When I wrote the first article about the Battle of Miag-ao, I did not imagine that the fictionalized historical article would grow into a series. In that first article, I was simply imagining what a lowly reluctant clerk, a comisario, would have thought as he was pressed into defending Miag-ao on top of the watchtower (Cotta) by the beach. Then, months later, it became irresistible to complement that article with what a Moro warrior would have thought as his warship got closer to the beach of Miag-ao. After having these two ideas written, I was compelled to balance the two stories with yet another one about what the Spanish Officer Jose Echevarria would have thought as he waited for the Moros to arrive. By the Third Chapter, I am hooked, compelled by an irresistible force to complete the series to the actual battles that followed. It is like eating Dorito chips, my favorite snack. You can’t just eat one chip or two or three. You just have to keep going until you finish the pack. So, here I am finishing the Fifth Chapter and still have no idea when this novella will end.
Writing does not come easy for me anymore. Back in the old days, I had written over a hundred scientific papers and dozens of blog articles without much effort. Each one was “painful” to complete, but each one did not take so long. These days, it takes months before I even get motivated to write, if at all. Hence, the published dates of each chapter are months apart. Maybe it is old age or perhaps simply that I am writing something not entirely based on science, something that has so little in the way of background material and something also out of my league. Or, maybe I am trying too hard to re-invent myself.
As I had mentioned before, the Battle of Miag-ao is a near total blank page in the local history except the date of the event and the major characters, such as Señor Gayo, the Spanish Officer Jose Echevarria, Teniente Arbuno, and Fray Alvares. Nothing is known about the Muslim raiders, though the period of 1754-1755 was indeed a time of vicious warfare between the Muslims and the Spanish/Christianized natives during the reign of Sultan Bantilan. Making history come alive is impossible if all we have are marginal facts. Until we find more records sometime in the future about this event, a fictionalized historical account helps the reader of history to imagine being part of that historic period.
Fictionalized historical novels have been around for at least 50 years. Their success as a genre comes from the passionate reader feeling immersed in the historical event. It is my hope that as you read the chapters about this battle that you too feel connected to this story that happened 262 years ago.
For those reading this 5th Chapter, it might be hard to follow the story. I do suggest starting from the beginning and working your way up to this chapter. Just click the links shown below:
On the beach at high noon, hundreds of warriors were shouting, joyously waving their lances. They danced to the beat of the drums as four caracoas arrived from Basilan. The ships were laden with provisions, enough to sustain the campaign for a few more days. More important, 430 more Tausugs disembarked. Each of the four ships carried a lantaka cannon.
Datu Mohammad walked towards his newly arrived Tausug comrade, Datu Abdullah. With their legs knee-deep in the surf, the two Datus embraced. “Welcome to our new adventure ! Glad to see you and your men joining the festivities,” says Muhammad with a wide smile. In return, Datu Abdullah replied, “I come bearing gifts. There are 50 muskets in those crates from our Dutch friends, who wish us great success here. The Dutch call the muskets “snapchance.” We call them sinapang. A bit older than what the Spanish are using now, maybe even older than you, but they will give those infidel dogs a big surprise. The Dutch trained my men how to fire them while we were at sea.”
“And what did the Dutch ship captain want in exchange?” asked Muhammad. “For each musket we paid them five slaves that we captured from a place the infidels call Hamtik on the southern part of this island. And, they wanted exclusive trading rights to all the spoils of war in this campaign. They wish to trade for cloth called piña, woven from the pineapple leaves. The cloth is more valuable than silk and worth its weight in gold. There are plenty waiting to be taken from the mountain villages they call Dalihi. With enough men as we have here, we can overrun the highland rock fortresses they call ijang. These are just rocks piled on top of several high grounds guarding the forks of major rivers that lead up the mountains.”
As the two conversed animatedly about the wealth to be had for grabs, Haji Ranom, who just arrived moments ago, interrupted the two. “My warmest welcome to the renowned Datu of the Tausugs ! We awaited your arrival before starting the next phase of the campaign. Before we can enjoy the wealth of this land, we first have to destroy that army of infidels on that hill.” Haji continued. “Our beloved Sultan wanted that hill because the Spaniards are guarding gold being transported back to Irong-irong. When we destroy that army, all of you can have my share of the gold and war booty. I am here only to avenge the death of my two sons during that battle at sea a year ago.” The two Tausug datus placed their hands on Haji’s shoulders. “Tomorrow, we will pile the heads of these infidels on your feet. On the very top will be that of their Spanish officer named Echevarria.”
