there, Interviewed in 1902 Brigadier General Robert Hughes, who had commanded US forces in the Visayas said:

“I expected to find… the Visayans somewhat friendly to us. I had tried to inform myself in Manila of the disposition, of the character, of the general situation of those people, and the general impression I got was that the Visayans did not want any war… that they were a very gentle, docile, polite sort of people”24. The same was said of those who had left the main urban centres to avoid Spanish control: “They are generally docile and listen to and respect the priests,” said the Franciscan Provincial in 185325.

Even Filipino commanders shared Hughes’s view. Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino commander in chief, said: “the Visayans… are not given to revolution.”26. General Vicente Lukban, who commanded Filipino forces on Samar, told his superior officers “These people have never known a war”.

This view was not new. When Raja Sulayman gave a frosty welcome to Martin de Goiti on the beach in front of Manila in 1570 he warned the Spaniard that his people were not subservient, unlike the pintados of the Visayas27.

Hughes was to learn a vivid lesson, for a people as docile and long suffering as a carabao can, indeed, “however tame they may be, … attack their own masters when these maltreat them and apply whip and rod too often”.

Indeed, Samar, its forests and mountains and its people, like the waters that surround it, punishes those who disrespect it.

Go to Making Balangiga

1Melshen, Paul, Hero or Butcher of Samar? Proceedings, U. S. Naval Institute, November 1979, p. 42-8.

2James, Marquis, Balangiga, The American Legion Monthly, November 1929

3Noone, Martin J, SSC, The Discovery and Conquest of the Philippines (1521-1581), Manila: Historical Conservation Society (Publication No. 63), 1986.

4 Schreurs, Peter, MSC, Caraga Antigua (1521-1910), Cebu City: University of San Carlos, 1989. pp. 56-57

5 Scott, William Henry, Cracks in the Parchment Curtain, New Day Publishers, Quezon City, Philippines 1982, p56.

6 De Morga, Dr. Antonio, Rizal, Jose (trs) Historical events of the Philippine Islands, National Historical Institute, Manila, Philippines, Third Printing, 1997

7 Mallat, Jean, The Philippines, Third Printing, 1998, Manila.

8 Scott, William Henry, Cracks in the Parchment Curtain, New Day Publishers, Quezon City, Philippines 1982, p21.

9 Ibid, page 91

10 Statement of Brig. Gen. Robert P. Hughes, Affairs in the Philippine Islands, page 562

11 Ibid, page 20

12 Cruickshank, Bruce, Samar: 1768-1898, Historical Conservation Society, Manila: (Publication No. 61), 1985. p. 37.

13 Duran, Nemesio, Masters Thesis,

14 Scott, William Henry, Barangay, Ateneo University Press, manila, Philippines, 1997, page 153

15 San Antonio’s Chronica, 1738, cited in Blair and Robertson.

16 Taylor, James O. (ed), The Massacre at Balangiga, McCorn Publishing, Joplin, Missouri, 1931, p22.

17 Cruickshank, Samar : 1768-1898, Historical Conservation Society, Manila, 1985 p187

18 Cruickshank, Samar : 1768-1898, Historical Conservation Society, Manila, 1985 p191 et seq.

19 RM Taylor, The Philippine Insurrection, Lopez Foundation, 1973, page 706.

20 Scott, William Henry, Barangay, Ateneo University Press, manila, Philippines, 1997, page 53

21 Ibid, page 50

22 Bumpus, EC, In Memoriam, Norwood Press, Norwood, Mass., USA, 1902, letter September 6, 1901

23 Gibbs, William, Affairs in the Philippine Islands, page 2296

24 Statement of Brig. Gen. Robert P. Hughes, Affairs in the Philippine Islands, page 562

25 Cruickshank, page 130

26 RM Taylor, The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States, Vol V, page 395-398

27 Filipino In History, National Historical Institute, Vol II, Manila, 1990 p220