Warlords in the Battle of Miag-ao

Jonathan R. Matias
Sulu Garden
Miag-ao, Iloilo, 5023 Philippines

December 7, 2016


“Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base. All men are afraid in battle. The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty. Duty is the essence of manhood.” — General George S. Patton

It is often said that once one experiences a battle, he would either abhor it or miss it. Either way, one is never the same after the event. And each battle takes a little bit of humanity away from the participant. Today, we have a choice to be a soldier or a civilian, unless of course you find yourself in the Middle East or Africa in the middle of a Civil War.

Before the Christianization of our islands by the arrival of the Conquistadores and friars, each of the islands, big or small, was ruled by warlords, from the Datu to the Rajah or Sultan. Warfare between tribes was a part of life, and so was the raiding for slaves and war booty. It was in the same tradition as the Vikings of Scandinavia. Even the way the balanghai and caracoas were built shared the same tradition as the Vikings. The side planks were built to perfection, assembled together by wooden pegs and tree sap. Then the interior ribs followed. This was unlike today’s shipbuilding method of starting with the keel and then followed by building the ribs and then the planks to complete the hull.

The Pintados of the Visayans dominated the islands of Samar, Panay, Leyte, and the Bicol Peninsula. They were warlike and conducted raids all the way up the coast of the South China Sea. Raiding was a tradition and a part-time occupation. The Visayans were more easily converted to Christianity since the Pintados were more flexible in their religious beliefs. The people of the island of Mindanao violently resisted Christianization because of a more devout adherence to Islam, hence the two centuries of warfare that pitted the nations of Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago against Spanish and Christianized Visayans.

The Datu wass chosen from among the best warriors or the most influential in the clan or village. He could be replaced if he failed to serve his tribe. Internecine warfare between tribes subsided when a jihad was called for against the Spanish. In turn, the Spanish used the warlike Visayan Pintados to join them on raids against Muslim towns in Southern Philippines. The Battle of Miag-ao should be viewed as part of the bigger drama unfolding each year throughout the islands for more than 200 years of the Moro Wars.

For those reading this 6th chapter, it might be hard to follow the story. I do suggest starting from the beginning and working you way up to this chapter. Just click the links shown below:

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
Part 4. The Tide at Sunrise in the Battle of Miag-ao
Part 5 .Riding the Whirlwind in the Battle of Miag-ao

This 6th installment of the Salakayan novella is dedicated to the unknown, uncelebrated, forgotten, and brave warriors of our distant past – both Muslims and Christians.

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” —George S. Patton

———————————— The Story Continues ——————————————–

Kali and Vagamundos

Over a hundred Indios were practicing what Captain Echevarria assumed was swordplay using wooden sticks about two feet long. The swordplay was a fast-paced, brisk, and blurry movement compared to the Spanish style of fencing. The Captain was intrigued. He walked over to the old man who he presumed was the headmaster. But there was a language barrier. Neither one could speak the other’s language. Seeing the Spanish Captain’s predicament, Señor Gayo walked over to translate.

Map of Panay, 1727

Map of Panay, 1727

“I would like to know how they expect to win against the Moros with sticks ?” asked the Captain. “My Captain, these are just for practice. For now, these rattan sticks or yantok are used to prevent them from hurting each other. In actual combat, they change these into those made from the hardwood called kamagong. They char the wood to make the stick more resilient and hard. The stick can withstand the blow of the kampilan, but that is not the fighting style of these men.” Señor Gayo explained. “In this island the fighting style is called pagaradman. The Cebuanos call it kaliradman or simply kali. In northern Luzon, I was told that the Ibanags call this paccalicali-t. It will take all day for me to explain kali to you. Perhaps, I can persuade the headmaster to show you,” Señor Gayo continued.

The headmaster nodded his head and pointed at Captain Echevarria with his fighting stick while speaking in Kinaray-a. “Captain Echevarria, the headmaster, Mang Tinio, wishes for you to draw your saber and your knife. You are to strike him with the intent to kill. He says it is the only way you will understand kali.” The old man changed his stick to a darkened kamagong wood, one stick in each hand. He bowed and smiled as he prepared to meet the Captain’s saber thrust. Everyone on the beach sat on the ground, watching the drama about to unfold.

The Captain drew the sword as fast as he could and lunged at the old man with a saber thrust aimed at his mid-torso. The old headmaster side-stepped to his right while he parried the saber thrust with his left stick. With his right came a swift swing of the stick, stopping just in time for the Captain to feel the touch of wood on his neck. In a normal fight, the cCptain would suffer a broken neck or drop to the ground in pain, unable to breathe.