Sinapang is the Malay word for rifle. The word is commonly used in Sulu Archipelago and Maguindanaw from the Dutch word “snaphance.”
The fourth caracoa landed with a loud thud on the beach. Along with the other Tausug warriors, three white men jumped from the prow, dressed in the usual flamboyant, colorful uniform Europeans wore despite the humid heat of the tropics. Their arrival startled everyone on the welcoming party at the beach. Some of the Iranuns had their hand on the hilt of their swords while others tightened their grip on their spears. Bowing to the Datus, Captain Cornelis van Rijn spoke in fluent Tausug, “I bring greetings from the Dutch East India Company !” Datu introduced the white man as the Captain of the Dutch ship anchored on the other side of Anini-y, hidden beyond the hills, out of sight of the Spanish. Datu explained that the Captain was there to see the extent of the Spanish presence in the Visayan Islands.
The Iranun caracoa with a lantaka cannon
Haji Ranom spoke, “You come from a Christian country. Ten years ago the Dutch built a fortress in the island of Basilan that we destroyed. Why should we welcome you here or even trust you?” Cornelis replied,” It is true that I am a Christian but Holland is a Protestant country. Our beliefs are different from the Spanish who are Catholics and with whom we had been at war for 80 years to win our own religious and political independence. Spain is a common fanatical enemy that only wants to impose its brand of Christianity around the world. The Dutch are here to simply trade with your tribes and harass Spain wherever and whenever we encounter them. The Dutch East India Company has full authority to establish ports for trading, fight wars to protect our trade, and help our trading partners. Port Holland, built in Basilan, was a mistake, a grave misunderstanding. Prince Bantilan has graciously given us the opportunity to make amends and to help him win this fight. I have brought 50 muskets and enough powder as our expression of good will. Two of my men will teach more of your warriors how to accurately aim and fire these weapons.”
“Your ship is just on the other side of this island. Why don’t you bring it here and bombard the Spanish if you are truly enemies ?” questions Haji. “My lord, my ship is called a fluyt. It is a typical merchant vessel of the Dutch Republic and not armed with cannons like a warship. This fluyt, named Derfflinger IV, is designed for speed with three tall square-rigged masts to carry the cargo of the East Indies. Also we do not have a chart of the coral reefs here. Our ship has a deep draft compared to your caracoas. If we hit an unchartered reef, our ship will surely sink.”
Fluyt, the merchant vessel of the Dutch East Indies Company
“Muhammad, select 50 more of your best Tausug warriors and 50 of my Iranuns to start training today with Datu Abdullah‘s men. There should be three warriors to each musket. Tomorrow we will take that hill. When a musketeer falls, there must be one next to him to carry on the fight with the musket. We have also captured a few muskets from the first attack and must train our men to use them.”
Turning to Cornelis, Haji Ranom said,” Captain, we appreciate your assistance and we welcome for you to observe. This is our fight with the Spanish. We do not want them to know that we had any assistance from other white men. To avoid this misconception from possible spies watching our movements from the hills above, you will change your uniforms into our native clothes and observe only from a distance. You may voice your ideas and concerns only to me. Is this understood?” Cornelis nodded.
Holding the scabbard with his left hand and his left thumb pushing the sword loose from the scabbard, Haji continued, looking straight at Cornelis ‘ eyes with such malevolence, “And I expect you to offload from your ship today an additional 100 muskets for my men. Not these old sinapang muskets, but 100 of the modern type you use and our common enemy uses against us. This is not a request. This is a precondition for us to honor the agreement with the Dutch to share our spoils of war and remain our trading partner. Prince Bantilan is not here. Otherwise, we can always trade with the Chinese or the British. Or, simply just take your ship. When you have changed your attire to ours, please join us later for some food. We have a long afternoon and night of training the men and planning for our offensive tomorrow. “
Haji’s hand movement did not go unnoticed. Shaken by Haji’s sudden outburst and veiled threat, Cornelis held his tongue and just bowed in acquiescence.
