The Tide at Sunrise in the Battle of Miag-ao

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

June 27, 2016



Besides Michael Shaara’s 1974 fictionalized historical novel, “Killer Angels,” another historical book I had read with great interest when I was young was “Tide at Sunrise” by Peggy Warner published in the same year. The “Tide at Sunrise” was a detailed historical account of the war between Imperial Russia, bent on extending its empire to Asia, and an emerging Japan, intent on building an empire starting with Korea. Of special interest to me was the Battle of Port Arthur in Korea in 1904, with the Russian Col. Tretyakov defending the fortress in Port Arthur against the invading Japanese army commanded by General Nogi. Shaara’s “Killer Angels” described the events during the battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3 in 1863 during the American Civil War. Both historical books were written in the way that is compelling, describing the hopes, dreams, and raw emotions of men in combat.

In contrast, the Battle of Miag-ao (also referred to in more recent times as Salakayan, meaning the attack or invasion) is a largely obscure battle that occurred on May 7, 1754 between the Muslims of Southern Mindanao and Christianized Filipinos of  theVisayas. The authors of “Killer Angels” and “Tide at Sunrise” had the advantage of the many detailed accounts of the war through archived letters and records. The account of the Battle of Miag-ao is practically nonexistent. Months had been spent poring through available records in the archives of universities and churches (Jesuits and Augustinians). But, not much can be found except the dates and the major historical characters. Perhaps it was barely remembered because there were so many battles like it throughout the Philippines. The middle of the 18th Century, particularly the 1750’s, saw the heaviest period of invasions by Muslim tribes during the reign of Sultan Bantilan. Almost every major poorly defended coastal settlement in the Visayas was attacked by fleets of ships of varying types, which included caracoas, garays, joangas and barangays. Had there been any records, these likely were lost over the 262 years that had passed since that event. Perhaps what remained undiscovered was destroyed when the National Archives was heavily bombed during the Battle of Manila in 1945.

For these reasons, it is nearly impossible to recreate a historical picture of what that battle must have looked like. One can only deduce how such a battle might have been fought given the terrain and the tactics typically employed during the Spanish Colonial Period in the mid-18th Century. Though the main characters in this 4th installment of the Salakayan series were real people, the details are purely fiction or at best a calculated guess. How the battle was fought is purely from my imagination. And, if we are lucky to find more original sources, I could always amend and improve.

I suggest for the readers of this 4th installment to read the first three parts that describe the events prior to this battle. Just click on the links below to read the stories.

Part 1. Defending Cotta: Thoughts of a Comisario in the Morning of Salakayan
Part 2. Attack on Cotta: Thoughts of an Iranun Warrior at Sunrise on the Day of Salakayan
Part 3. The Captain from Gipuzkoa in the Battle of Miag-ao

The Diorama

For most of us, history is hard to grasp. The true sense of the event lost in the text of often very boring books. Pictures, graphics, or paintings of the past make it easier to appreciate the drama that makes history interesting. For Salakayan in 1754, there certainly were no pictures since photography was yet to be invented until the next century, nor were there any paintings that depicted the event. So the battle remains vague, just a date and text barely enough to fill a paragraph to describe what had transpired. To bring our readers into the spirit of the period and for our younger generation to see what it might have been like on May 7, 1754, we created a diorama of just a portion of the presumably three kilometer- battlefield along the beaches of Miag-ao.

It took seven months from December 2015 to the present time to recreate the Battle of Miag-ao. Miniatures were created from wood, vinyl, foam, sand, and assorted materials to create this panorama. The costumes, uniforms, ships, weapons, attitude, and tactics were carefully researched to fit the mid-18th Century Colonial Period. More important was the team of carvers, carpenters, historians, and artists who had the passion and artistry to capture the details of each warrior and each ship to make this drama come to life.


The Diorama of the Battle of Miag-ao, representing about a third of the entire battlefield.
(Please click the image to view the video).


———————The Story Continues——————

“Good morning, Captain. It is 4:00 in the morning. I trust that you had a fine time with the Señorita last night?” Teniente Arbuno says with his usual mischievous smile. He continued, “No rush to get up so fast. The Moros are still far in the horizon. Just like us, waiting for the sunrise and the tide. I can really feel their anticipation to take our heads as war trophies. Señor Gayo is waiting outside with his report. I do not think he slept much either. The men are having their breakfast as we speak. All anxious but in good spirits, considering…”

Captain Echevarria thought about the young Señorita and remembered how beautiful she smiled as he reached out to grab the coffee cup offered by the Teniente. “I will be out in a few minutes. Have the senior staff assemble in the meeting room.” The Captain got cleaned up, put on his newly pressed uniform, and grabbed his saber and pistol as he stepped out.

Terrain features of Miag-ao coastline and elevations showing location of the watchtowers and river.

Terrain features of the Miag-ao coastline and elevations showing the location of the watchtowers and river.

He spoke quietly with Señor Gayo first and then addressed his officers. “Gentlemen, we have a minor change in the plan of battle today.” He then turned to Teniente Ruiz, the officer of the dragoons. “Teniente, you are to withdraw your cuadrilleros from the top of Barangan-itip heights before sunrise. Señor Gayo’s men will place mannequins which they call Higante on top of the hill to replace your men as they leave their post. The Moros had seen your men of top of the hill yesterday and will assume that we still occupy the hill today. I expect them to attack Barangan-itip with a significant force. Lt. Arbuno, send a few cannon shells towards the Moros as they attack so they think the hill is being vigorously defended. A few of Gayo’s men will remain on the hill to fire some rifle rounds as they make the Higantes move with strings. Then they will withdraw by climbing down with ropes on the rocky backside of the cliff. I will let Señor Gayo explain some more.”