Kali—the martial arts of pre-colonial Philippines shown by modern practitioners

Kali—the martial arts of pre-colonial Philippines shown by modern practitioners

“Captain, Mang Tinio wishes for you to try again,” Echevarria heard Señor Gayo’s words from behind. The Captain swung his saber on a low cut, aimed at the old man’s belly. With his left hand, he followed with a direct thrust of his dagger aimed at his neck. Mang Tinio stepped forward, blocking the saber cut with his left stick while hitting the Captain’s left hand with the other stick that made him drop the knife. This was followed by a head butt. Mang Tinio was a foot shorter than the Captain and caught Echevarria right in the jaw. The Captain fell backwards. Even before his head reached the ground, Tinio had already swung both arms up and the death blow from both sticks on his head just stopped by a mere inch from his face.

Everyone was quiet, watching how the Spanish Captain would react to the same humiliation they all experienced on sparring practice with the headmaster. The Captain got up, brushed the sand off his uniform, and bowed to the old man. Everyone was clapping as the Captain shook the old man’s hands. Mang Tinio snapped his fingers and everyone got back to the kali practice.

Looking at Señor Gayo, the Captain asked, “Who are these men? I have never seen them before.” As they walked away from the beach, Señor Gayo explained, “These are what the friars call the vagamundo. A generation ago, the Spanish civil authorities and the Church instituted the process of ‘reduccion,’ ordering all villagers to live within hearing distance of the church bells. That was meant to organize the people into a more manageable community. In reality it was designed mostly for taxation purposes. The vagamundos were the people who refused to heed the order. They refused to pay tax to the Spaniards and tithe for the Church. The descendants of the old datus are what the Spanish called “principalia.” I am one of the principalia. The vagamundos no longer paid homage and fealty to the principalias as they recognized them to be nothing more than the collectors of taxes themselves in the service of the conquerors. The vagamundos are principled people who follow the old ways and the old beliefs. Rather than revolt against the Spanish, they chose to uproot themselves from their traditional homes to live far up the mountains in the sitios we call Dalihi, Onop, and Alimodian. There, they terraced the mountains to plant rice and other crops. They brought their horses, cows, and carabaos with them. They hunted wild game and continued to live outside the authority of Spain. They vigorously guarded the passes through the mountains from piratical raids and taxmen. And, they are as dangerous and warlike as their forefathers.

Rice terraces in the highlands of Miag-ao . Photo by Nick Foster.

Rice terraces in the highlands of Miag-ao . Photo by Nick Foster.

“Kali is part of the training for swordplay. Often it is used instead of the sword. In Dalihi, when there is a disagreement between two men, usually about a woman or property, the carabao horn would blare from the top of the hill. The sound can be heard throughout the valleys and hills to announce that a duel will happen. At the appointed time, the community converges on a particular valley and gathers in a natural amphitheater. There the two men will fight to the death, usually with just sticks like these.

“These vagamundos arrived last night to fight with us. I sent Nong Fermin to convince them that winning this fight here means peace for them too. If the Moros win here, they will eventually come to find them in the mountains. They said that Nong Fermin had now gone beyond to the pueblo of Igbaras to find the last of the Pintados like him. The Pintados of Igbaras had gone to the deeper mountains for the same reasons as the vagamundos. In those mountains also live many tribes of the Aetas, the black pygmies, the aborigines of this island. Perhaps Nong Fermin might be able to convince them to fight along with us too.”

“Ten of these men along with Mang Tinio will fight by your side, Captain. This is neither a matter for discussion nor requires your approval. The Friar told me about the parrang sabbil. The juramentar is a magnificent Moro warrior, honor- bound to kill you as their last act on earth before going to heaven. The rest of these vagamundos will fight with me wherever you feel we are most needed. These men will not accept to serve under the command of any Spanish officer. That’s their wish in exchange for being here to fight alongside your men.”

Prelude to a Fight

Datu Muhammad stood by a shady tree, staring out to sea and deep in thought. “What are you thinking, my comrade?” asked Haji. “Seems I have been so far away from home for so long. Beyond this vast inland sea is my home. I am tired of fighting. I am longing to see Bud Tumantangis, the Weeping Mountain. You know that Tausug warriors weep as they lose sight of Tumantangis and weep again when they see the outline of the mountain as they sail closer to home.” Haji laughed. “I have never thought the Tausugs can be so sentimental.” Muhammad smiled, “Haji, Tausugs might be a very mean people, but we are truly sensitive at heart. Just don’t get us angry !” Haji had a loud laugh. “Muhammad, I think your sentimental soul is just hungry. Let’s go have something to eat. This is going to be a long day and Ahmed has cooked something special for all of us.”