On top of Barangan-itip
Teniente Arbuno’s men had been working hard for almost two days preparing the defenses of Barangit-itip. Rocks were hauled painfully up the top of the hill by hundreds of Indios. All trees and shrubs at 30 meters downwards from the top of the hill were cut down to create an open field of fire. Huts made of lumber were hurriedly built to give shade to the defenders from the sun, the rain, and especially the arrows that would fall on them. Food and water were being hauled up the hill as a preparation for a long siege. On the footpath leading up were 60 cuadrilleros and Spanish riflemen making their way up Barangan-itip.
Captain Echevarria went inside the finished bunker to see the artillerymen re-assembling two cannons. They were dismantled in the pueblo and brought up the hill piece by piece at dusk to hide from prying eyes. “Lieutenant, it looks like you are planning to set this up like a castle in the hills of the Basque Country, “ said the Captain with a smile. Teniente Arbuno returned the jest with a wide grin. “My Captain, just give me three more days and I will have maidens serving us fine wine while we get fat eating mutton grilled in that fireplace behind you. I might even have a guest room for you on the eastern side with a view of the deep blue sea where you and the beautiful mestiza might spend your wedding night,” whispered the Lieutenant.
The Captain climbed on top of the roof, looking towards Damilisan with his telescope. He could see four caracoas and assorted small sailing boats heading towards the beach. The rest of Damilisan was hidden by tall trees and rolling hills. He could neither see what was happening on the beach nor the encampments except the smoke from the numerous cooking fires rising over the forest canopy. He could hear the faint shouts as they welcomed the arrival of the new ships. He murmured to himself that Haji should have stayed in Barangan-itip hill and fortified it. If he had, then his own little army would have had no choice but to move to less favorable ground to fight. Now, Haji has to expend more lives and valuable time only to find their warriors facing real soldiers this time instead of the fake ones, the higantes’ that Señor Gayo’s men fashioned from sticks and cloth. From here, the two cannons had a 360-degree view of the battlefield and had the increased range to fire on their ships before they reached the shores.
Turning to Arbuno, the Captain said, “Teniente, can your cannon fire reach the mouth of Tumagbok River? Perhaps a little more beyond?” “Yes, my Captain. At this elevation we have an extended range. Accuracy at this distance is a problem because of the crosswinds, but we will manage.”
The Captain did not say a word for a while, his mind preoccupied as a he surveyed the vista below. Arbuno kept quiet. He had seen him like this many times and decided it was best to just wait. He did not wait long this time. “Teniente Arbuno, you will be isolated here. We will not likely be able to rescue you and your men until after we win the fight below. This fight will likely happen tomorrow. So, I wish to hear from you how you plan to keep your head on your shoulders until then.”
“Captain, as you can see, we are building two defensive rings. The top where we are now standing with the cannons is the bastion I call Maria Kristina—the name of my sweetheart waiting for me in Madrid. We leveled the floor with rocks, debris, and whatever soil we could drag up here to even the ground so that we could turn the cannons in any direction you want our artillery to fire on. The level below is the main defensive ring I call Katerina after the other sweetheart waiting for me in Manila. By tonight we will finish the palisades and roofing around this lower level to protect the 60 men hiking up the hill as we speak. For the last two days, Señor Gayo’s men have been hauling up on their shoulders hundreds of small boulders that form the base floor of this ‘castle.’ We will use these same rocks and timber to roll down on the attacking raiders as they reach midway into the cleared area. There are 30 musketeers that will move, depending on which direction the attack is coming from, and another 30 cuadrilleros with spear and broadswords in support.