Señor Gayo continued in a surprisingly fluent Castilian, “Here is an example of our Higante mannequins. They are seven feet tall and are made of rice stalks and bamboo. All are dressed up like Spanish soldiers. Twenty of these are now being carried up the hill under the cover of darkness and will be placed strategically in full view of the Moros. From far away, one cannot tell that they are just mannequins. They will simply get surprised when they finally reach the hilltop. North of Tumagbok River is another hill with another watchtower called Baluarte de Kirayan. There are no defenders there but we are placing another 20 Higantes to fool the Moros to attacking there also. If we send a few artillery rounds into the advancing Moros as they clamber up Kirayan Hill, they will be preoccupied and may not notice until it is too late that only mannequins are defending the baluarte.”

Señor Gayo continued while pointing at the map,” There is a ferry boat here that brings our people and products back and forth across the river. The ropes to pull the ferry have already been cut. The small inter-island boats we call cascos are filled with wood and strung across Tumagbok River to block the Moro ships from using the river to flank us from behind. My men will burn the cascos as the Moro ships get closer. The burning cascos will keep the Moro ships away only for a short time. I expect the Moros to sink or move the burning boats away from the center of the river. They will break through no matter what we do and we simply need to buy some time.

“My son and his men are five kilometers upriver where the lumber is ready to be floated downriver intended for transport to Iloilo to supply the shipbuilding. These are normally tied alongside cascos and slowly transported along the coast to the City. They are as long as 30 meters and as wide as a meter. Upon seeing the smoke from the burning cascos, they will cut the ropes that hold the timber by the banks and float them downriver one by one. It will take about an hour before those timber float into the mouth of the river. Once they reach here, the impact will damage any ship on their path and block the river route into the interior. Thus, we have one hour to keep the Moros occupied until the logs start coming down the river.

“If the Moros still manage to ride upriver, I have over 200 horsemen from Sitio Dalije and Sitio Onop to engage them on the river bank in Sitio San Sebastian. Some folks call it Aguiauan, where the Moros typically disembark to attack the pueblo from the rear. There are 300 more men on foot with lances and bolos to keep them at bay. If the Moros are successfully prevented from rowing up the river by the logs and the burning cascos, then I will move my men to support Tacas.

“In the past, at the sight of the top sails of the Moros, our people fled to the mountains. There was no shame in running away from a fight that we cannot win. Today, we are standing here to fight with you. The Moros do not think we are men. They do not think we are warriors. They think we are simple people. They see us as cowardly people and thus worthy only as meat for the slave markets. So, today we have the element of surprise on our side. May God bless us.”

Addressing the cavalry officer, Captain Echevarria continued, “As soon as the Moros attacking Barangan-itip realize they have been fooled, they will swing towards us here in Tacas with a vengeance. The thick bamboo forest between Tacas and Barangan-itip will prevent them from moving fast. Most will come back down the hill on the beach to flank us. Your platoon of dragoons must keep them from crossing Sapa Creek. The cuadrilleros supporting your cavalry will block their advance across. The men on top of Cotta in Baybay will demonstrate noisily and will draw the main brunt of the attack. They are the bait in this trap. Yesterday the Moros saw only a few men on top of Cotta. At sunrise, another 30 men hiding behind Cotta will come up to the top and place concentrated rifle fire into the advancing Moros. A six-pounder cannon from Damilisan is now on top of Cotta and will add more punch to the defensive tower.

“Men of Spain, we are concentrating our forces to defend Tacas. We are in a peninsula that resembles our motherland. Here we are surrounded by bodies of water on three sides just like peninsular Spain—Sapa Creek on the right, Sulu Sea in front , and Tumagbok River on the left. There are over 2,000 Moros coming towards us, but only a third or half of these warriors will come headlong towards Baybay. Many of them will attack the other two strongpoints – Barangan-itip and Baluarte de Kirayan to find them empty. If we crush them in Baybay, we will win this fight.”

Teniente Arbuno asked,” Captain, why are you so sure they want to attack Tacas ? There is nothing here worth dying for.” Echevarria replied with a little smile,” Teniente, your beloved Vice-Admiral de Lezo had it be known to the spies of Bantilan, the new Sultan of Jolo, that we are protecting a horde of gold and that our small contingent of brave Spanish soldiers is here to transport them to Fort San Pedro. Also these Moros are here especially because they heard of the famous Teniente Arbuno and it will be a supreme honor to take your pretty head as war trophy to adorn the Sultan’s living room!” Everyone laughed heartily at the last remark.