The two warlords walked towards the encampment, to the direction of the glorious smell of cooked tiyula sug, a soupy beef dish turned green from burnt turmeric and coconut. And there is also the smell of piyanggang chicken cooked in coconut milk. “Ahmed, you outdid yourself. With that delicious smell. I can eat a whole cow and ten chickens.” Ahmed smiled with pride. He is after all the best cook in the kauman, the Tausug community. Both Ahmed and Muhammad belonged to the same lungan or village and are second cousins. “Our foraging party had ‘liberated’ two dozen Christian cows from the settlement of Igbugo. Now these cows are being converted to Islam through our stomachs !” shouted Ahmed in reply while serving his famous cuisines to the other laughing datus.

Tausug cuisines typically served during feasts. Photos courtesy of Maya Samain.

Tausug cuisines typically served during feasts. Photos courtesy of Maya Samain.

After eating, Haji Ranom took a walk through the camp. He was greeted heartily by his own Iranuns and loudly by the Tausugs, the Samals , and Badjaos. The camp, extending almost a kilometer, is like a beehive of activity. Many were busy sharpening their swords and the tips of their lances and arrows. A legion of slaves carried clay pots filled with water and food provisions into the caracoas. Some slaves continued to replace broken oars. Others were fixing the roof of the deck to keep the sun and rain out of the boats. The rest were being manacled into their rowing positions by the taskmasters. Other warriors were already wearing their best clothes while others were still repairing damaged shields. Moro riflemen had their muskets slung on their shoulders while making sure that their gunpowder was dry. Their kampilans and daggers hung from their belts.

Bearers of the banners for each of the tribes were now moving to the field, marshalling their warriors to come together for the final count. On the caracoas, the gunners were busy polishing the bronze lantaka cannons and cleaning the inside of old powder residues. There was an air of optimism, pride, and bravado among the throngs of the warriors of the Muslim Nations. Haji could not help but feel proud and sad at the same time. So many young men would die that day.

Haji boarded his caracoa. The ship next to him was Muhammad’s. The imam, standing on the high ground overlooking the sea, gave his parting blessing, “Wayruun tuhan malaingkan ha Allāh, hi Muhammad in rasūl sin Allāh.” There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. The Muslim Nations of Mindanao shouted in unison, “Allahu Akbar !” A dozen gimba drums started beating loudly. The men hurriedly assembled to their respective tribal banners and orderly boarded their assigned caracoa.

Haji murmured to himself, “And so it begins once again. For Allah, for the Iranuns, for my sons !”

View from Barangan-itip

Military life is 99% boredom from the never- ending wait for something bad to happen and then followed by 1% sheer terror. The men on the hill tried to keep the image of the carnage about to happen far from their minds. Many were just looking out to the deep blue sea while others wrote their last will or final messages to their loved ones. Teniente Arbuno was re-reading the French translation of Artis Magnae Artilleriae Pars Prima ( The Great Art of Artillery, First Part) published in 1650 by Kazimierz Siemienowicz, a famous Polish-Lithuanian general of artillery. The General never lived long enough to publish Part 2. Some say he was killed by artisans belonging to metallurgy , gunsmith, and pyrotechnics guilds to protect the secrets that Siemienowicz planned to make public in Part 2. Nevertheless, Book 1 served as a training manual for artillery officers for over 100 years. Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauva, a Frenchman, started the fashion of using the six-inch field howitzer only 20 years before. The same howitzer design was copied by the Spanish and now sat on top of Barangan-itip. The artillery officer had always been fascinated with history and carried books with him wherever he got assigned. He made a hidden compartment on the floor where he could keep his personal belongings. After placing his artillery book inside, Teniente covered the compartment with a flat slab of stone. “I wonder if this fight in Miag-ao will ever be in any history book,” thought Arbuno.

