The Captain from Gipuzkoa in the Battle of Miag-ao

Jonathan R. Matias
Sulu Garden
Miag-ao, Iloilo, Philippines


May 7, 1754 was a pivotal day in Miag-ao’s 300 year – history as a town. Sadly, only the date and the key players in that Battle were recorded. The details of how the Battle developed between the Islamic raiders and the Miag-aowanon defenders are not known. Perhaps there were records, but these were forever lost in the 262 years that followed. Oral stories handed down through the generations also faded from memory and were never passed on. Perhaps it was a painful event that Miag-aowanons preferred not to remember.

To reconstruct an event without much in the way of material reference, one may only resort to a fictionalized historical narrative to recreate the passion and essence of that unique event in Miag-ao’s history. This meant using the excuse of taking “artistic liberty” in interpreting the event. We have attempted this on two consecutive blog articles and it is best for you to first read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Salakayan series in the Sulu Garden’s website (

Part 1. Defending Cotta: Thoughts of a Comisario in the morning of Salakayan. Read HERE.

Part 2. Attack on Cotta: Thoughts of an Iranun Warrior at Sunrise on the Day of Salakayan. Read HERE.


Unlike the fictional main characters, Haji Ranom and Nong Fermin, from the first two-part series of this novella, the Spanish officer Captain Jose Echevarria in this story is a real character from the extant records. And so are the personages of the capitan del barrio (Agustin Gayo), another Spanish officer (Francisco Arbuno), and the parish priest (Rev. Father Pedro Alvares) [1]. We often take for granted that all Spaniards (Kastila) in our history are all the same. Regional and ethnic distinctions in Spain made for complicated interactions, very much the same as between the Tagalogs and the Visayans during the last three centuries of Spanish rule. Captain Jose Echevarria is a Spaniard, but of Basque origin [2], an ethnic minority in Spain that also experienced discrimination in the larger Spanish world they had to live in. Echevarria is the Spanish spelling of the Basque name Etxberria.

I never heard about Basques until I met Antonio M. de Ynchausti. Antonio is among the many prominent descendants of Basques who decided to remain in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and prided himself to be as much a Filipino as any native [3]. In 1998, he came to Miag-ao for a visit with his friends who just arrived from the Basque country of Spain. That was an entertaining conversation about the Basques in the Philippines while watching sunset on the beach. It was then that I learned the Spanish phrase, “my last Filipino” which means “my last possession.” For example, when a Spaniard is holding a cigar and says to his friend that this cigar is my last Filipino, he simply means that it his last cigar. The phase was intended to be more endearing than derogatory to us. It wasn’t until few years later when I again read about Basques in the Trevanian novel entitled “Shibumi”[4]. From time to time in the last 20 years, the Basques were in the international news about bombings in Spain and France by Basque separatists.

The “Basque Country” is a vast region located in the Pyrenees Mountains. About 80% of the Basque people live on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees while the other 20% live across in France. Today, the Basque Homeland is an autonomous region of Spain with its own culture and language called Euskera. This language is so distinct from any of the Western languages that academics theorize that the Basques settled in the Pyrenees Mountains long before the Iberians, Celts, Gauls, and Germanic tribes migrated in the neighboring areas [5].

Homeland of Basque

Map of Basque country and Gipuzkoa

The Basques have always been a nation, their hallmarks being independence, isolation, and courage. They have always spoken their ancient language and have constituted a confederation of small republics, related by their common ancestry and language.”

——- Diccionario geográfico-estadístico-histórico de España, Pascual Madoz (1850)

In his book, Basques in the Philippines, Marciano R. de Borja wrote “The Basques, one of Spain’s most distinct ethnic minorities, played a remarkably influential role in the creation and maintenance of Spain’s vast colonial empire, including the Philippines. Basques were members of the Magellan expedition that discovered the Philippines in 1521, and a Basque-led expedition subsequently laid the foundation for Spain’s conquest and pacification of the archipelago. Despite the small population of their native provinces, the Basques’ unique skills as shipbuilders, navigators, businessmen, and scribes; their evangelical zeal; and their ethnic cohesion and work-oriented culture made them well suited to serve as explorers, colonial administrators, missionaries, settlers, merchants, and shippers in the trans-Pacific galleon trade between China, Manila, and Acapulco, Mexico. After the Wars of Independence deprived Spain of most of its empire, many Basques settled in the Philippines, fleeing political persecution and increasingly limited opportunities in their homeland. The Basque emigration from Spain to the Philippines continued through the first half of the twentieth century” [6]. The Basques have always been part of Philippine history. “Juan Sebastian Elcano, who was part of Magellan’s expedition and the first to circumnavigate the world, was a Basque from the province of Guipuzcoa as were many of the crew. The Urdaneta and Legazpi expeditions that followed Magellan’s voyage? They were Basques too. Soldiers, tradesmen, shipwrights, merchants, friars, and others mostly came from the Basque Homeland. Their descendants founded many of the largest and most successful companies in the Philippines.” [3].

Miag-ao in 1754 was a far cry from a town one would consider prosperous. The church did not exist, primarily because the Muslim raiders had looted and burned the church twice in 1741 and in 1747. The Augustinians had not arrived as yet to build the third church we see now in the poblacion. That third church was built in 1797. The center of religion and trade in Miag-ao was in the south of the present – day poblacion in Damilisan and Igbugo along the Oyungan River. This area is often the target of raids by Muslim raiders and bandits of all types [1]. What did the Oyungan Valley have that was worth the time for raiders to come? For now, no one really knows.