As the rest of the men dispersed to their stations, the Captain walked towards Fray Alvares who was giving blessings to townsfolks and the family of the Gayo clan. As the Captain kneeled in the back of the throng, the Friar approached him and whispered, “Captain Echevarria, I thought you hate priests.” Captain Echevarria retorted, “I still do, Father. I am here to ask for blessings not for myself but for my men and that Señorita over there. “

Riding the Waves

Beyond the horizon sat the Muslim invasion fleet. They too waited for the first light and the receding tide. And they too had their war council on Haji Ranom’s caracoa. “Warriors of our exulted Sultan, at sunrise we ride the waves once again to fight for Allah, for gold, for revenge, and for slaves. Our comrades, the Tausugs, will attack the heights of Barangan-itip on our left. On the right, our Maranaw comrades will ride their ships up the big river they call Tumagbok, attack from the rear while also taking the watchtower up in the hill of Kirayan. My Iranuns will go directly to the center to attack the fortress on the beach and take the plateau they call Tacas and beyond. We know the Spanish dogs are there too but they are few in number. We also knew in the past that these Christian natives would just run away as usual. Let us all pray to Allah for a great and profitable raid. And let’s bring back to our Sultan Bantilan the heads of these Spanish dogs.”

The datus of the tribes took their positions on their respective ships, waiting for the warmth of first light. Then , finally, the sun showed its face and all ships began to move, slow at first, and then the mad rush, each ship trying to be the first on the shores and the first to connect swords and lances with the enemy. The shouts of “Allahu Akbar” were followed by curses hurled against the Christians waiting for them on the beaches and hills. The cacophony of sounds coming from the boats made the men on top of Cotta in Baybay tremble in fear.

Nong Fermin, the man-in-charge, standing on the high ledge of Cotta, had his arms crossed against his bare torso, his camisa china and pants thrown down to reveal the war tattoos of a Pintado. The tattoos started from his feet all the way to his chest. He was gazing with a smile at the oncoming raiders. Boni, the comisario near him, could not keep his eyes away from the war boats coming, as if they were heading straight for him. Nong Fermin thought to himself, “Yes, Boni, they are all coming for you and me.” Both the comisario and Nong Fermin’s thoughts were distracted by the rush of men, their reinforcements coming up from behind the flat backside of Cotta. A six-pounder cannon was already hoisted and placed into position on the front, facing the advancing enemy ships. The rest of the men clambered up but remained couched against the inside walls, hidden from view from the beach.

The first Iranun ship crashed on the beach. The loud thud as the hull met the sandy shore was drowned by the yells of the raiders jumping off onto the beach, with lances, swords, and shields. It was low tide and they had the 100 meters to traverse before they could reach Cotta. The six-pounder on top of Cotta fired its first cannon shot.


Nong Fermin on top of Cotta with the Iranuns attacking.

Nong Fermin on top of Cotta with the Iranuns attacking.

Nong Fermin was walking around, trying to keep everyone calm. At 25 meters, he raised his kampilan, the broad Muslim sword he captured in another war ages ago and yelled the order to fire. In unison, the men of Cotta, the cuadrilleros, stood and fired their muskets at the oncoming warriors of the Iranun. Almost a dozen fell instantly, but half stood up again, wounded but still pressing forward. Behind them two other ships were nearing the shore and were ready to dislodge over 300 warriors all heading towards Cotta, many carrying ladders.

Arrows were flying into Cotta and its defenders were hurling down stones and spears as the Iranuns started scaling the ladders. A few of the cuadrilleros died screaming as the arrows and spears pieced their bodies. Nong Fermin brought the kampilan crashing against the skull of the first raider that managed to scale Cotta. Boni was stabbing with his spear downwards. Behind him other cuadrilleros were passing large stones to the men in front that sent them crashing down on the raiders near the top of the scaling ladder. Down below Cotta were the many dead and dying warriors. And this fight was just beginning.

Captain Echevarria and a dragoon holding the Spanish the colonial flag on horseback beside one of the artillery pieces

Captain Echevarria and a dragoon holding the Spanish colonial flag on horseback beside one of the artillery pieces

Using his telescope, Arbuno saw the carnage taking place, neither side giving ground. His artillerymen removed the makeshift nipa hut that camouflaged the cannons. He ordered the cannons to fire near Cotta. There was no way to signal the men to crouch behind the stone walls. But if he waited too long, he knew the men on Cotta would not survive even this first onslaught. The cannons roared, hurling exploding projectiles around Cotta. When the smoke cleared, many of the attackers lay dead and dying on the ground. But, the second wave of attackers was still on the move, waving their long swords in the air as if nothing had happened in front of them.


The Two Hilltops

A runner came. “Teniente, Capitan Echevarria wants you to send some shells into Barangan-itip and Kirayan.” The Teniente watched through his looking-glass to see the Tausugs almost halfway up the hill. If they got too close, they would see the “men’ up there for what they really were—just dummies in uniform. The cannon on his right fired a shot above them, exploding on the rocky hill. The shell burst, sending hundreds of little pieces flying down and some bigger ones rolling. Once the raiders reared up to move uphill again, he sent another round. This kept them from looking up too long to find out that those defenders on top were not moving at all.

The Maranaws landed in Sitio Buwang at the mouth of the Tumagbok and moved fast towards Kirayan Hill. He sent a few rounds in their direction to scatter them for a while.