“Teniente, the Moros are on the move!” shouted one of the cuadrilleros. “What an amazing sight ,” Arbuno thought to himself as he watched the caracoas leaving the beach one by one as if lining up for a parade. Each caracoa was filled with warriors inside and on top of the roof. He could hear the faint shouts of the two thousand strong warriors on the raiding fleet. Inwardly he was hoping they headed south, homeward bound back to the Sulu Archipelago. But, the fleet turned left, heading north and moving fast towards him. On the beach, coming from Damilisan and marching briskly to his direction, was a regiment of Moros. Their rounded shields glinting in the midday sun made them a regiment of Tausugs. Unbeknownst to Arbuno, another regiment had already gone ahead much earlier, hidden by the canopy, also towards Barangan-itip and Tacas. They were cutting a path through the dense forest to flank their position. Teniente hurriedly flashed a message by mirror towards Captain Echevarria. Just to make sure Tacas got their attention, another cuadrillero was at the edge of the cliff , waving a red flag as a signal that the attack was about to begin.

Tausug warriors on the beach. From the diorama in Sulu Garden Art Gallery. Photo by Doods Moragas.

Tausug warriors on the beach. From the diorama in the Sulu Garden Art Gallery. Photo by Doods Moragas.

The newly appointed officer of the dragoons, replacing the previous dragoon officer killed in battle a few days ago, was Teniente Luis Arostegui, also from the Basque Province. He handed the translation of the mirror messages from Barangan-itip to Captain Echevarria. The message read, “Moros just departed Damilisan. Twenty-three caracoas sailing towards Tacas. A regiment marching towards us via beach side. Possibly another regiment going through the forest towards you.” The Captain nodded and ordered the church bells to ring. The officer of the dragoons galloped to inform the various cuadrillero regiments to form and move towards their assigned positions. Some of the dragoons rode down to the riverside to pick up Father Alvares. The throngs of the religious have started climbing up from the burnt-out church by the bank of the river with religious relics. The heavy church bell was being hauled by four men to a waiting carosa, a sled made with bamboo and pulled by a carabao.

From Barangan-itip, Teniente Arbuno watched the hub of activity below. It reminded him of his life as a youngster when he was easily amazed at the sight of a recently disturbed anthill. The entirety of Tacas was on the move too, with people moving like ants though everyone seemed to know where to go. The caracoas were at the edge of the horizon, five kilometers from the beach, all lined up to take the anthill by force. But they stopped once they reached their position. Teniente was at a loss what they were waiting for. He was anxious to get his guns firing. The anticipation was starting to bother him.

Then he realized what the wait was all about. The Moros on their ships were waiting for the regiment on the beach to climb up Barangan-itip, and that he wass the first target. The opening stage of this battle was just right below him. Teniente was right. Under the forest canopy, the Tausig regiment was massing, waiting for a signal to move up. “The Moros wish to take my little anthill first.”

Teniente used to pride himself in the fact that he barely sweated even in this climate. Now, he could feel the first drop traveling down from his forehead, riding the curve of his nose, and the droplet dripping down to his boot. The gunnery sergeant had already depressed the tubes of the cannon as far as he could but not low enough to fire at the base of Barangan-itip. The guns had to wait until the Moros got beyond the edge of the forest and into the open, cleared killing field they prepared.

The caracoa at the center of the fleet fired a single lantaka cannon shot. The forest below erupted in a loud roar. “Allahu Akbar !” With that signal, the Tausugs began their ascent to Barangan-itip.

View from Tacas

From the bamboo watchtower at the center of Tacas, Captain Echevarria saw the drama unfolding in Barangan-itip with his telescope. The Tausugs had emerged from the canopy, their swords flailing above their heads and their spears pointed towards the top of the hill. The palm leaves hiding the cannons were already thrown down and the tip of the two guns were pointing downward. The first volley of high explosives dropped at least 20 men in the front ranks. But it did not slow the pace of the ascent. They simply shifted to the left and right of the cannonade. Arbuno’s two guns were firing two volleys each minute, decimating the front ranks of the Tausugs. More emerged from the brushes while those alive in front continued onwards. They were more than halfway up through the clearing, using the bigger boulders to hide from the devastating fire of the big guns. Dozens of flaming arrows were now flying in an arc towards Arbuno’s position. Occasionally, an arrow would find its mark, embedding on a soldier’s neck.

Shifting his telescope towards the sea, the Captain now saw the Moro warships on the move, cutting through the waves fast. In a way, the Captain understood what Haji was doing. His Tausugs were not making headway up in Barangan-itip against the concentrated fire of the cannons. He was going to distract the artillery to fire on them ! The Captain signaled his men to blow the carabao horns. The sound echoed through the hills and the message relayed by another carabao horn to the next hill. The timbers up the river were then released  by Senor Gayo’s men to float downriver , reaching the mouth of the Tumagbok River within 30 minutes. The river flow had been faster with the daily rains. The Captain did not think Haji would make the same mistake again to try to bring his ships upriver. He lost four ships from being impaled by the floating timber during the first battle on May 7th.