“The donkeys moved the dismantled cannons one piece at a time, hidden inside piles of wood. I do not think the Moros would suspect we have hauled the cannons up here and these will be a big surprise for them. Each cannon has 200 rounds. I do not think we have enough for this fight, but better than what we had during the first battle. Also, the men are busy making makeshift grenades that we can roll down to keep the Moros from getting too close. If they breach the first ring, Katerina survivors will climb up these steps to Maria Kristina. Then we release the mixture of animal fat and grease through these port holes here on the floor. It will spread downwards and make a ring of fire around Katerina, enough to keep them at bay for a while. Beyond that, it will be just a nasty brawl up here in Maria Kristina with bayonets, swords, axes, spears, and fists. The last man alive will light the fuse connected to a barrel of gunpowder under the rocks. Then, the top of this hill blows to oblivion.”
“Very medieval ,Teniente, but I like it. Just make sure Haji doesn’t have your head on a bamboo spike on top of your castle. It will break my heart.” The Captain proceeded to give Arbuno his priority targets to pre-set the cannons. Then, they both met with the signal officers to make sure the flag and mirror signals were fully coordinated between Barangan-itip and his headquarters below. Finally, Echevarria shook hands with everyone, including the men who just arrived. Grasping Arbuno’s arm to say his farewell, Captain Echevarria smiled, “You know, Teniente, I think that if I gave you a bigger hill to defend, you will manage to name each defensive position for more señoritas waiting for you. For now, just guard the ‘dignity’ of Maria Kristina.”
Halfway down the hill, the Captain turned around to wave goodbye. The 15- meter flag pole on top of Maria Kristina was already planted at the center. Rising up the flag pole was the Spanish colonial flag. The Spanish soldiers were shouting repeatedly, “Viva España !” The Indios were clapping, amused by the sudden outburst. As the Captain started his trek down again, the men, both Spanish and Indios on Barangan-itip, started yelling to the top of their voice, “Viva Echevarria ! Viva Echevarria !”
The sun was already setting. It took hours for the Dutch sea captain to ride the caracoa back and forth, his ship hidden in a cove behind the hills of Anini-y. As his men were unloading the crates of 100 muskets, the sounds coming from Barangan-itip echoed loudly. Whispering to his pilot in Dutch, “Antoon, I have a bad feeling about this fight. Seems our Spanish ‘friends’ will likely put up a good fight.”
Under the canopy of giant fire trees along the sides of Damilisan’s cow fields, over 500 warriors trained to fire both the old snaphance and the new muskets. The men were learning fast under the watchful eye of Datu Abdullah. There was much argument before about using muskets to fight. The Tausugs, in particular, thought that using a musket was not an honorable way to do battle. They preferred personal combat than killing from a distance. Eventually they had to call on the imam to reassure the men that winning against the infidels was more righteous and they must use whatever available means to their greatest advantage. And, that this was the will of Allah.
But, time was not on their side. Haji had yielded to the desire of most of the tribes to commence the attack the afternoon of the next day when the tide was rising. This allowed the caracoas to get as close to the beach as possible. Haji knew they were also worried about the changing weather and that they should make haste to prepare for their homeward trek before storms crossed their path. “Not enough time for the men to be proficient with muskets by noon tomorrow,” thought Haji.
Muhammad, the Tausug datu, told Captain Cornelis to follow him towards the gathering of warriors in the open field. Torches were lit. The men were squatting on the grassy ground with their kampilans and barong on their lap. Some had their spears on the ground next to their shields. Each man was chanting, barely audible as a single warrior. But, collectively, the chants of almost a thousand warriors reverberated loudly, with the undulating rhythm further amplified by the surrounding hills.
Five men in white garb, like some Arab mullahs, walked on the makeshift bamboo stage. The hills exploded with the roar of a thousand men as if trying to make their voices heard up in the heavens. Cornelis had a puzzled look. Muhammad thought that the Dutch Captain must not have ever seen such a ceremony. Before Cornelis had a chance to say anything, Muhammad started to explain, “You are seeing something rarely seen by white men. We call this parrang sabbil. These men in white will fight tomorrow and will surely die for the love of Allah. Tonight, they are being honored by their fellow warriors and their Datu before the start of the purification rites in the early morning before the battle.