Teniente Arbuno was mentally counting how much powder and shot he had. Still he got enough for now, but he calculated that he already used up one quarter of his ammunition. He signaled the third gun on the forward slope of the hill to fire into the oncoming wave of warriors heading up to Cotta. The canister shot, composed of nails, tiny metal balls, and rocks, went flying into the mass of warriors. More than a dozen went down like wheat stalks in the field, as if cut down by a single swing of the scythe.5

While other warriors were climbing up towards Kirayan Baluarte, the rest of the Maranaws already in Sitio Buwang began the headlong rush to the banks of the river. The cascos were already burning, thus blocking any entry through the river. Seeing the river in flames, the smaller caracoas had already driven their boats in Sitio Ubos and were disembarking. Soon, they began setting fire to the chapel and running up towards Tacas. Others were swimming towards the burning cascos, intent on cutting the chains that connected them together. A few more warriors retrieved the ferry boat and used long bamboo poles to ride the ferry towards the opposite banks.

Captain Echevarria watched the entire scene from the top of Tacas. He was amazed at the display of ferocity, bravery , and sometimes barbarity of the enemy below. He saw the determination and careless disregard for their lives as they swung their long swords, stepping on the dead and dying to get to his defending army. His army was holding their own for now, repulsing the attacks with equal ferocity. Half of the men on Cotta lay dead already and it had only been a half hour since combat began. Nong Fermin was still hacking with his sword at the Muslim warriors coming over the top, hurling spears down while his surviving men pushed out the scaling ladders with long bamboo poles. Captain Echevarria thought to himself, “That old man deserves to get rescued!” He sent the first cuadra down to support the men on Cotta.

On his right was the highly vulnerable Sapa Creek. The river was still flowing fast but the level had already dropped by half since he got here. “If only I can get that priest to pray for heavy rain, the rivers will swell and make it harder for the Muslim warriors to cross,” he thought to himself. “The downpour will help, but it will make the gun powder damp and render the guns and muskets useless.”

The dragoons were galloping down the side of Sapa Creek as the trumpeter blew the horn to signal the attack, their horses and lances making contact with the Tausugs. Some of the dragoons fell off their horses with lances and arrows embedded on their bodies. But, the cavalry officer pushed on. The weight of the horses just demolished the front ranks of the Tausugs, their round shields flying in the air. The dragoons bought valuable time to allow the cuadra to form behind the cavalry. Things were still working as planned, but the Captain knew there were always unforeseen surprises in any battle and this battle had just started.

On the River Banks

The weakest and most dangerous part of his battle plan was the Tumagbok River. The Maranaws  pushed across the river by raft, by swimming, and by forcing their smaller caracoas against the river bank. They also cut the ropes and chains linking the burning cascos together. The river route was now open. He could see five ships lining up to row upriver against the slow current.

Captain Echevarria rode to Teniente Arbuno’s artillery position. “Teniente, redirect your cannons to fire into those ships going up the river and also into the river banks,” ordered the captain. “Yes, Captain. But I want you to know we have used up half our powder already and these Moros are not giving up so easy! “ You will just have to make each shot count, Teniente,” shouted Captain Echevarria as the cannons boomed. Down below, an explosive shell hit the leading caracoa at the bow. Though the ship was heavily damaged, it was still afloat so the slaves continued rowing as the task master unrelentingly lashed anyone that faltered with a whip. The other caracoas were moving too fast with 40 rowers on each ship propelling it forward, sweeping the burning cascos off to the side as if they were nothing more than floating debris. Another loud explosion on the beach. After the smoke subsided, another five raiders lay dead or dying on the black sand. Yet, the rest of the warriors just kept coming, trying to cross the river in all different ways. The Captain saw the 3rd Cuadra hurriedly forming on the beach and the river bank to meet the raiders as they came out of the water.

Cuadrilleros forming their cuadra beside the river as the Maranaws started crossing.

Cuadrilleros forming their cuadra beside the river as the Maranaws started crossing.

“If those raider ships manage to go up the river, we will be surrounded and attacked on all sides. Teniente, have your artillery use a solid shot. Put a hole in those ships below the waterline ! Use all your remaining powder if you have to. Even one sunken caracoa may block the river to slow them down,” screamed Captain Echevarria on Teniente Arbuno’s ear. The sounds of artillery, the yells, and the blood- curdling screams were so deafening.

Haji Ranom of the Iranuns was watching the battle from the top of his caracoa. He saw his first wave decimated by musket fire, cannon, and sheer force of will by the defenders. But his warriors were out for blood and were on the rampage. He sent the men of the two caracoas that just landed on the beach towards the fight. He did not think he could hold these men back anyway. In unison, they shouted “Allahu Akbar” and then went running towards Cotta as the others sent more arrows flying in the air towards the enemy.

Haji’s men were fighting as Muslim warriors were expected. What he did not anticipate was the ferocity that the Christians displayed on this day. He thought to himself, “They are not running away! Unusual. I need to break through that fortress on this second wave. Once they are on top of Cotta, every one of the infidel dogs will see the might of the Iranuns; they will break ranks and run for the hills.”

Tausug warriors on the attack towards the Spanish dragoons.

Tausug warriors on the attack towards the Spanish dragoons.

On the beach to his left were the Tausugs with their round shields and short swords facing the onrushing Spanish cavalry. Spears had been thrown, killing a few of the horsemen. Muhammad, the datu of the Tausugs, was in the middle of the fight, making his men form a continuous barrier with their shields and bodies to keep the Spanish cavalry from penetrating through his line. He succeeded  but lost a third of his men in the process. The cavalry, what was left of them, swung around and went back up the hill as the new company of Christian spearmen and few riflemen formed in their rear to block the advance of the Tausugs.

