Philippine Prologue: The Letter

In May 1901, Major Eugenio Daza, an intelligence officer working on behalf of General Vicente Lukban, the commander of insurgent forces on the island of Samar during this, the third year of the Philippine-American War, sat with Pedro Abayan, the Mayor of Balangiga, a coastal town of 2,000, and made the case for Abayan to write and sign a letter.  The letter was to be addressed to General Lukban and would state  that in the even that American soldiers occupied Balangiga, he and the townspeople would follow a policy of surface cooperation with the Americans, but would rise up strategically against them when the time was right.

It was a letter that other Mayors in other pueblos had been asked to write by Lukban and his lieutenants.  Now it was Abayan’s turn.

Abayan hesitated.  He had been elected three years earlier under Spanish rule by a vote of the principalia  — the prominent citizens of the town.  As mayor or Presidente of the Municipal Council , he was the heir to hundreds of years of Spanish rule.

Balangiga had been through much.  For centuries, it had been one of the prime targets of Moro raiders who, in their largest raids, came with 220 boats with 40-50 warriors aboard each prahu, seeking captives to be sold into slavery in nearby Borneo and elsewhere.  This had left the town in a constant state of alert, and over the centuries baluartes were built, and lookout posts were placed on the top of the hills overlooking the Leyte Gulf from the nearby villages of Bolusao and Maslog, where lookouts with budyong, or seashell horns, would warn of approaching Moro prahus.

But the Moros were only part of the problem.

Intermittently throughout the 1800s cholera epidemics broke out, causing death and immense tragedy in the town.  Also every year, typhoons struck, wreaking havoc, and in mid October 1897 an epic super-typhoon smashed into the island, stripping the land of trees and vegetation, and most significantly eliminating ninety percent of all the coconut trees that were the foundation of the economy.   To the south and east, the larger town of Guiuan was devastated, while to the west,  Basey experienced 1,000 deaths due to the typhoon.  Whole villages moved inland and relocated to higher ground to avoid future flooding.    

Now, four years later, the town was at the point of harvesting coconuts again for the first time since the storm — a reduced harvest, but a harvest nonetheless.  And fishermen were once again bringing home consistent catches from the sparkling waters where blue marlin, sailfish, tuna, and other great pelagic denizens were abundant.

From Abayan’s perspective, there was little to be gained from getting overly entangled in the struggle between he Americans and Lukban and his men.  And the commitment Lukban was seeking was not to be taken lightly. 

In his effort to persuade Abayan, Daza had brought with him letters, proclamations, and other writings of General Lukban which attempted to make a moral case against America, putting forward claims of rape, theft, and worse by American soldiers. 

Abayan wondered: Who are these Americans?  Are they as bad as painted by Lukban? 

Certainly they were powerful, there could be no doubt about that. They had finished the Spanish with seemingly little effort and driven them from the country.  They occupied former Spanish garrisons in the northern part of Samar at Catbalogan and Calbayog, and more recently had set up garrisons and Basey to the west of Balangiga, and Guiuan to the east.  Sooner or later the Americans would come and Balangiga would be caught between two powerful forces over which it had no control.   

As Abayan saw it, his responsibility was to the town, not to the bigger picture of Philippine independence and certainly not to America’s desires for an empire. He had no way of telling who was going to win and if he, and the town, backed the wrong side they’d live — or perhaps die — to regret it.

From his window Abayan could catch the salt air and faintly, the smell of fish, brought in by the men fishing on their tiny baloto outriggers, drying now on bamboo slats on the beach.  Abayan still felt a thrill whenever he would see two or even three men carrying a beast from the sea up and onto the beach — blue marlin, tuna.   Alone in tiny boats, these men did battle with the great behemoths, and these tough, independent men were central to the town’s history and culture. 

Also from the docks came the sound of men unloading bales of abaca, the plantain that was the raw material of Manila hemp rope — the cash crop that, along with coconut, brought economic life to Balangiga.

Closer to the municipal building, just outside his window,  he could hear women laughing and chattering as they drew water from the town well as they had for two hundred years.  Looking south, he could see a dozen or more men taking a siesta in the ample shade of the great trees that ringed the plaza.