La Compaña de Jesus (Society of Jesus), often referred to as the Jesuits, ministered to the faithful and controlled the daily lives of the Christianized natives of Miag-ao. The Jesuits survived through the frequent Moro raids and the burning of their two churches. Their control lasted until 1768, 12 years after the event in Miag-ao called Salakayan. Pope Clement XIV issued a brief called Dominus ac Redemptor suppressing the activity of the Jesuits. That suppression act had a political rather that a religious underpinning. The Jesuits were becoming too autonomous and politically strong. That decree banned the Jesuits from all of Christendom. The news reached Manila in 1769. For the next two years, all the Jesuits in the Philippines were arrested, transported to Spain, and deported to Italy. The decree was reversed in 1814, allowing for the return of the Jesuits [7]. By then, The Augustinians have taken over the religious life in Miag-ao and have already built the third church that we see today on the high ground overlooking the sea and the Tumagbok River below.

There are three defensive watchtowers in Miag-ao. One is in Damilisan, now called Baluarte, where the Jesuits have their mission house. The other is in Baybay along the beachfront below Miag-ao’s plateau called Tacas, and the other , in Kirayan Sur across the Tumagbok River. Both watchtowers, called Cotta (kuta), in Baybay and Kirayan were meant to prevent the raiders from rowing their boats up the Tumagbok River and attack the pueblo from the rear and also entering the rich river valleys beyond. Today, the rivers are silted and shallow. But hundreds of years ago, the rivers were wide, deep, and fast-flowing.

How the Battle of Miag-ao was fought in that dark day of 1754 is a conjecture, a calculated guess. The terrain of Miag-ao’s coastal area favored a more defensive action on the part of the Miaga0wanons. That the Miag-aowanons did not fight alone is very likely since there was a Spanish Officer- in – Charge. It is unlikely that a Spanish officer will be sent by himself in a fight like this. Winning means having some firepower and experienced troops to fight against the Moros arriving in 21 caracoas. Even a small contingent of 125 warriors in each caracoa (with 60 galley slaves) would have placed 2,600+ warriors on the field of battle in Miag-ao. And, even with 20% of the people in Miag-ao at the time (population of approximately 20,000) young enough to fight, it was likely that perhaps a maximum of 4,000 inexperienced Miag-aowanons would have participated. Over a hundred years of Spanish rule and religion had transformed the Visayans into less warlike, more pious people. Against 2,600 experienced well-armed Moro raiders, that battle would have easily favored the raiders. But, history tells us that the Miag-aowanons were able to repulse the invasion on the beaches, hence our conjecture that the Spanish officer had to have men and modern weapons to give the edge against a more powerful Moro army.


Captain Jose Echevarria sailed in July 1753 from the province of Gipuzkoa in the Basque territory and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New Spain (Mexico). Disembarking in the port city of Veracruz on the eastern side of New Spain two months later, it took another month of hard ride by horse and  horse-drawn carriages through the breadth of this Spanish colony to reach the western coastal city of Acapulco. There he anxiously Photo 2 Galleonwaited for another three months for the Manila Galleon, often referred to as the Nao de China. He watched the enormous galleon disgorge its load of silk and porcelain from China, spices smuggled through the Dutch-controlled islands around the Celebes Sea, ivory from Africa , and a lot more exotic things he could only dream of. It took another two weeks to load the ship with silver from the mines of Mexico and as far away as Peru. The treasure was to be used as payment for the riches of the Orient. He watched as the wretched Incas, Aztecs, African slaves, and assorted natives haul the boxes on their backs. He thought about how unfair the world could be. These half-starved virtual slaves carried the riches of their own lands for their new masters. “It is the prize of failure. The winner takes all,” he thought to himself. But deep down, he felt bad about the poor Indios.

Map Philippines 300 years agoThe voyage across the Pacific was fairly smooth, except for a few days when they encountered terrifying weather—typhoons the Chinese called  turbulences. But, even more forbidding was the thought of being intercepted by Dutch pirates and British privateers. Spain had already lost a dozen galleons to these pirates. This ship, Nuestra Senora de la Santisima Trinidad, is heavily laden with silver and supplies for Spain’s conquered territories in the islands called Las Islas de las Filipinas. The old Basque mariners of Gipuzkoa tell tall tales of gold, spices, and exotic lands there for the taking.

Five long months at sea finally brought him safely to the harbor of Manila, in the protective shadow of the fortress called Intramuros. Manila was a city in the making. Buildings were being built. The harbor was filled with ships of all kinds. Merchant ships from China, Java, and as far away as Siam crowded the harbor, along with galleons and warships of the Empire.

There was not enough time to get used to the feel and smell of Manila. As he disembarked, a young cavalry officer met Echevarria with orders to proceed to his final destination—the City of Iloilo. A brigantine was already on the other side of the wharf and due to leave for the three-day voyage on the next tide. There was not even time to protest. The young lieutenant had some porters load his meager baggage into the waiting carriage. “Welcome to the Orient,” he said to himself with a sigh.

Harbor of Manila and Intramuros in the 18th century

Harbor of Manila and Intramuros in the 18th century

As the ship sailed past many exotic, uninhabited- looking islands, he had plenty of time to talk with other Spanish marines also en route to Iloilo. A few of them were from the Basque country that had already been in some battles with Islamic raiders. They talked mostly about the major sea battle the year before and how fortunate they were to survive that one. Both sides lost thousands of men who were maimed, killed, or drowned on burning ships that sank to the ocean depths. But the Spanish armada prevailed and drove back the invasion, saving hundreds of Christian galley slaves in the process.