Between Sapa Creek and Cotta was an impenetrable thicket of thorn bushes twice the height of any man. The infidels called them aroma and Haji could never understand what was so aromatic about these damn thorn bushes. Without these bushes, they could have just rushed through and up the plateau without much effort. Now, they had to fight in the narrow spaces between the creek and the thorn bushes.

He saw the Tausugs reach the top of Barangan-itip. The Maranaws were almost on top of the baluarte in Kirayan heights. Their flags planted on each of the hill but he did not see much of a fight to reach the heights. He wished he had a looking glass just like what those Spanish dogs had.

Captain Echevarria was looking at the same time with his monocular field glass and smiling as the Tausugs and Maranaws on top of the two hills angrily smashed the “defenders” they found. Soon they would march towards Tacas, even angrier than before, shamed by the ruse Señor Gayo concocted. “I hope Señor Gayo’s other miracle happens soon !”

On the Tumagbok River, a caracoa was sinking from a gaping hole below the waterline. The slave rowers, chained to their boats, were drowning, begging for their lives and praying to God as the ship sank. The raiders were swimming toward either side of the banks. Three other ships passed swiftly by, not stopping to pick up survivors. Two were damaged from Arbuno’s artillery fire but still in the fight. There were four more lining up at the mouth of the river, waiting for their turn into the narrow passage littered by the dead and debris.

The Captain was about to say, “Where is Gayo’s floating timber?” when the first of the line of timbers appeared on the scene. And, as luck would have it, the first torrential downpour of May began, first as a drizzle and then a full raging shower. It must have started raining up in the mountains. The river started swelling and that accelerated the floating timbers down like a battering ram, smashing anything in their path.

The leading ship narrowly missed the first timber but could not evade the next one that hit directly on its bow; the force turned the ship on its starboard side. Two more timbers smashed into the side of the ship. The first impaled it from one side and out through the other. The second one broke the ship in two. Bodies of slaves and warriors alike joined the slow dance of death with the rushing timbers. The second caracoa tried to beach itself, but there was not enough time. It simply exploded into pieces as timbers crashed against it one after another. The third caracoa was fortunate to have reached the bank and the warriors disembarked onto solid ground before it too was pounded to pieces by the unstoppable flow of timber.

The tangled mess of timber and broken caracoas virtually blocked the river, the timbers so dense that one could literally walk across without getting one’s feet wet. Arbuno saw what was going to happen as soon as the raiders recovered from the shock. He sent high explosive shells into the tangle of caracoas and timber, unclogging the mess, letting the river take the dead and the debris down river. Those raider ships lining up to ride upriver had enough time to turn their ships around, but lost many of their oars as they rowed out of harm’s way.

Caracoas entering Tumagbok River.

Breaking Contact

From the top of his ship, Haji watched in utter disbelief and hopelessness as the broken caracoas and dead warriors floated with the debris and timber out the mouth of Tumagbok and into the sea. Many men were still clinging on to the timber and masts of their broken ships with one hand and their kampilans on the other. Many went under as their bodies were crushed by other floating debris. Other caracoas braved the rampaging timber, pushing them aside with long poles, as they tried to recover the dead and the wounded.

Haji signaled his man to blow the carabao horn, signaling his men to withdraw. The other ships blew their horns also to make sure everyone could hear the order. He knew this fight could not be won today. Haji lost the momentum and need to reorganize his men. Slowly the warriors withdrew, not in a rush of an army in retreat, but in a slow orderly fashion of a disciplined regiment, covering their withdrawal with raised shields as the men behind them carried the dead and the wounded.

On top of Tacas with the Spanish colonial flag fluttering in the wind.

On top of Tacas with the Spanish colonial flag fluttering in the wind.

Captain Echevarria issued orders for their men to stay on their positions and not be drawn to advance as the Moros retreated. There had been more than enough blood today from both Muslims and Christians to soak the black volcanic sand. The rain had stopped to a drizzle, still not enough to wash away the blood. He watched as the raiders boarded their ships and rowed back to the horizon. He took the watch out of his breast pocket. It was high noon. They had been fighting for six long hours. And it seemed a lot longer. All of a sudden he felt so tired.

Day of Days

Captain Echevarria took the reins of his horse and walked down the hill to Cotta. The wounded were being carried away on improvised stretchers up the hill and the dead were lined up on the beach. Many were mutilated by swords, some in pieces, some without their heads, and most looking up to the scorching sun with their eyes wide open. Except for their uniform, he could hardly tell Spaniards from Indios. Every dead soldier’s face was covered in dried blood despite the rain. “Glory in battle is a misconception created by those who were never there,” he thought. “Only the survivors feel glorious, but that feeling will not be felt for many more days, long after the terror of battle had subsided. For now there is only pain and the stench of death and of flies. and the screams of dying men.”

Fray Alvares was kneeling among the mortally wounded men, comforting them as he gave them their last rites of contrition. The Captain stood at a distance, watching with some disdain. The Friar walked over to him and asked, “How do you feel after the death and destruction today ?” Captain Echevarria replied with anger in his voice,” Priest, I have no time to discuss with you the morality of war. What do you know about how men feel before and after a battle?”