Teniente Arbuno was now directing fire on the oncoming caracoas. Ten caracoas stopped out of range of artillery fire. The rest continued towards the beach. Two of the caracoas changed course towards Barangan-itip, perhaps to augment the attacking Tausugs. The Moros took advantage of the shift in the direction of fire from the howitzers to mount yet another mass attack. The cuadrilleros started throwing rocks down. A single rock would roll down, hit a warrior, bounce,and hit the next warrior. The Moros were close enough to send more spears and arrows. Many of Arbuno’s men were hit but none of the others were running away up to the next level to Fort Maria Kristina where the cannons were mounted. They were giving back as much mayhem to the Moros as the Moros were giving them.

Below the artillery platform , the riflemen were crouching low, hidden from view by the timber walls. Finally, when the Moros were just three meters away, the soldiers stood up and fired volleys of musket fire into the advancing warriors at point-blank range. The musket balls tore through the massed raiders, killing most of the warriors on the front lines. But the Tausugs did not stop. They kept climbing upward. The cuadrilleros started throwing grenades, big round rocks and 4-foot long logs down at the advancing warriors. The grenades were made of hollow iron balls filled with gunpowder and iron pistol balls. The top was open where the fuse was attached. The grenade throwers or grenadiers were handpicked from the tallest and largest man who could throw the 1 ½ kilogram ball. The explosions showered the attackers with fragmentation from the iron casing and the pistol balls. That broke the assault. The Captain could now see the rest of the surviving warriors turning and running back to the safety of the forest below, leaving piles of their dead and wounded behind.

Ceramic hand grenades of the 17th Century found in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Ceramic hand grenades of the 17th Century found in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Even from such a distance, the crimson color of the rocks on the exposed part of the hill was visible to Captain Echevarria. He felt awed by the fanatical courage of the Tausugs. Now, he feared for Arbuno’s men. The two caracoas must be bringing more warriors and perhaps riflemen. “Hang on, Teniente. That hill cannot be lost or all might be lost here in Tacas,” whispered the Captain.

Riding the Waves Yet Again

Haji Ranom stood at the bow of his caracoa, intently watching the attack on Barangan-itip. He already re-directed two warships to head towards the fight. Each ship had 30 warriors with flintlock muskets. He watched them disembark on the beach as the attack on the hill floundered from the unexpected massed musket fire and grenades. With supporting musket fire, the next attack should succeed. There must be less than 50 surviving defenders left on that hill.

The cannons from Barangan-itip and the one in Tacas were firing at the approaching caracoas. The caracoa on the left was hit in the center, breaking it in two. The explosion threw many warriors on top into the sea. He could hear the slaves manacled on the wooden beams pleading for their lives in unintelligible languages as the ship slowly sank. Two other ships were on fire, but the men were putting them out as the ship continued onwards to the beach. With Haji’s caracoa fleet moving fast through the waves, the Spanish artillery had difficulty getting the range and accuracy to hit his ships. It would be a different matter when his ships reached the beach. They would be stationary targets for the artillery. “We must take Barangan-itip !” Haji shouted to the wind.

And Fights

Two howitzers now were firing at the beach as the Moros disembarked. His artillery crews were sweating profusely. “It’s good today is windy,” Arbuno shouted to his gunnery sergeant, Sargento Mariano. The smoke did not linger long , giving Teniente Arbuno a clear sight of the arriving caracoas. Artillery got the disembarking Moros in range. Explosions could be seen all around the beach. Four more caracoas were on fire. From Tacas, Captain Echevarria’s cannon in Tacas added more fragmentation flying in the air. The Moros ran to the edge of the roma thorn bushes for cover; others hid behind the berm and stumps of coconut trees. With Arbuno firing at high angle, there was really no place to hide from the oncoming shells.

Maranaws disembarking on the beach. From Sulu Garden diorama.

Maranaws disembarking on the beach. From Sulu Garden diorama.

Through the forest canopy at the foot of Barangan-itip, the Tausugs emerged, more warriors attacking, this time with muskets. Arbuno could see about 30 rifles with perhaps another 300 men scaling the rocks. Arbuno already lost over 35 dead and wounded. The advantage of the high ground was becoming less and less each time he lost a man.