Like any other typical harbor defense, the fortress they call Nuestra Senora del Rosario seemed to just emerge from the depths of the mouth of a big river that snakes itself into the vast hinterlands of Panay. The marines simply call it Fuerza de San Pedro, after the main boulevard, Calle San Pedro, connecting the fortress to the City. Like Manila, the harbor was filled with all kinds of shipping, including small cascos and boats of all types with outriggers. The banks of the river were bustling with activity as many ships were being built. Three more galleons were almost nearing completion. Lined up like a parade along the river banks were thousands of logs cut from the interior, floated down river, for the frenetic shipbuilding taking place.

Fort San Pedro- from Historical Landmarks and Monuments of Iloilo by Henry Florida Funtecha and Melanie Jalandoni Padilla.

Fort San Pedro- from Historical Landmarks and Monuments of Iloilo by Henry Florida Funtecha and Melanie Jalandoni Padilla.

He was tired by the time the brigantine docked. The smell of the Basque homeland that once permeated his sweat-soaked uniform was long gone, replaced by the mix of acrid smell from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His elation at finally arriving was cut short by another messenger. “Capitan Echevarria, I presume?” He simply nodded. It was too noisy in the wharf. “I am sorry that there will be no time to rest. I have instructions to bring you to the fortress at once. No need to change your uniform,” the messenger shouted. “You are to report to Vice-Admiral de Lezo inside the fortress, “he added. As Captain Echevarria entered the carriage, he said to himself,” At least the man in command is also a Basque, though not much comfort in that.”

Echevarria had a bad feeling about this. “Rushing to a meeting like this only meant there was trouble and it always somehow managed to involve me , ” so he thought as he entered the Vice-Admiral’s office.

The Vice-Admiral shook his hands warmly and spoke in Euskera as if meeting a long- lost friend. Basque comradeship goes beyond rank. But, the familiarity made the Castilian Spaniards in the room uneasy or maybe jealous. The messenger who fetched him at least gave him a quick background about the Vice-Admiral before the Captain entered the fortress. The Vice-Admiral is Juan de Lezo, the youngest brother of the famous Basque Admiral, Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta, hero of the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. In 1741 the Admiral defeated the English fleet in South America. Success in that battle kept South America a territory of the Spanish Empire. Blas de Lezo was the pride of the Basque Homeland, especially more so for the Captain since de Lezo was born is his home province of Gipuzkoa.

“Captain Echevarria, let me explain to you briefly about our situation in this island of Panay,” said the Vice-Admiral from Gipuzkoa who now switched to Castilian. “Last year, we destroyed the Muslim fleet at sea. It was only God’s will that we prevailed. And, it was a narrow victory at best. This fortress guards the mouth of the great river the natives call Irong-Irong. The Chinese cannot pronounce the ‘r’ and call it Ilong-Ilong. It is hard for us to pronounce either one so we simply call it Ilo-ilo. North of here is the flat agricultural plains of this island. Crops that are grown in this island supply food for the cities of Cebu and Manila. The forests in the far mountains supply the hard wood to build the galleons, the frigates, and the merchant ships of the Far East. Each galleon requires 7,000 trees. The vast forests near the city are denuded and we are now cutting timber from the far south of this island. The cut timbers are floated down the rivers and dragged by cascos along the seashore to this city.

“The harbor is filled with merchant ships coming and going from all parts of the world. This harbor is the only one in the Visayas, east of Cebu. This is the closest defensive post and the springboard for retaliatory attacks against the Moros of the southern islands. This miserable fortress is the only one that keeps the Moros from burning the ships and the rice fields of this island. We lost many soldiers last year. Our losses in men, ships, and supplies are yet to be replenished.

The Vice-Admiral continued, “South of this fortress is the area marked here as Guimbal, Bongol, and Damilisan in the map you are looking at. It is our new source of timber for our shipbuilding. And it is our least-defended territory. The pueblo of Miag-ao is at the center of this region, the commercial center where all the goods of the southern territory are bartered, sold, or purchased. The timber comes from the interior and floated downriver in Miag-ao. This pueblo is not small. It has a population of over 20,000 Christianized natives and a friar. No church. The Moros burned the last two churches the friars built in Miag-ao. And the Moros are coming back this time again for loot and slaves. They are especially coming back for revenge.

Map of Panay, 1734

Map of Panay, 1734

“This fortress is too impregnable for the Moros to overcome. They will go for the softer underbelly of Iloilo and it will be Miag-ao. Our spies told us that the Moro tribes have assembled already for a bigger invasion of Miag-ao and it will happen soon before the monsoon winds change. It will not be small raiding parties but a force of about 2,000 or more warriors of the Iranuns, Tausugs, and Maranaws. My force here is spread thin to protect the northern flank and the ships in this harbor. I cannot spare any ships to defend Miag-ao, nor do I have enough men to send this far south. Even the nearby pueblo of Oton must fend for itself.

“I am sending you south with a company of riflemen, a platoon of dragoon, and three cannons by road. I have sent instructions for all available cuadrilleros and the local militia from Guimbal and San Joaquin to meet you in Miag-ao. Perhaps you will have in total another 500 men to augment your troops. The rest must come from the Indios that occupy these arabals and pueblos. Prevent the towns from emptying and people running to the hills. Make them stand and fight.”