“Captain, before I became a Jesuit I was a young lieutenant once a long time ago in the service of Spain, fighting in the jungles of Peru. I was brash like you, full of dreams about adventure, conquest, and gold.” The Captain stopped to listen with curiosity. The priest continued. “I too fought in battles like this in the jungles of the Andes Mountains in the Peruvian province of Tarma in 1742. Instead of the Moros here, my men fought against the tribes led by Atahualpa Apu-Inca. The objectives were the same : for us, to bring Christianity to the Inca tribes of the mountains and take their gold; for them, to get rid of us, retain the beliefs of their forefathers, and keep their gold. For two long years, my men and I fought as savagely as our enemies. Many times, I was covered in blood which was not my own. Neither side took no prisoners. Villages were burned and all living things, including animals, were butchered. That revolt is still going on in Peru today.

Atahualpa Apu-Inca

Atahualpa Apu-Inca

“I was a prisoner tied against a tree about to be executed by arrows when Atahualpa walked up to me. He spoke in Latin and in perfect Castilian Spanish, telling me his Christian name of Juan Santos. He narrated about the years spent with the Jesuits in Cuzco, learning about Christianity and about how a spiritual revelation told him to lead his people, teach them about the old religion of the Incas, and find peace away from the Spanish. He untied me. We discussed at great length for two days about the beliefs of the Incas and the good and bad about each other’s religions. In the end, he said that each of us must follow our own beliefs and peace comes from leaving others to their own accord. In the morning of the third day, the Incas were gone. I was left alone to find my way back. I survived the jungles eating anything I could find while avoiding being eaten by other living things. Two weeks later, near death, I accidentally stumbled upon a Jesuit Mission in the foothills. There, I lived a new life and eventually became a Jesuit years later.

“So, my Captain, I do know everything there is to know about life and death in a battlefield.” With that last remark, the Friar stepped away, back to the dying men waiting for his benediction. As the Captain climbed up to Cotta, he felt a little less antagonistic against this Jesuit. He thought that perhaps one could not judge another human being unless one walked the same path. Maybe his own path in this life might also change in due time.

On top of Cotta, he saw the old Pintado sitting cross-legged on the floor with his back against the bastion wall. He was caressing the hair of a young man whose head was on his lap. Nong Fermin looked up at the man standing in front of him, not recognizing the Captain from the blinding midday sun. He went back to gazing at the countenance of the young Indio who was gasping for breath from a mortal chest wound. Most of the dead on top of this watchtower had not been taken down. The coral stone floor was red from so much spilled blood. The retreating Moros could not take all their dead with them, especially those who died on top of Cotta. They were mingled with the dead cuadrilleros yet to be taken off Cotta.

The Pintado started talking in Kinaray-a to the dying young man on his lap. Captain Echevarria asked for an interpreter to explain what the Pintado was saying. An older cuadrillero from the pueblo of Guimbal translated. ” Nong Fermin is thanking the young man for saving his life, for being so brave despite being so young and this being his first battle, that the God of the Spaniards will receive his soul in heaven and the mighty sun god of the Visayans, Adlaw, looks down from the mountains of Madya-as with great admiration for his bravery in battle.” “What is this young man’s name ?” he asked the cuadrillero from Guimbal. “His name is Boni, a comisario of this pueblo. Just a simple clerk. Today is his birthday.”

The Captain was standing at the edge of the watchtower, facing the sea in deep thought, when Teniente Arbuno and Señor Gayo climbed up. Señor Gayo sat beside Nong Fermin, comforting his old friend in his time of deep sorrow. Teniente Arbuno remarked, “Captain Echevarria, our scouts have returned and reported the raiders have landed in Damilisan. They are setting up camp. Three of their ships are rowing up the Oyungan River as we speak.”

Under the hot scorching sun, punctuated by the occasional drizzle which the Indios regard as a blessing, everyone in Miag-ao worked to tend the wounded, bury the dead, prepare meals, carry water, and improve the defenses. The wailing cry of women and men who lost their sons made the end of battle even more unbearable. By sundown, the soldiers and the people were just simply worn out, mostly sitting wherever they could find some comfort, contemplating how this night and the night after would turn out to be.

The War Council was on the beach in front of Cotta. Teniente Arbuno summed up the casualties:

“My Captain, 367 of our men died today. Another 852 are wounded; about a fourth of them will likely die from their wounds in the next few days. The cuadrilleros stood their ground and fought bravely. Of the 112 Spaniards that came with us from Fort San Pedro, including the few dragoons that arrived bearing messages, 23 were killed and 37 , wounded. Half of the horses are dead, wound, or have run off into the forest. The dead include Teniente Ruiz of the dragoons. There were five dead raiders around his body when we found him today. In Cotta, more than half of the men died bravely. Not a single one of our men deserted their post.

Spanish artillerymen

Spanish artillerymen

“All our artillery pieces are undamaged. But, we have only enough powder for 25 rounds of cannon shot. At best we can keep two canons firing until we run out of powder. Our riflemen are in the same predicament. There is enough gunpowder for five shots for each rifleman. Unless you can hit the Moro on the head or through the heart, he will just keep coming at you. That means we need two shots to bring a raider down. That’s my optimistic estimate. The weather in this accursed country has made the powders damp and now unreliable. We lost 23 rifles; presumably the raiders captured them during the fight.

