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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

entry arrow1:10 PM | In History, a Glimpse of Dumaguete

(Because tomorrow, we celebrate fiesta...)

The ubiquitous motorcycles on Dumaguete's streets
(photo courtesy of Moses Joshua Atega)

It is best to see the city before it wakes. In the growing brightness of dawn, you see it in full light minus the garish distractions of traffic, and of the growing hordes that overwhelm the senses and disperse through the din. Every time I wake up early enough and jog through my routine -- past Tubod, through the quiet of Silliman campus, then to the beaten paths of the Boulevard to greet the sunrise -- I am convinced that this is the best time to commune with the city of my birth. Everything stands around me like images in still pictures, but concrete enough to behold in three dimensions. During these moments, I understand how the city works, how it casts its spells, how it negotiates through our endless skirmishes of hating it one moment for its smallness, and loving it the next for its charms and convenience. There is no place like Dumaguete: it is an aberration of a place, a cosmopolis trapped in small town garb.

The famous Dumaguete Boulevard
(photo courtesy of Myrza Sison)

Sometimes I can only imagine what it must have been like before Dumaguete became what it has become. Everyone says that our present is the sum of the quirks and nuances of our history. But contemplating even the march of change in a place like Dumaguete is difficult to do because this city retains this aura of having not changed at all. I can easily believe a Dumaguete -- as it is now -- fully formed from the start, like Athena jumping out of Zeus's forehead. Why? Because there is this sense of permanence that pervades the place, even in the way things move -- always slowly, like our Dumaguete weather remaining constant, unchanged.

I can only imagine the early Spanish conquistadores, led by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, catching a glimpse of the island from distant Bohol where he had settled in the beginning of his explorations. Our island for him was not too far -- he could see snatches of its mountains -- but everything was probably clouded in ancient mist and the haze of distance. Eager to reconnoiter everything in the name of the King of Spain, he had dispatched several of his men, led by his chief pilot Esteban de Rodriguez and assisted by Joan de Aguirre. They bundled together some supplies that would last them a week, boarded a frigate and set sail to investigate the mysterious strait between Cebu and what was soon to be called the island of Negros. According to historian Caridad Aldecoa-Rodriguez, the current that caught the small expedition had been swift, and quickly carried the men to the southwestern coast of the unknown island.

It took the band so much longer than the time given them to explore what they set out to investigate. A week had already passed, and the Spanish men back in Bohol had given up as lost the frigate with Rodriguez, but on Holy Saturday, in 1565, the men returned looking healthy -- although the Bornean pilot Tuasan was inexplicably missing.

The men spoke of the island of Buglas, and said that it was peopled by dark-skinned natives, hence Negros. The natives were mostly forest dwellers, and were said to be squat, black, and wiry-haired, and among them lived the proto-Malays, variously called Bukidnons, Montes, Manayans, Carolanos, Mondos, and Ambaks. But, save for traces of these primitives, the place was mostly deserted. The natives of the other Bisayan islands considered Buglas to be a remote and almost uninhabited island, where the god Laon lived in a volcano and who, when he was angry, would spew out lava to punish the people below. But what settlers there were also worshipped a great number of gods, each tasked to certain functions in everyday living. They believed in anting-anting or charm, in abat or evil sorcerers, and in onglo or forest creatures, as well as in omens and evil spirits who lived in rivers, big rocks, and dalakit trees. They had no belief in the afterlife, nor believed in a heaven or hell -- but they appeased their pagan gods with rites in caves or under trees performed by the babaylanes, women priestesses who had a spiritual connection with their animist spiritual world. I think of that world which used to be familiar of the place where we now live -- and there are stirrings of ancient spirits.

It was said that the people the Spaniards found in those scarce settlements along the coasts were hostile to the newcomers, quickly fleeing to the mountains at the sight of them or at the sound of the white men's guns and cannons. But finally Rodriguez and his men found an old man and a boy in a village, who told them stories about the island, and about the other settlements that could be found inland.

Miguel de Loarca, in Relacion de las Islas Filipinas, estimated that the population of Buglas at that time, in 1580, was somewhere between six or seven thousand, and that the side of the island facing Cebu was sparsely populated. The densest areas were those between Tanay and Dumaguete, and settlements such as Nayon, Namaylan, Vinaluagan, and Ilog dotted the environs -- small places which could just rightly be called family clusters, all of which were mostly peopled by migrants from Cebu and Bohol.

But Buglas -- and Dumaguet -- was largely a peaceful place, and by 1582, the population had grown to twenty thousand. Buglas, for the most part, was considered a remote wilderness, with no economic, cultural, or social significance. It was a geography of stasis, of often stifling unchangability -- and it would remain so until almost three hundred years. And perhaps even until now. You can still smell that ancient quiet.

Dumaguete's old church, convento, and watch tower in 1890,
taken from Dean C. Worcester's The Philippine Islands.

What the Bell Tower looks like today

In 1890, in his survey of the Spanish-controlled archipelago, the American statesman Dean Worcester visited Dumaguete and described the barrio as a typical Bisayan town of the better class, whose people were largely prosperous. Its shops, after all, were well-kept by its Chinese merchants, and catered to a population that numbered around 8,000. In good condition, too, were the church and the convent adjacent to it, and standing near both was -- and is -- the Bell Tower, which served then as both belfry and watchtower, particularly for the Moro invaders who would regularly steal through the place and pirate everything away.