The Moros were advancing more cautiously now, taking shots at his fort from behind rocks. Although the aim was mostly inaccurate, the indiscriminate firing was keeping his men from rearing their head above the palisade to fire down. His cuadrilleros were throwing rocks and spears down the ascending Moros. But, that was just slowing them down. The other cuadrilleros were lowering the wounded down to the vertical cliff behind Barangan-itip with ropes. Those severely wounded had to be left behind. Some dying cuadrilleros, afraid of what the Moros would do to them if they were caught alive, begged to be killed by their comrades. Almost all got their wish. A few used their own pistols against themselves.

The cannon crews were keeping up the pace, raining explosives down on the disembarking Moros on the beach in front of Tacas. Iranuns climbed up to the top of Cotta in Baybay and found no Spanish soldiers defending the watchtower. They hauled up the lantaka cannon and were about to fire into Tacas. Teniente sent a barrage of shell fire that obliterated the top of Cotta. The lantaka cannon flew off, along with parts of the Moro crews that disintegrated from the explosions. Then, Teniente Arbuno told the crew to depress the cannon tubes towards Fort Katrina below and load with canister shells which were filled with rocks, metal pellets, nails, and pieces of metal chains. He told the remaining men on Fort Katerina to fix bayonets, fire two volleys, and then run up to the cannon platform. Fort Maria Kristina was now the last refuge for the remaining 17 men alive, a third of whom were wounded.

While the cannons were being primed to fire, the Tausugs were already coming over the palisades, some firing their muskets. The Spanish and the cuadrilleros were firing back. The fight was now a close combat affair in a narrow space. The defenders were already using bayonets against the Tausug’s barong swords and lances. Two cuadrilleros fell dead from chest and neck wounds from spears. Another Spanish soldier was holding his neck with both palms, trying to keep blood from spurting because of a severed artery from a slash of the barong. Two of Arbuno’s men finished releasing flammable oil that already started flowing down towards the almost demolished palisades of Katerina.

Arbuno gave the command to the men to fall back, and then quickly signaled the cannon crew to fire point- blank at the oncoming Tausugs. The simultaneous blast decimated the ranks of the warriors climbing over the wooden palisades of Fort Katerina. Those directly in front of the cannons disintegrated, showering the men behind them with blood and body parts. The blast also ignited the oil. The fortress below was now inferno, cremating the dead. Those severely wounded from both sides from the hand- to- hand fighting died an even more horrible death. The intense fire kept the Tausugs from scaling up to Maria Kristina. Teniente Arbuno barked the order for the men to climb down on ropes as he checked the fuse set to blow the powder kegs beside the guns.

Teniente Arbuno sent a flash mirror message to Tacas and then looked around for the last time. He was about to climb down when he saw Sargento Mariano sitting with his back against the cannon. He was coughing, blood gushing out profusely from a gaping chest wound. He tried to lift the old sergeant, but Mariano refused to budge. “This is a fatal wound, Teniente. It is my time to die soon. This was a good fight. Let me do the honors of lighting the fuse.” The Sergeant coughed up more blood, looked up to the young Tenient, and smiled. Arbuno held his arms, nodded, and gave him the fire stick and the fuse.

Then he placed Mariano’s battered guitar next to him. “Hasta la vista, mi amigo,” Arbuno shouted as he clambered down by rope.

Several Tausugs armed with rifles managed to climb up from a side of the hill not in flames. Mariano was surprised to see a white man dressed like a Tausug warrior. Jan Smid, the master gunner on the Dutch ship, trained the Tausugs to use the muskets and led the latest charge up the hill. He tried to turn the guns around to fire on Tacas. But what he thought was a lifeless body was now blocking the wheel. Sergeant Mariano shouted at the Protestant Dutch master gunner, “Heretic! You are too late !” Mariano lit the fuse and had his last laugh.

On the Beach

Moro warrior in full armor. From: Military History, 2006, p62

Moro warrior in full armor. From: Military History, 2006, p62

Muhammad’s caracoa rowed alongside Haji’s. Muhammad got on board and stood beside Haji as they watched the fight on the beach and on Barangan-itip. “Are you not too well dressed for this occasion ?” Haji was grinning at his old friend. Muhammad was wearing a body armor and the iron helmet of the Conquistador. Muhammad replied, “This helmet came from my grandfather. He took it from a Spanish officer a century ago. This body armor, made from the toughest carabao horns, was worn by my father in his battles against the Visayans. I think that my forefathers will appreciate being part of today’s battle in spirit. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with looking better dressed than you natives of Lanao who look like you just finished planting rice. I plan to meet Allah well dressed !” Haji laughed even louder, “Muhammad, I shall make sure not to stand too close to you. With that armor and that shining helmet, I am sure the Spanish officer up there will have a cannon pointed especially in your direction !”