“We captured 14 of the raiders, mostly those gravely wounded that the Muslim raiders could not take back with them. As they retreated, the raiders also killed their own severely wounded men, fearing that we would torture them if left to be captured. They also did not take any of our men captives. They killed everyone they could in the battlefield, even those that appeared to be surrendering. So, I believe this was not a typical raid for slaves and loot. They were here to exterminate us.

“The galley slaves of the caracoas are mostly Christian captives from many years ago. A few are Muslims, mostly captives from other tribes in the interior of Mindanao. The slaves on the sunken caracoa drowned because their legs were manacled to the keel of the ship. There were a few lucky ones that washed ashore.

“Lastly, Captain Echevarria, I believe that they will come back tomorrow or the next for another attack. According to the survivors of the caracoas, the raiders did not bring enough supplies for a protracted battle and expected a quick victory. And, their pride will not let them take today’s defeat and then simply go home. The Tausugs, in particular, believe fervently that running from a fight will shame the entire clan. The next fight will be even bloodier.”

Señor Gayo gave his report next:

“I agree with Teniente. I do not believe those caracoas going up the Oyungan River are there to raid or forage for food. They are likely marching right now through the forest towards our direction to attack us from the rear, perhaps with about 400 men. They will rest somewhere tonight and arrive behind us sometime in the early morning, if they do not get lost. I have sent my men ahead to set up watching posts and will send messages by talugtog and gimba drums as they spy on their approach.

“If they attack tomorrow, my son and his men will send the rest of the timber downriver again to discourage the raiders from going upriver. I doubt that they will make the same mistake again. If there is a long siege, we can survive at least a month here. All the cows, carabaos, horses, and pigs from a 10 kilometer radius of Tacas are all corralled here. We have enough food. Water is plentiful.

“We have lost so many men today. I will have to spend some time with the priest and the townsfolk to properly bury the dead and console the bereaved.”

The Captain thanked everyone and arranged another meeting later in the evening after meals to plan for tomorrow’s action. With a squad of his Spanish riflemen and a few cuadrilleros, he climbed up Barangan-itip. The hilltop was littered with smashed higantes, the only casualties of the great “Battle of Barangan-itip.” That, at least, made Captain Echevarria smile.

Looking down into the southern flatlands, he could hear the faint drums and the fires of the raider encampments. They were singing or at least it seemed like it. He asked one of the cuadrilleros to explain what the raiders were celebrating. “My Captain, the Maranaws are on the extreme right of us along the Oyungan River. They are chanting the Darangen, the epic tale of their hero, Prince Bantungen. It consists of 25 episodes and takes many days to tell the entire epic. Some of the men are dancing with the music of the kulintang; dancing often depends on the episode being told. Others are chanting verses of the Koran for the dead.”

“On the extreme left are the Tausug warriors. I can also hear the faint sounds of prayers for the dead. The dead warriors are washed with perfumed water, wrapped in white cloth, and then placed in the burial pit in a north-south direction as customary. The dead is covered inside the pit with a thick slab of wood before filling the pit with soil. It looks like the Tausugs have lost many men and are taking longer to bury their dead. The Iranuns are in the middle of the two. They are a more ancient people from which the Maguindanaw and the Maranaw tribes originated. The Iranuns must have suffered great number of casualties too but still play the agong and kulintang instruments despite their grief.” The Captain nodded in appreciation and continued looking out towards the direction of the Baluarte, the two- story stone watchtower in Damilisan, whose top is the most visible man-made structure in Damilisan.

The Baluarte of Damilisan was destroyed by earthquakes. Interview of elders who remembered the watchtower before it was toppled show that it was a two story tower with a roof similar to the watchtower in Samboan. Read more in the notes section at the end of this blog.

The Baluarte of Damilisan was destroyed by earthquakes. Interviews of elders who remembered the watchtower before it was toppled reveal that it was a two- story tower with a roof similar to the watchtower in Samboan. Read more in the Notes Section at the end of this blog.

Haji Ranom and Muhammad of the Tausugs stood quietly on the second floor of the watchtower, also looking out towards Barangan-itip but not seeing the Spaniard. Muhammad sighed and said,” Haji, my friend, we lost almost half of our men. Many are too gravely wounded to fight on. Four of our caracoas are destroyed, three of which are at the bottom of the sea. Three more are damaged and need a week to repair. The other three caracoas with 350 men are on their way up this river to a place called Igbugo to find their way behind that high ground. Through those hills to reach their objective will be a day’s march at least.

“It will take all night to bury our dead according to the rituals of our forefathers. I do not think we can attack tomorrow as we thought. It is also not likely the Christians can mount an attack themselves. We killed many of them. ” Haji replied,” Yes, I agree with you. Let our warriors rest. Let’s give our dead the proper burial they deserve. On the second day or the day after, we take that hill together and wipe out all the Christians. For now, the time for our evening prayer has come. Please join me.”

Haji took off his kadi, the white cap head cover worn by only those that had made pilgrimage to Mecca, while Muhammad took off his traditional headdress called kopiya. They washed their feet and together knelt facing Mecca. The hills reverberated with the imam’s call to prayer. The full moon has already risen, brightening the hills and valleys below them.