All of their lives would be affected by whatever decision he made.

He picked up his top hat and cane which feature a gold, tasseled top and was his symbol of mayoral authority, and set out across the plaza toward the church.  At the same time he sent his youthful assistant, Lorena, to carry word to the town’s Chief of Police, Valeriano Abanador. to join him at the church where he would meet first with the parish priest, Father Donato Guimbaiolibot.   Later, depending on what emerged from consultations among the priest, the mayor, and the chief of police, the principalia would be brought into the discussion.

* * *

Inside the convento, Abayan huddled with his two key advisors, Father Donator Guimbaiolibot, and Chief of Police Valeriano Abanador.

Father Donato had been appointed as parish priest in Balangiga on March 2, 1900.  He was thirty five, about the same age as Abayan.  He had been ordained in Cebu in 1899 and Balangiga was his second assignment.  He was the first Filipino priest of the parish; for the previous three centuries, the priest serving Balangiga had always been a Spaniard.  Not only was he the first Filipino priest, he was almost a local boy, hailing from Guiuan, the larger municipality to which Balangiga had been attached for centuries until becoming its own pueblo in 1854.  He knew the culture of the Samarenos, and he knew the specific attitudes, needs, and concerns of the Balangiganons, as the townsfolk referred to themselves.

The third member of the meeting was Valeriano Abanador, the head of the town’s police force of 16 men.  Abanador was an acknowledged expert in Arnis or Eskrima, Filipino stick-fighting.  He was also a chess player, and a good one.  At 31 he was single, which was unusual. A dozen years earlier he had studied briefly in the college of San Juan Letran in Manila but had dropped out when a cholera epidemic closed the school and had not returned.  Instead, he had returned to Balangiga where he was a member of a prominent family that would produce multiple mayors and town officials both before and after the Balangiga incident.  Abanador did not trust in skill and experience alone. Around his neck hung an ‘anting-anting’, a charm, in the form of a small black book of content known only to Abanador himself. 

Abayan sketched the situation for the others, and gave his assessment.

“To foolishly attack the Americans when the arrive would be a disaster,” he said. “But to accept them and help them will lead to retribution from the hills.”

He was indeed caught between a rock and a hard place.

“Lukban is testing your allegiance,” Abanador said.

Our allegiance,” Abayan corrected him.

Both Abayan and Abanadaor were, in fact, actively and regularly engaged in supporting Lukban.  It was an inevitable function of their positions.  Abayan was responsible for collecting the taxes that went to Lukban and his men, and Abanador was responsible for providing intelligence, which he passed through Daza — the one insisting upon the letter.

“Your objective should be to maintain peace in the town at all costs,” said Father Donato.  “If you are guided by that objective, you will choose the right path.”

The principalia were then brought in one by one, not as a group,and the matter was discussed.  A representative from each of the major clans — Custodio, Salazar, Belaez, Nacionales, and four others.

In the end, the objective to keep the town peaceful if at all possible guided the decision, as Father Donato had suggested. 

Abayan took his pen in hand, dipped its nib in the inkwell and began to write a letter addressed to General Lukban.

As representative of this town I have the honor to inform you that, after having conferred with the principals of this town about the policy to be pursued with the enemy in case they appear here, we have agreed to observe a deceptive policy with them doing whatever they may like and when a favorable opportunity arrives, the people will strategically rise up against them.

I communicate this to you for your superior information, begging of you to make known to the entire army of this province your approval of the same, if you think it advisable.

God preserve you many years – P. Abayan, Local Presidente

Abayan surveyed his handiwork. He felt that the letter adequately protected him, his advisors, and the principalia of the town from accusations of complicity with the Americans.  Yet it afforded a way forward in which open conflict with the Americans could be avoided, for a time at least.   

A day of reckoning might come, Abayan realized, in which the words in the letter would be put to the test, but that was a concern for another day.   

But on this day, the letter provided a framework for a solution that satisfied Lukban and protected the townsfolk from unnecessary danger and conflict.

He signed it, and closed it with his mayoral seal, then handed it to Daza.

It was done.

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