Then, the loud explosion on top of the hill startled them for a second. The warriors on the ships began banging their swords against their shields. Those with spears were thumping them on the floor boards. Loud celebratory shouts could be heard from the beach, drowned by even more shouts from the 10 ships. Muhammad was jumping with joy. “My Tausugs have destroyed the fortress on Barangan-itip!”

Sitting near the bow was Antoon, the Dutch pilot, and his captain, Cornelis van Rijn. Both were thinking the same thing. “I wonder if Smid survived the assault on that hill.” “If they could have managed to capture those cannons intact, Smid could have turned the two cannons against the Spanish instead,” said Cornelis.

Detail of handmade body armor made from carabao horns

Details of a hand-made body armor made from carabao horns

The warriors on the beach in Baybay stayed at the bottom of the hill, yelling insults to the defenders to come down to fight like men and not hide behind walls like women. In the meantime, they slowly spread their regiments from Sapa Creek to Tumagbok River. Captain Echevarria could not be coaxed to send his men down. He had the advantage of high ground in a more defensible position. He ceased firing the cannon, conserving his gunpowder for the next inevitable fight. He was waiting for the 10 caracoas in the horizon to move within range.

Haji waited for his warriors to complete the maneuver of the regiment by the beach. He too was waiting. Waiting for another signal –the signal from the regiment coming through the forest behind Tacas. Haji wanted the attack to be coordinated, simultaneous, and devastating.

Escape to Tacas

Teniente’s nightmare scenario was rappelling down the steep slope only to have Tausugs waiting for him at the foot of Barangan-itip with their lances pointed at his buttocks. Reaching the bottom, he sighed with relief. No Tausugs. Waiting for him were the remaining survivors of his command. Lying among the bushes were all 15 of his men, all exhausted. Half of them were wounded, but not seriously. Five of the men were Spanish; the rest were cuadrilleros. He tried not to think of the badly wounded and the dead he left up there. His objective now was to get these men back to the fort in Tacas, back into the fight.

There was a rustle in the bush ahead of them. Teniente Arbuno pointed his pistol at the direction of the movement and almost shot the Indio crawling through the bush. The cuadrillero from Guimbal translated for the Teniente what the little boy was whispering, “At least 300 Tausugs and Iranuns are cutting their way through the forest towards us and the fort. We need to get out of here. They will attack from behind. We must warn the Captain !”

Dragging the wounded, the survivors of Barangan-itip began moving in haste and in single file, the Indio from the bush leading the way through paths usually used by wild goats and boars. The path, if one could call it that, went through thorn bushes, under logs, over boulders, and througha heavy growth of bamboo. They could hear the faint noise of Moros slashing noisily through the forest just a mere hundred meters behind them. “It is good that the enemy did not know about these goat paths,” whispered Teniente Arbuno to the cuadrillero from Guimbal.

Teniente Arbuno had cuts, brushes, and innumerable bug bites before they reached the clearing behind the fort in Tacas. A dozen cuadrilleros met them and hurriedly carried the wounded through the small gate. Captain Echevarria was waiting for them as they got through the western gate. “I am sorry, Captain, that we could not hold Barangan-itip. There were just too many of them,” said Teniente Arbuno. “I am glad you still have your head, Teniente. Your men did a splendid job. There are a few hundred warriors who met their Allah in Barangan-itip. That Haji has much fewer men for us to fight here in Tacas, “replied the Captain. “Eat, drink, and rest awhile. The next battle for Miag-ao will soon begin.”

At the Forest’s Edge

Datu Abdullah of the Tausugs reached the edge of the clearing with over 300 warriors. They set out from their base amp in Damilisan at 4 am and had been cutting their way through the forest since then. They lost much time fording three rivers and numerous creeks to reach their objective –the western side of Echevarria’s fort. There were crocodiles in the river, but thankfully none attacked his men. He thought that maybe they only liked to eat Christians. That made him smile for the first time since this morning. Everyone fell to the ground from the exhaustion of the forced march. Each warrior had his own pouch for food, mostly dried fish, some dried fruits, and rice. The slave water bearers started giving drinking water to the men. A few wounded men, all from accidents, had to be carried by other warriors and slaves. They would not be able to fight, but would instead guard the slaves that needed to be tied later before they went to battle.