Negros, for the most part, had been a favorite raiding place by the Moros, starting in 1600 when the Spaniards abandoned their fort in La Caldera in Zamboanga in 1599. After that surrender, the Moros periodically stole into the island, most destructively in 1722, 1754, and 1785 -- burning the barrios in Dumaguete, Budiong, Dauin, and Siaton. They burned rice fields, cut coconut trees, and killed all domesticated animals. Rodriguez writes: "In 1839, Moro pirates attacked Dumaguete, Bais, Amblan, Dauin, and Bacong. They killed or kidnapped the inhabitants, and carried away articles of value from the churches and houses. On June 2, 1860 the Moros attacked the town of Guihulngan and destroyed or hauled away many valuable things. The beautiful convent of Guihulngan was burned to ashes."

It may be said then that Dumaguet -- the first Christian pueblo facing Mindanao -- chose in particular St. Catherine of Alexandria, herself a warrior-saint, as its patron, perhaps to signify protection for the place from the Moro marauders. "Dumaguete," of course, comes from the word "daguet," which means to kidnap or to snatch, as Moro raids happened all the time in its history. Imagine a typical day when vintas would suddenly appear in the horizon. The bell in the watchtower would ring in rapid succession, and everybody would then scramble to run to the mountains. Those who were too slow, or too sleepy, would then be boarded into the vintas to be sold as slaves in Sandakan, Borneo. But once, the image of St. Catherine of Alexandria that was placed at the center of the church's altar was found to have plenty of amor seco seeds clinging to the hem of her dress. The people invariably thought that the image had gone out at night to drive away the Moro raiders from the shores of Dumaguet. Legend says that she did this by commanding the bees -- which lived abundantly in the tall antipolo and mango trees that used to line our shores -- to attack and drive away the marauders. But the Moros ceased coming when the Spanish navy started using steam vessels which ultimately ended the raids.

The old Casa Tribunal in Dumaguete in 1890,
taken from Dean C. Worcester's The Philippine Islands.

In 1890, when Worcester visited, he found a Casa Tribunal which was a little more than ordinary, being made of nipa, bamboo, and hardwood. "It was unusually comfortable for a building of its kind," wrote Worcester. Traversing through the small place, he found that there was no real market, but that there was the so-called tiangue, which was merely a nipa roof extending out of the wall to shelter people from the elements. This was located on the north bank of the mouth of Banica River, in a place called ihawan -- where people sold cow meat, carabao meat, and pork, as well as corn and tobacco. The Gobernador P.M. then was Don Antonio Fovar Mascoleta, with Fr. Mariano Bernad as Cura Parocco. Don Esteban Coxino was Gobernadorcillo, Don Cecilio Flores was Capitan Pasado, while Don Leon Flores and Don Marcos Ossila were Cabezas actuales. Eight years later, Dumaguete's population had grown exponentially, and the town now had fifteen cabezas de barangays. Although brigandage -- particularly notorious are the exploits of Buhawi and Camartin -- was still a problem, already there were small signs of progress. For example, mail services in Dumaguet and the rest of the island was exemplary, performed by pollistas (forced laborers) and cuadrilleros (foot soldiers).

But before sugar was introduced to the island in 1850, Negros -- and Dumaguete -- largely had a static economy, and was a disappointment for the Spaniard. Progress was limited. There were no roads, and infrastructure was non-existent. According to Fr. Pedro Sanz, "the island was submerged in the most scandalous misery, scandalous because the misery or poverty was due to negligence and laziness." Which might seem evident in this: the natives, after all, were content with their lot in life. They planted a little palay, some corn, some camote -- just enough to meet their necessities. A lot which seems to ring true even today. The Spaniards learned to stay away, to live in the bigger and more populous districts in the islands like Cebu or Iloilo, although they still charged the natives for tributes in beeswax, honey, and rice. Fishing was not considered an important livelihood at all. Cacao and corn were introduced as agricultural alternatives to jumpstart the local economy -- but both proved to be disastrous failures, the crops having been eaten away by the swarms of locusts that plagued the island. But the opening of Iloilo to world trade in 1855 and of Cebu in 1860 increased the commercial potential of Negros, and locals soon found out that agriculture could pave the way to economic progress. Rodriguez writes: "By 1855, according to the exact date taken by each parish priest, the produce had reached 618,120 piculs whose value, calculated at P3.50 on the average, gives the astonishing amount of P2,163,420."

Sugar, in a sense, transformed Negros. By 1870, because of migrating Spanish and foreigners hoping to make their fortunes in sugar, the population had increased to 187,130.

And yet, life for the most part remained simple.

The only feast day was dedicated to the patron saint, and was celebrated simply. Gov. P.M. Victor Espada described the typical fiesta in his Memorias de Negros Oriental in 1892: "In the morning there is one solemn sung mass and sermon, a procession followed in the afternoon. During the day some divert themselves by witnessing a moro-moro or encanaz. In general they pass the day in the cockpit which is their favorite diversion. In the evening, they light some fireworks and with this, it can be said that the fiesta has ended. It is very rare that there is dancing in the day or night...."

How things change. And how things also remain the same.

Happy fiesta, Dumaguete!

(The historical information here is taken from
Negros Oriental and the Philippine Revolution by Caridad Aldecoa-Rodriguez, published in 1983 by the Provincial Government of Negros Oriental. The book, together with three other volumes which comprise the province's history, is available at Village Bookstore, Noblefranca St., Dumaguete City.)

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