The Vice-Admiral introduced me first to Teniente Francisco Arbuno, the artillery officer to be my second in command. Then followed the introduction to the gobernadorcillos and cabezas of the different pueblos and arabals of the southern territories who were themselves visibly terrified at the prospect of the coming battle. Echevarria murmured to Arbuno, “ I think these appointed ‘leaders’ of the towns are likely to be the first to run away at the sight of the Moros. “ When the perfunctory introductions were done, the Vice-Admiral dismissed everyone but asked Captain Echevarria to remain.

The Vice-Admiral switched to Euskera, “I am sure you want to know why I specifically asked for you to be assigned to this command. Your father is Juan Andres Echevarria, am I correct?” The Captain was surprised and just nodded. “I knew your father well. We fought side by side in 1718 during the matxinadas, the Basque uprising against taxation and meddling on Basque trading by the Spanish King. Your father was a brave man. He died in my arms by the side of the River Aizkorri, still clutching his saber on his right hand. His last wish was that I look after you. You were four years old then in the care of your grandparents.” The Vice-Admiral continued, “I watched your military career from a distance, waiting for the chance to fulfill what I promised. You being here is not part of that promise. I need real soldiers here, not the dandies who got appointed to senior rank by simply knowing or being related to some royalty. I have plenty of those already and they are good at getting my soldiers killed and often themselves too.

“We are Basques, an ethnic minority in a land of the Spaniards, surrounded here by conquered people of different allegiances. The only thing that holds the Indios together is the promise of heavenly hereafter preached by those wretched friars. You will be meeting one of them in Miag-ao, the Jesuit friar, Reverend Father Pedro Alvares. Be careful with him. He hates Basques and I have yet to find out the reason why.

Spanish infantry in mid-18th century.

Spanish infantry in mid-18th century.

“You are to leave by tomorrow at first light. The men and supplies are assembled, waiting for your arrival. The three cannons are all I can spare. Teniente Arbuno is one of my best artillery officers. The platoon of cavalry will help. Use them wisely. You are to assume command of all the cuadrilleros in each town you pass along the way. Drive the population along the coast towards Miag-ao. Let the old men and children hide in the hills, but integrate all the able bodied men into your army.

“The Moros have few firearms and prefer to fight one-on- one with swords and lances. You cannot win a one-on- one confrontation with the Moros. Most of them are experienced fighters with over 100 years of fighting us to draw experience from. Use the old tercio formation from a hundred years ago. You are an experienced soldier and will know what to do when you get there. I am only afraid that you might not have enough time to organize your defense the way you will normally fight in a European war. This is a fight where neither side gives any quarters. And this is a fight we cannot afford to lose. You are at the end of our southern flank. And you must hold and break the Moro invasion in Miag-ao.”

“Why are you certain that they will attack Miag-ao and not the other neighboring towns?” Echevarria asked. The Vice-Admiral replied with a smile, “A little strategic disinformation goes a long way. I had our spies pass information to the Dutch in Java which, of course, reached the ears of the Sultan of Jolo. I let it be known that we are secretly mining gold and silver in the mountains of Miag-ao. Hopefully they will not expect your presence in that pueblo.

“There is really nothing in this island worth anything except crops, cattle and horse farms, lumber for our shipyards, pineapple for the fibers woven into fine cloth, and people to build our churches and ships. I know you are here to also seek your fortune, just like all Basque adventurers. Do not worry. There are fortunes to be made later from the trade with Chinese. Win this battle and I will help you find your fortune.”

“Farewell, Captain. May God follow you on this adventure.”

Organizing the Defenses

The forced march along the narrow road to the south was frustratingly slow. The “road” turned to narrow paths in some places. The even narrow wooden bridges needed to be shorn up to carry the weight of the cannons. Often, there were no bridges, most washed out by the floods of the previous rainy season. The cannons and supplies had to be floated across on small barges, nearly losing one of the cannons in the fast current of the Tumagbok River before reaching Miag-ao.

May 1, 1754

On the low plateau the natives refer to as Tacas overlooking the sea are the local market and a few large homes, presumably occupied by the wealthier mestizos, traders, and the principalia – the landed descendants of the datus that once ruled the villages a century ago. No church, no plaza. Hundreds of houses made of bamboo. Nothing yet that resembled a prosperous pueblo. There were hundreds of people assembled to welcome our little “army” of barely 320 men and three muddy cannons. Captain Echevarria whispered to his second in command, “Not much here worth defending, don’t you think, Teniente Arbuno?” The artillery officer replied with a jovial retort, “Can’t we just give them to the Moros and go home then? That will save a lot of pain and trouble for all of us. I got a young, beautiful, vibrant, and passionate mestiza waiting for me with an exquisite bottle of wine I just received from my father in Madrid.”

At the head of the throng is the Jesuit, Reverend Father Pedro Alvares, wearing the traditional robe of a friar, sweating, face sunburned, clutching his wooden cross in front as if trying to protect himself from the devil. “I think I am the devil that just arrived, “ Echevarria thought to himself. He dismounted, kissed the Jesuit’s hand, and stood beside him as the rest of the troops passed. The detachment assembled in the open space before the market where about 400 cuadrilleros from all the barrios stood on parade, each grouped according to the pueblo of origin. Most were from Oton, Tigbauan, Guimbal, and San Joaquin.

Excusing himself from the throng, Captain Echevarria opened his water- damaged map and nodded to Arbuno. The cavalry quickly dispersed, taking the road going south towards San Joaquin while the others proceeded to all roads towards the mountain.