“Their names will be read aloud, their family history recorded in the hadis, the religious story of the Tausugs, orally recited long after this battle is over. In a way, it is also the path to immortality and the sure path to be with Allah. In the morning they are to be bathed in the river as they face north, south, east, and west. These are the same cleansing rites for the already dead. Their nails are then trimmed and their heads shaved. Then white cords are tied around their arms, legs, and around their bellies. These are meant to prevent copious amounts of blood from spilling when they are injured. The belly wrap is there to keep their insides from spilling. They will not have any contact with women starting now because it will drain their strength and spirit. But, their penises will be bound to keep them erect.”
Still looking perplexed and appalled at the thought of a ritual suicide, Muhammad continued his explanation, “Parrang sabbil in Tausug means the ‘path to god.’ These men pledged to die tomorrow just to accomplish a single purpose.” Cornelis asked,” Many warriors will surely die tomorrow. What makes them special?”
“These men are pledged to kill the Spanish Captain called Echevarria.”
“Sunsets are incredibly beautiful here,” thought Captain Echevarria as he sat on the parapet of Cotta on the beach in Sitio Baybay. The small fishing boats are returning in a hurry. There must be a hundred sails on a rush to the beach bringing the day’s catch to supplement the rations. It has not been easy to keep the troops and the natives fed. He ordered for the livestock not to be slaughtered until such time that they start running out of food. He has other plans for them in this coming battle and it doesn’t involve eating them.
Typical Miag-ao sunset by the beach (photo by Jason Matias; www.jasonmatias.com)
There are many worries yet to overcome. He too is out of time. Thinking to himself as he gazed out to view the splendor of the sunset, Captain Echevarria said to himself. “The regiment of Muslim warriors somewhere behind us in the hills is yet to be found. I do not think they have turned back. Those caracoas that arrived must have added more men to the Muslim side. What else did they bring? Will my own men and these Indios sustain another day of carnage like on May 7th? What are we to do with Haji Ranom’s two sons? Most of us here are of the opinion to hang them on top of Cotta as the Muslim warriors come on shore. Or, trade them for a promise from Haji to just go home? I don’t think Haji’s sense of honor will allow that to happen. Executing his sons will only add fuel to the fire in him.”
Portrait of a mestiza, ca 1800
“I was told that being a leader of men is a lonely job. May I come up, Kapitan?” a sweet familiar voice came from below the parapet. Señorita Carmen was looking at him with her captivating smile. Standing near her at a short distance were two older women. Must be the chaperones. An Indio accompanying the women threw a rope to one of the soldiers who then pulled up a wicker basket. As she struggled to get up the ladder, Señorita Carmen said, “I brought you some rice cakes, fruits, and hot coffee. Teniente Arbuno said you like coffee.” Holding her hand as she clambered over the top of Cotta, he could smell the perfume in her hair. The Captain could not contain his smile at his unexpected guest.
“Captain, I have to sit near the edge of the parapet where my aunts can see me from below. It is good that they are too old to climb up. Part of the Christian custom is for a woman not to be seen alone with a man who is not a relation,” Carmen whispered. So they sat together on a wooden bench near the parapet while he ate the rice cakes and sipped the coffee. The other cuadrilleros started clambering down to give them some privacy. As soon as the last soldier came down, Carmen looked at his eyes with a mischievous grin. Then, she reached for his left hand. “The old ladies cannot see what we do with our hands from where they sit on the sand,” said Carmen.
From the top of Barangan-itip, Teniente Arbuno surveyed the scene with his telescope. “Sargent Mariano, can you go fetch my guitar ? This is too romantic to pass up without some background music,” Arbuno said. Spanish songs and guitar music from top of the hill wafted down. Later, three Indios joined in, with encouragement from the Teniente to render Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a melodies.
For a moment in time, the thought of war and uncertainties were forgotten. The Señorita and the Captain continued talking, aware of the faint music from the hill. The men at work in Tacas took a break, sat on the grass, and joined in the singing too. Even Señor Gayo and Fray Alvares stopped talking. They sat on the bench overlooking the sea from the hill of Tacas. The two old men were also mesmerized by the beautiful sunset, the men singing, and the couple talking on top of Cotta. The clouds beyond the sea were turning into hues of gold, orange, yellow, and red. Fray Alvares whispered to Señor Gayo, “My friend, when this battle is over and assuming we survive it, I have a feeling you might be gaining a son-in law.”