“Datu, shall I get the men up and move towards the clearing?” asked Abu Khalid, the Datu’s second in command.  “Abu, let the men rest for another half hour. Then have the men cut down the trees as we had planned. In the meantime, get Ali, the Chinaman, to prepare the fireworks to signal Haji.”

Ali is a descendant of Chinese traders who settled in Basilan about a century ago. His family, the Yu clan, arrived on a large sampan from Palembang in the Malay Peninsula to trade for pearls. The oral history of the family told stories of the first Chinese Muslims who settled in Palembang as a result of the visit by the Chinese fleet admiral, Zheng He, during the early part of the Ming dynasty in 1410 CE. Zheng He was a Chinese Muslim of the Hanafi school of  the Yunan Province of China who established settlements in Java and Mindanao. As Muslims, the Yu family had no difficulty settling in Basilan. Haji Yang Yin, Ali’s great great grandfather encouraged his clan to take Muslim names and blend with the Tausug culture. The Yu family became wealthy from the pearl trade with the patronage of a succession of sultans of Sulu and Maguindanao. But, the frequent raids by the Spanish and their Visayan allies disrupted the harvesting of pearl oysters. So, Ali was here to exact vengeance on the infidels for the collapse of his family fortune.

As he prepared the paper tubes to launch his fireworks, Ali remembered the happier days when he and his uncles would send fireworks up in the night sky to ward off evil spirits during Chinese New Year celebrations. Many datus especially enjoyed the fireworks display and noise. One time, the Sultan of Sulu came to stay as a guest in the family home to watch the celebration. He felt pained to do this now because of the sad memories of his family members slain during the raids by Visayans only five years ago. On Datu Abdullah’s hand signal, Ali lit the fuse. Then he quickly grabbed his kampilan and joined the ranks of Tausugs on the edge of the clearing. “Today is my turn to avenge my parents,” whispered Ali.

English illustration of 18th century Chinese fireworks

English illustration of 18th century Chinese fireworks

The rocket flare flew high. The smoke trail arched high up in the sky with a loud bang. Then, the first rocket was followed by more flares. A minute later, after the last rocket exploded against the blue sky, the boom of lantaka cannons on Hajji’s ships could be heard.

Captain Echevarria climbed the parapet overlooking the sea with Teniente Arbuno. The caracoas were now moving forward, but very slowly, still out of cannon range. On the right, what seemed to be the remnants of the regiment broken by the fanatical attack on Barangan-itip were moving fast and were about to cross Sapa Creek as it flowed out to the ocean. Behind them beyond the western wall, the warriors of Datu Abdullah had emerged from the woods. They were not attacking. Instead, they were carrying lumber and making a wooden wall. That was a surprise for the Captain.

Teniente Arbuno said, “Captain, they are creating a circumvallation. Our enemy is building a fortress to surround ours. They mean to cut our escape and prevent also supplies and reinforcements from getting through. Julius Caesar used this technique in 52 B.C. to surround the fortress of the Gallic tribe in Alesia.” “What happened to the Gauls ?” the Captain asked. “The Gauls starved inside their fortress. The Gallic leader eventually surrendered, paraded in Rome and days later executed. The rest of the captive Gauls were sold into slavery.” “I suppose, Teniente, that reading history books has a useful purpose. We might be the equivalent of the Gauls for now. But I think the Moros did not read the history of the Roman Empire. We will change history later today. The Gauls will win this time,” smiled Captain Echevarria.

“Teniente, I think rest and relaxation will have to wait till later. Take command of our remaining cannon and watch the west wall. We have guests coming.” Teniente nodded and quickly climbed down. When he reached the ground, he yelled, “Captain, I will see you for dinner and some music tonight.” The Captain waved and whispered to himself, “That young man is very optimistic about our chances !”

Sulu Garden’s diorama of the Battle of Miagao. Photo by Gian Tamayo.

Sulu Garden’s diorama of the Battle of Miag-ao. Photo by Gian Tamayo.

The Captain looked out to sea with his telescope and focused on the bow of the leading caracoa. Standing tall was a man holding a kampilan by the handle with the pointed tip resting on the plank of the ship. To the Captain, the man looked calm, older, confident, and in command. Warriors consulted him as signals were given to the other ships using multicolored banners on long bamboos.

“Haji Ranom. Welcome to Miag-ao !” whispered Captain Echevarria.




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