“Where are your dragoons going, Captain?” asked Father Alvares. Pointing to his map, Captain Echevarria said that the cavalry was going to Damilisan and up the Oyungan River to Igbugo.” “Why?” the priest asked. “They are going to bring all the ablebodied men and women from the Oyungan Valley into Miag-ao. The rest are proceeding with all haste beyond Tacas to do the same and block the paths leading to the mountains. Only old men and women and those women with young children may go hide in the hills. The rest of the Indios will assemble in Tacas and Mat-y –the men are to be trained as infantry; the women, to set up camp and prepare meals for the troops.”

In his towering voice, Father Alvares said, “Captain, there is nothing worth defending here in Tacas. Damilisan and Igbugo are the centers of religion and commerce in Miag-ao. I want you to stop what you are doing and send your troops down to protect Damilisan. The mission house of the La Compaña de Jesus is there. I want you…” The Captain gripped the priest’s right hand firmly before he finished his sentence, looked at him straight in the eyes, and shouted, “Father, I take my orders from the Vice-Admiral. Not from you ! Damilisan is not defensible. The raiders will just row their boats up the Oyungan River as they have always done and devastate the countryside as usual.”

Captain Echevarria stood up on the table with his cavalry sword drawn out of its scabbard for everyone to see and shouted, “People of Miag-ao ! No longer will you run to the hills to hide from the Moros. Your young men and women will no longer be sacrificial lambs to be carried off to slavery. We are here to stand and fight. There will be no retreat. Desertion is punishable with death. It is time for this pueblo to show the infidels the strength of your Christian faith.”

To the priest, Captain Echevarria addressed him in a low, menacing voice. “Father, I was told you hate Basques. You already know just from my name alone that I am one of them. And to make us even, I hate priests, most especially Jesuits. If you and the other Jesuits stand in my way, I will have you chained to a donkey and sent to the Augustinians in Oton. And if I am in a really bad mood, I will put all the Jesuits on a boat, row you and your entire lot out to sea, and leave you there. You can test your faith when the raiders come over from the horizon in a matter of days. Then you will know personally if the God of Abraham is stronger than the God of Mohammed.”

May 2, 1754

On horseback and on foot for most of the morning, Captain Echevarria surveyed the beach, the hills, and the riverside. At the same time, his sergeants began forming the companies based on where they came from. To improve the cohesiveness, each company comprised of men mostly from the same barrio and arabal. There were companies made up of men from Guimbal and another group from the adjacent sitios of Miag-ao. Each company was led by a junior Spanish officer and a senior cuadrillero. Inserted into the midst were 20 riflemen, armed with flintlocks, protected by 100 Indios with lances. Behind the lancers were another 100 men armed with swords and bolos. The company of about 300 men was arranged in a hollow square, called a cuadra, with riflemen at the attacking or defending side, with the rest of the lancers and swordsmen forming the square. Teaching the men to move as one and recognize the commands were the hard part and there was so little time. But, if the men could move in unison and not panic, the cuadra could be an impregnable moving fortress on its own provided the attackers were not fully armed with rifles. They managed to form four cuadras out of this motley group of men. Now they were fighting as a tercio regiment.

Barangan itip

Pointing to Barangan-itip, Echevarria said, “Teniente Arbuno, I want your signal officer on top of that hill on the right to coordinate signals coming from the highest point by the sea near this place called Anini-y. Then one more signal officer on a fast row boat, with sail and manned by six rowers out in the far horizon. When the sails of the raiders show up in the horizon, the boat will signal by mirror if by day or signal by lamp if by night to the officer on Barangan-itip. If the raiders are hugging the shore, the observation post in Anini-y will see them and send the signal. Let’s get these men in place today.”

After an unimpressive lunch under the mango tree, the dragoons came with about 35 men in chains. “Teniente Fernandes, who are these men?” Captain Echevarria asked the officer of the dragoons. The lieutenant said, “These wretched Indios tried to escape to the hills. What do we do with them?” Captain Echevarria thought for a moment. He knows he cannot let them go unpunished. Otherwise, by morning half of the men in town would have deserted too. “Take four men at random. Make them pick lots. Tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. execute them for desertion with bayonets in front of the people at the market; on the next day, another four to die and four each day thereafter. The ones waiting to die keep them in chains under the sun.”

Looking to Teniente Arbuno, “The rest of this day, the men must learn to fight as a cuadra until sundown. You might only have two more days. Not much time, but that is all we likely have. Once they are able to move as a unit, I will decide the order of battle. Our biggest concern now is how to feed our own men and the Indios of this sorry- looking new army. Send the dragoons out again to forage the countryside.”

May 3, 1754

Captain Echevarria was awakened at sunrise by the knock on his door. “Captain, I apologize for waking you up early, but you have guests. I think they will ruin your morning for sure, “Arbuno said with a wry smile. Outside were a few Indios and Father Alvares looking pious. But what took his attention was the sight of the most beautiful woman he has ever seen since he sailed from Gipuzkoa. There was something about her beyond the beauty, so he thought to himself. Father Alvares introduced everyone, “This is our capitan del pueblo, Agustin Gayo. Behind him are a dozen men from the different offices here in town. Also this is Carmen, Capitan Gayo’s daughter. We are all here on behalf of the men about to die.”

Father Alvares said no more. He knew his words to this Basque would simply fall on deaf ears.

Capitan Gayo said, “I had been a cuadrillero when I was young and was in many battles for the glory of God and Spain. Discipline is everything. I agree with you, Captain, that the punishment for desertion must be death.” Gayo took a deep breath and continued, “But, my eldest son Eduardo is one of the condemned men. He was compelled to seek his family that went into the mountains to ensure their safety if we fail here. I could not blame him. Two of these men are my encargados, my managers who have served the family for over 25 years. I have commanded them to hide the cattle we breed for the Spanish army in Iloilo. Another three are my encargados in the mountains to secure the timbers lashed along the banks of Tumagbok River about five kilometers from here. These timbers are ready to be floated downriver for your galleons. As for the rest of the condemned, they are chained here of their own accord.”