The rest of the night was spent planning for tomorrow’s action. Although the defenses were far from what he hoped to complete, these had to make do if the Muslims came again in the morning. A four-meter high palisade made from cut lumber and bamboo surrounded Tacas. Old men, children, and women were sent to the mountains yesterday, far enough away from the Muslims if they overcame this fortress. Some chose to stay, such as Carmen and others, who would tend to the wounded.
An inner defense perimeter was at the center where the livestock were also kept, just two meters high, not enough time to make it higher, but at least a place they could run to if the outer walls were breached. A 50-meter open field surrounding the fortress was cleared of trees and shrubs. Arbuno’s artillery would have a clear view from Barangan-itip and the men with muskets on top of the palisades had a clear field of fire. Captain Echevarria thought, “Not enough muskets, not enough men.” Though he commanded the equivalent of five regiments of infantry, he knew he was fighting seasoned warriors and he did not have enough experienced soldiers left.
Fray Alvares interrupted his meandering thoughts, “Kapitan, I saw a torbellino, a whirlwind, out in the ocean today, a rare sight in this part of the world. Often they say that that the appearance of the whirlwind means that the weather will change abruptly. It does remind me of what you are going through now. You are riding that whirlwind of change. A change in your inner soul.” Captain Echevarria did not say anything. He knew that the priest was right. The priest continued, “When you are ready to talk about it, please do seek my help. I had been there in the jungles of Peru and felt that same whirlwind of uncertainty that I feel in you.
“As you had requested, I found what you were looking for and a man to interpret it for you.” Fray Alvares handed him a book — a Koran. Next to him was an Arab trader. “This is Abu. He is the ship captain of an Arab dhow that was damaged in a big storm last year. Although his ship is repaired, he too cannot leave because of the Moro invasions all along the Visayas. Despite being a Muslim, he and his men are afraid to venture beyond the protection of the guns of Fort San Pedro. Vice- Admiral de Lezo has given him special permission to trade in the islands and to fill the Manila Galleon with products from the Kingdom of Siam and Burma. I found him in the pueblo of Guimbal recruiting sailors for his trading ship. He is unwilling to read the Koran to you unless you explain your reason for wanting to know about the sacred book.”
The Captain replied to directly to Abu, “My friend, I do not wish to desecrate your holy book. I only wish to understand the religion that inspires the passion of the Moros. I had fought the Moors in North Africa and am now fighting them again here thousands of miles away. But I was fighting blind. I did not understand my enemy. I want to know what makes Christians and Muslims so different from each other. And from understanding the religion, I will also then perhaps understand what part of their humanity is similar to ours.” Captain Abu replied back, “My Captain, I am old but a well-traveled man. I have been to Spain and seen the eternal beauty of Cordova. I have seen Mecca, Jeddah, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Damascus, and Alexandria. Not one Christian ever asked me about the Koran. I accept your explanation and will wait for you under the light of that lamp under the mango tree to teach you the important parts of the Koran.”
“Before you go sit with Abu, may I first speak with you Captain for a short while?” asked Fray Alvares. “Early this evening, three slave rowers of the caracoa fleet escaped from Damilisan and made their way here. From them we learned that more Moros, at least 400 of them, arrived this morning. Each of the four caracoas has lantaka cannons. Over 500 Moros are also training with muskets delivered by white men who arrived with the caracoas.” Captain Echevarria nodded and was about to head to the direction of the Arab. The priest held his arm gently. “There is more grave news that concerns you personally. The Moros are not likely to attack in the morning because they have a ritual to perform first. Although this invasion fleet consists of many nations of Moros –the Iranuns, Magindanaws, Subadens, Badjaws, Samals, and other tribes –the bulk of their fighting men are the ever more warlike, fanatical Tausugs.”
“Have a seat, Captain. Let me tell you about the warriors we call the juramentar or ‘he who takes the oath’ and the ritual of parrang sabbil of the Tausug people.”
1. Parrang Sabbil: Ritual Suicide among the Tausug of Jolo. Thomas M. Kiefer
Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 129, 1ste Afl., ANTHROPOLOGICA XV (1973), pp. 108-123. Published by: KITLV, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27861310