Still atop Barangan-itip, Captain Echevarria seemed mesmerized by sounds the Moro warriors made as they prayed to Allah. “There still seemed to be so many of them,” the Captain thought to himself. And as soon as the raiders had finished their prayer, the deafening noise down below in Tacas diverted his attention. He could see in the open area of Tacas throngs of men and women banging wooden and metal rods against pots, pans, and bamboo. The chapel bells, big and small, were ringing. The few local Chinese merchants whom the Spanish called Parian lit firecrackers. “Don’t be startled, Capitan. It is just the natives clinging to their belief that the rising moon might be devoured by the dragon they call bakunawa and bring calamity to us mortals. The noise is usually made during the eclipse to make the bakunawa throw up and release the moon. Today is a special case. They wish to be certain we do not lose the moon. And they want to let the Moros know that they are still in fighting spirits.” Father Alvares smiled as he clambered over the top of the big rock where the Captain stood.

“I thought friars are strict about the rituals of the church. How come you allow these pagan ways?” asked Captain Echevarria. “If I were inside the Cathedral of Intramuros in Manila, perhaps I would be strict. The big guns of Fort Santiago are there to protect me. Here, most of us friars are all by ourselves. We need to somehow blend the beliefs of the Indios with our own, slowly but surely combining our rituals with theirs. In due time, our Christian faith will prevail. So, here with the Visayans, we let things happen slowly. Your army is too far away to quell a revolt here. We are busy enough trying to survive the Muslim invasion each year.

“Tonight, my son, I tire to talk about our lives, our past, our religion, and this never-ending war. I simply want to sit on my favorite hill and relish the simple joys of watching the sunset and the sunrise.”

View of Barangit-itip from the sea.

View of Barangit-itip from the sea.

Sitting on the hilltop, unconcerned with the faint noise of faraway Damilisan and the ear- splitting noise the Indios produced below, both soldier and priest talked. Most of the time, the priest was the one talking about the strange flora and fauna he was cataloguing in and around the hill. Father Alvares talked about the local customs and folklore of this pueblo of Miag-ao, about Barangan-itip being enchanted. The natives believed that there were the good deities in the forest and “little people” underground who needed to be pleased by making offerings of food. Then there were the other deities that meant harm and must be avoided. He talked about the enchanted Sapa Creek below where the Indios said a golden ship passed, carrying a princess called Ulayra, and then about a haunted clump of trees they called bubog that lined the stream as it emptied out to the sea. The hours simply melted away…

At sunrise, Teniente Arbuno struggled up the hilltop with his trademark smiling face and a copper jug on one hand. “Captain, our scouts detected no aggressive movement in Damilisan to be worried about. I do not believe they will attack today. So, I have time to bring you this.” Opening the top part of the jug, Arbuno poured steaming hot coffee on tin cups. “This is the best coffee you can find for 80 kilometers in any direction and prepared by Señorita Carmen just for you.”

As the priest and the Captain sipped their coffee, the Teniente continued, “Three double-sail cascos arrived a few hours ago under the cover of darkness with some cargo and a letter from Vice- Admiral de Lezo for you.” Teniente Arbuno handed him the envelope stamped with de Lezo’s personal seal.

The letter reads:

“Captain Echevarria, I trust that you are still alive and that the battle is not lost by the time you receive this message. I have dispatched more gunpowder for your muskets and cannons, some provisions, and a few more officers as can fit in these native boats. More important than all of the cargo are two Muslim prisoners captured last year in the naval battle in the Visayan Sea. I have learned belatedly, days after you had already departed Fort San Pedro, that the leader of this invasion fleet is a certain Iranun datu named Haji Ranom. These two captives are his sons. Use them to your advantage when the time is right. I wish you well. Make the Basque Homeland proud.”

“Teniente Arbuno, how about another cup of that coffee?” With his hand on Teniente’s shoulder, the Captain said, “You know, Arbuno, I think you are most likely going to keep that pretty head of yours for a lot longer so you could sing love songs to the ladies in Manila.”

Then the Captain looked in the direction of the rising sun, and, for the first time in the last 24 hour, managed a hearty laugh.

Suggested references for further reading

1. Javellana R. B. (1997) Fortress of Empire, Bookmark, Inc., Makati City, Philippines, p. 150


1. The U.S. Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, has a record of the phases of the moon dating back many centuries that serves as a basis of this story.

Moon Phase Date and Time (Universal Time)
First Quarter 1754 Apr 30 01:06
Full Moon 1754 May 06 17:15
Last Quarter 1754 May 14 02:59

2. The Baluarte of Damilisan is situated on a hilltop overlooking the sea and the Oyungan Valley. Since Damilisan was once ministered by the Jesuits, it is presumed that the Jesuits had built this watchtower, along with a Mission House and  Chapel. The remnant of the Jesuit Mission House is yet to be identified. The earthquake of 1948 demolished the watchtower and hardly anyone alive today remembers what the structure looked like. So far, we have not found any photographs showing the structure when it was still standing. In the Center for West Visayan Studies (formerly the West Visayas Studies Center of the University of the Philippines Visayas), one of our historians, Mr. Salvador “Jun” Acsay, Jr. found a paper by Carmelo Nochete which was submitted as part of the curriculum requirements for a Bachelor of Science degree. It was an interview conducted among the elders of Damilisan, describing the baluarte as a two-story building with a covered roof and openings on its wall for two cannons. The student is now a lawyer and a Municipal Councilor of Miag-ao.


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