Captain Echevarria listened but could not avert his eyes from the woman behind Gayo, her tears flowing, her eyes fixed on him. He had seen her type of beauty once, a long time ago, long before the army consumed his life.

Captain Echevarria broke his revelry to ask, “Who are these men with you?” Gayo answered, “These men are the comisarios, the clerks of the town. Two of them had served their polo y servicio with the army in the campaign against the Moros of Basilan. Touching the shoulder of the man next to him, Gayo continued, “This is Nong Fermin of Sitio Baybay. He served for many years with Spain’s Armada de Pintados that had invaded Zamboanga many times. These men I commit to help your…..our cause against the Moros.

“Before you say anything, Captain, I have a proposition for you in exchange for the lives of these men. Until the battle, my comisarios will organize the townspeople, help translate, and make things go smoothly for your men to do their job. I will have my encargados bring the cattle and horses from the hidden valley up in those mountains to feed your men and the townspeople while we wait for the Moros. And my own trusted men will guard the paths and the passes to prevent any more desertions and to guard against the possibility of the Moros coming from behind. If there are any more desertions, I offer my life to be the first one extinguished for this offence.”

“Captain, may I humbly speak with you alone for little while,” Father Alvares asked. The Captain nodded and walked a few paces with the Jesuit. “I know these people, having lived with them for over 20 years. The Visayans were proud and warlike before we turned them into God-fearing servants of the Lord. The people of Miag-ao have a strong kinship bond and relationships do matter a lot more than we might think. These men who are condemned to die are related by birth to so many in this pueblo. Blood ties are strong here and the capacity for violence can be surprising. When raiders come, they do prefer to run to the hills. That is a prudent option than fighting a force stronger than them. You have only 300 men. You cannot afford a rebellion here and fight the Moros at the same time.”

Captain Echevarria beckoned Gayo to walk with him. “Señor Gayo, I tend to accept your proposal, but without punishment I do not think I can hold the rest of the population in fear of me. I want them to fear me more than they fear the Moros. Except your encargados, the rest of the men, including your son, will be on the signal boat out at sea on the Moro watch. This will be a rotation of six men every 12 hours. My signal officer on the boat will kill anyone that does not follow his orders or attempts to escape. If the Moros do show up in the horizon, they are likely to die first unless they can row their boat back faster than the Moros. At least they have a fighting chance compared to facing the bayonets here.

“First, I will release your encargados and I want all of the cattle and carabaos you can find in the mountains here no later than by sunset tomorrow. Second, I want your other encargados to follow what I want done to the timber by the river. I will let you know later what my plans are. Third, I want your Nong Fermin and some of your comisarios to be on top of Cotta in Baybay fully armed by tomorrow night. I will add more men later as soon as we sight the invasion fleet. Fourth, I want your solemn oath that there will be no desertions from this day onwards.

“And fifth,” he said with a smile, “would you introduce me to your daughter, Carmen?”

After the men were released, Señor Gayo and Captain Echevarria talked for an hour, exchanging thoughts about how to make use of the timber by the riverside.

May 4, 1754

spanish swordsMore drills. Mass confusion at first, but Señor Gayo’s comisarios were indeed a big help. The men were at least marching in the same direction and responding to commands. The blacksmiths were busy making points for the lances and short broad swords, the espada ancha, preferred by the infantry than the long cavalry sabers. The Cotta in Baybay was being prepared. The coconut trees all around were cut down to have a clear field of fire. A 4-foot high palisade was being added to give more cover for the men on top of Cotta.

As promised, hundreds of cattle arrived in the afternoon, along with hundreds more carabaos and pigs. A parade of carabao and mule-driven carts followed, filled with chicken, bags of rice, and vegetables. Surprisingly, another 150 men came down from the hills with Señor Gayo, fully armed with spears and swords. On Gayo’s signal, half of the men went to take over the border paths into the mountains, relieving my cavalry of this essential task. A third of Señor Gayo’s men were riding white Spanish cavalry horses. Puzzled at seeing the horses, Captain Echevarria asked where the horses came from. Señor Gayo replied, “These are the descendants of those horses that escaped when the Dutch invasion fleet came to Oton 30 years ago and destroyed the horse farms. We bred them and used them in the mountains for transportation.”

“No signals yet, Captain,” Arbuno said as he entered the Captain’s quarters. “Maybe they are going to miss this fiesta we are having here!” “Good,” replied Captain Echevarria. “We need more time to prepare.” He proceeded to instruct Arbuno to close all entry points into Miag-ao. Merchants coming in to bring supplies would have to stay until the crisis was over. Captain Echevarria did not want any information to be known beyond the borders of Miag-ao about how many men he had and the preparations being made. The Vice-Admiral had spies and most likely the Sultan did too.

“By the way, Captain, you have an invitation from Señor Gayo to attend a dinner tonight in celebration of his daughter’s birthday,” said Arbuno, with his trademark mischievous look. “Since nothing is happening right now, I will take care of things here and you can finally meet that beautiful lady, Carmen, who resembles your woman from Gipuzkoa. And, I do have some chocolates from Madrid that came with my father’s wine bottles. This way you do not come to the party empty- handed.”

“Teniente, I think I will take you up on that offer,” Captain Echevarria said with a broad smile for the first time since sailing from Gipuzkoa.

May 5, 1754

The birthday dinner last night was held in the biggest home in Tacas. It was traditional, with Señor Gayo at the head of the table, Echevarria on his right. Señor Gayo’s wife and Carmen were on the other side; the Jesuit, at the other end of the table. The other relatives and guests were distributed in between. Music wafted in from the first floor of the house. A band of older men with violins and guitars were singing songs in the Kinaray-a language he did not understand. The melody was soothing and melodious at one point and changed to boisterously happy the next. There was plenty of laughter below. The lower floor was reserved for the Indios and the higher floor, exclusively for the principalia and Spaniards. He wished he had more chances to speak with Carmen, who just turned 17, but the rules of decorum dictated otherwise. At least Carmen thought that the chocolates from Madrid were the greatest gift she ever received. It made him happy to see Carmen’s delight at tasting European chocolate for the very first time.

The training was improving each day. He thought that if he only had a month longer, he could make real infantry men out of these reluctant recruits. But, he might have only days. Combining the old soldiers with the inexperienced ones stabilized the cuadra. Embedding a squad of riflemen inside the cuadra would give the group a fighting chance. The combination of rifles, lances, bows and arrows, and swordsmen might even the odds, provided that the cuadra didn’t break with the first onslaught of screaming Moros. He had seen the fanatical charge of the Moros in Morocco. Joining Allah much earlier in life seems to be a welcome thought for the Moro on a jihad. Worse here, he learned, because the Moros of these islands believe that those Christians they vanquish will become their slaves in heaven.

A squad of dragoons galloping fast from the direction of Iloilo City got his immediate attention. “Captain Echevarria, I have a message from the Vice-Admiral !” said the sergeant as he dismounted. He read the message and told the sergeant to find Teniente Arbuno to get them some food and arrange to take care of the horses. “And Sergeant, get some rest. You will not be riding back to the fortress. Join the rest of the cavalry. There is going to be a big show soon and I don’t think you would want to miss it.”

As he stood at the edge of Tacas looking out to the deep blue sea the Indios call Sulu, Echevarria re-read the message from the old Basque Vice-Admiral. “Captain Echevarria. The Moros sailed out of Basilan a few days ago. The estimated number is 2,500 warriors on at least 20 caracoas heading straight to you. Expect them to arrive either May 7th or 8th. God speed.” His footnote reads, “Wish I were 20 years younger and could join you in the fun.”

May 6, 1754

The Sulu Sea looked so calm this morning as the sun rose. He could not sleep last night, thinking about the order of battle he has to give today. No signals from the hills as yet. But he can feel they are out there beyond the horizon, riding the waves fast on their caracoas. The galley slaves rowing those boats must be on their last breath just to get this close to striking distance of Miag-ao.

Map of the battlefield.

Map of the battlefield.

Captain Echevarria walked towards the assembled officers. “Gentlemen, this is our order of battle. I intend to keep the battlefield narrow and the momentum in our favor,” Captain Echevarria started giving detailed instructions. “Nong Fermin’s men will remain in Cotta in Baybay to draw the invading Moros towards them. They are to demonstrate as loudly as possible. Taunt the Moros to attack you there. Thirty riflemen who are not embedded in the tercio formation will hide behind the Cotta until the last moment and then climb up to Cotta before the Moros reach the defenses. The wooden palisades should protect your men from spears and arrows.

“There is only one road wide enough for the Moros to come up to the high ground. Teniente Arbuno, place two of your guns in hiding on the reverse slope of this plateau on each side of this road. I do not want the Moros to see that we have cannons until the last moment. The two cannons will bombard the beach in support of Cotta. The Moros will try to bypass Cotta and head straight up the road. As they come halfway up this road, I want both guns ready to fire down at point blank range; use canister shots to break their charge. These shells, filled with iron balls and nails, will maim and kill the front ranks. Before they get a chance to recover, the first cuadra will charge after sending one volley of rifle fire; the rest of the men up in Tacas, with spikes, lances, and bolos to follow behind the first cuadra. We are on high ground and the momentum will break the Moro charge and should send them running.”

Turning to the officer of the dragoons, “Your cavalry is to remain here in Tacas as the only reserve. Send your dragoons if the Moros break through the main road from Baybay or if they come up the forests from the base of Barangan-itip or up the Tumagbok River or come up from behind us through Sitio Mat-y from the direction of the mountain. You have freedom of movement and must make your own attack without waiting for my orders if any of these situations arise. The second cuadra will remain with you on the high ground. Recall all your men from across Tumagbok River and be ready to sink the barges so the Moros do not use them to cross.”

Pointing to the southern shore of Tumagbok River, he said, “The third cuadra will hide in the undergrowth on the forward slope of this plateau on the left. On my signal you will rush forward, form your cuadra on the beach, and push your men forward to the right, heading towards Cotta in Baybay. The center of your cuadra will not be empty. Our third cannon will be at the center, armed only with canister shots. When you are ready to fire, the men in front will move to the side, fire, and then close up the hole while you reload. I need for your cuadra to practice this movement today right on the beach.”

Turning to the officer of the 4th cuadra, “Your men will do the same on the right in Sitio Sapa. Your backs will be against the Sapa River bed. We have cut a hidden narrow path down this hill for the dragoons to sweep down and protect your rear as you push towards Baybay to Cotta. The dragoons will stay on the north side of  the Sapa Creek to prevent the Moros from crossing the dry riverbed in force until the 2nd cuadra makes the formation. As soon as the 2nd cuadra takes over the defense of Sapa Creek, the dragoons will then swing to the left at the sound of the bugle towards Cotta, following the edge of the waves. You cavalry will cut off support from more Moros coming on shore from the caracoas. Use grenades to damage and burn the ships near the shore. “

Sergeant Martinez asked, “Are we abandoning the Cotta in Kirayan on the other side of Tumagbok River? Our backs will be open to attack from that side if the Moros cross the river.” Echevarria replied, “Yes, we are abandoning that Cotta in Kirayan. But, do not worry. Señor Gayo and I have many surprises for them when they land in Sitio Buwang or try to row their boats up the Tumagbok River.”

“Teniente Arbuno, add more men up in Barangan-itip. They are our only eyes on the battleground and the Moros will try to take it as soon as possible. Keep them well supplied for at least three days. They will have to stand their ground without any support from us.” To Señor Gayo, Captain Echevarria asked, “Are your men ready with the Higantes for Cotta Kirayan?” “Yes, they know what to do when it is time. Just send the signal,” replied Señor Gayo. The Captain continued, “How would you be able to communicate with your encargados up the Tumagbok River? They will likely not hear or see our signal.” Señor Gayo explained, “We will blow the carabao horn from Tacas to give the signal. Then, the drums made from hollowed out old timbers will relay the message from hill to hill. They will know what to do.” The rest of the Spanish officers were perplexed by the exchange between Gayo and the Captain but did not ask for explanation. They know the Captain will explain if it is necessary.

Captain Echevarria turned to Nong Fermin in a tone with a little more deference, “Señor Fermin, I know only of stories of the Armada de Pintados from the older Basque soldiers on the ship I took from Manila. I need to ask you to make your men in Cotta stay and fight. I do not know for how long, but Cotta must remain in our hands. Cotta is our bait to draw the enemy and keep them engaged.” Nong Fermin smiled as he took his camisa and trousers off. His tattoos start from the neck down to his toes. “When the Moros see a Pintado on top of Cotta, they will go berserk like a bull in heat. There is still one more fight left in this old body. We will hold Cotta.” The younger Spanish officers were awed by the sight of the heavily tattooed man.

woman of the 19th century“Men, timing is everything.” Captain Echevarria spent another hour with his officers to discuss the timing of the attack of each unit. Mentally exhausted and physically spent, Captain Echevarria finally dismissed the men. “Thank you, gentlemen. See that your men are well fed and ready tonight.” “Señor Gayo, will you stay a moment. I am releasing your son, Eduardo, to your care and wish him to lead the timber men.” “And one last request just in case I do not survive this battle.” Señor Gayo nodded. “May I call on your daughter for a few minutes tonight? Carmen reminds me so much of my wife. She died in child birth 15 years ago.”


“Yes, I think Carmen would like that. Come to the house when you can, anytime tonight.”

Before sunset, the signal from the boat out in the Sulu Sea finally came. The signal officer on top of Barangan-itip relayed the message by mirror to Tacas. Carabao horns started blowing, the beating of drums echoing into the hills. The entire camp wais on the move. Signs of panic were palpable from the women and men in town, but they had nowhere to go. The bridges and barges were gone. The paths to the mountains were blocked.

The hours passed so slowly, the minutes punctuated by the frantic movements of scared, confused, and sometimes determined men. The Moros would come in the morning, likely by sunrise. Not much to do for now. It was already 9:00 PM. The camp had that aura of solitude of men and women praying for salvation of the soul quietly alone and in groups. The Jesuit was busy giving Communion to the Indios and also to some of his own men. Captain Echevarria did not care for religious rituals, not since he lost his wife and child. The Captain wondered if the men on the boat had made it back alive.

Teniente Arbuno said, “Captain, all is as ready as can be. Remember that you have a maiden waiting for you.” “I do not think this is the right time for this,” Captain Echevarria replied. “We might be all dead tomorrow and you will not be admitted in heaven because you made a beautiful woman wait for you for nothing. I have the old musicians here to ready for a serenade. I must tell you that I do have a talent better than firing cannons and chasing women. I can sing!” says Arbuno. “Besides, it is good for the morale to have some singing here other than the wailing of the Jesuits about the end of the world. Here they call this a harana ! “

And so the Captain went with musicians, Arbuno, and a few other dragoons on their horses. And more soldiers simply followed, irresistibly drawn by the sight of the band and Arbuno holding a guitar. As Arbuno sang a Spanish melody, with the accompaniment of the musicians, the window on the second floor slid open. Carmen was amused by a Spaniard singing as she looked down on the unusual scene. She smiled and bowed as Arbuno finished his harana.

“Good evening, Captain. Are you not busy preparing for war?” said Carmen. Captain Echevarria replied, “The war is tomorrow. Tonight I wish to live as if it is my last night on earth and spend that last moment just looking at you.”

Arbuno motioned the rest of the men away to leave the two alone. He thought to himself as he walked back towards the camp, “Romance in a time of war changes many things. I think we will win this fight tomorrow. The Captain from Gipuzkoa now has a reason to fight for.”



[1] Failagao, Elias N (1979). History of Miag-ao. Libertad Press, Iloilo City, pp 369
[3] The Basques’s contribution to the Philippines.
[6] De Borja, Marciano R (2005) Basques In The Philippines (The Basque Series). University of Nevada Press, 224 pages.


 Suggested reading

The following are references about certain subjects that are part of the narrative. The reader may find these of interest to learn more, such as the swords of colonial period and personalities, such as Blas de Lezo.


Anyone who wishes to make a comment should contact Jonathan R. Matias by email: Please use subject heading: Salakayan


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