The Igorot Struggle for Independence

(A paper read before the Cordillera Congress for National Liberation, Mt. Prov. Provincial High School, Bontoc, Dec. 26, 1971.)

By William Henry Scott

Part 2

The traditional Igorot arsenal consisted of wooden shields, bamboo lances and highly effective stakes planted in the grassy trails to strike their enemies in the ankle or foot. Bows and arrows were only rarely used, and iron weapons like spears, bolos and head-axes only appeared later. Their defensive tactics included blockades of trees and branches in mountain passes where they could roll down big stones and treetrunks. They often pretended to retreat until the invaders lowered their guard, or even pretended -to surrender and then wiped out the supposed victors by ambush on their way home. More especially, they tried to keep all their trails and villages secret, and killed their fellow Igorots who acted as guides for the enemy. A Spanish friar in 1789 wrote: “Those who come down to trade in the lowlands are only men or chieftains in whom they have confidence, never women or children or slaves. If you ask them for information about their land or mines, they just act dumb, and if they say anything at all, it is just lies or nonsense, and only leaves you all the more confused”.

But whether the Igorots were better fighters than the Spaniards or not does not answer the question why they remained independent and their lowland brother submitted to Spanish conquest-because the Spaniards were always so few in number the lowlanders could surely have overcome them if they really tried to do so. Between 1572 and 1872, the Filipino population paying tribute increased from 500,000 to 5 million-yet there were never more than 2,000 Spanish soldiers in the.whole archipelago! Jose Rizal explained this phenomenon by saying, “The people were accustomed to bondage and would not defend themselves against the invader and would not fight-for them, it was just a change of masters.” And Professor Teodoro Agoncillo said it was because the natives would blindly follow anything the friars, their spiritual advisers, told them to do. Certainly this was not true of the Igorots. They were satisfied with their form of government, and they were satisfied with their kind of religion.

The pagans of Tonglo, for example, told the idol-smashing friar who came to convert them, “It’s no easier for the people to give up their ancient practices for the word of a priest, than for him to give up what he believes.” And their pagan priestess told him, “If you’re the priest of the Christians, so am I of the- Igorots, and if you have your God, I have mine.” In 1857, a Spanish priest in Ifugao told the following story: “When I was in Bunhian, I wanted to catechize a 12-year-old-boy who was very ill, in order to baptize him. But when I told him he would go to heaven if he died, his mother turned to me angrily and told me she didn’t want her son to go to heaven; why not give him some miedicine and cure him and leave him in this world?” And when a priest tried to persuade an old Igorot of Sumadel it was unsanitary to bury the- dead under the-house, he replied, “But don’t you understand that if we bury our dead out there in the cemetery on the mountain, they will come back at night, take up their bodies and eat up all our camotes?” The whole Igorot attitude toward their religion may be nicely summarized in an 18th century statement they made to some lowlanders:

“The fiestas of the Christians aren’t worth anything because it’s all just a lot of noise-making with bells and drums and muskets, and then everybody just goes home to his own house and eats what little he has. But the fiestas of our leaders are not like that. They are good-tasting and satisfying, and they don’t have all that racket. They kill animals by the dozens and everybody drinks until he passes out. Among you anybody is mayor or headman, but our leaders are never changed. No matter how much they spend, they always have more.”

Some Spaniards themselves understood the Igorot pride in their own way of life. Father Francisco Antolin, a Dominican friar stationed in Aritao, spent 18 years trying to learn as much as he could about the Igorots and their way of life, and he wrote a long book about them in 1789. The following is a quotation from his description of the Igorots almost 200 years ago:

“The small population of the Filipinos is usually attributed to smallpox, venereal disease and leprosy; or to wars, deforestation, tribute, division of land, migrations, and similar:things. But the Igorots have practically none of these. They take sufficient care of the mountain passes to prevent the entrance of smallpox and other epidemics from the Christians. They don’t navigate seas or rivers, nor do they leave their own country. They have nobody to order them to row, act as cargadors, or cut wood. They work, eat and drink as they wish and when they like. They have few long-range wars. The very fact of having maintained themselves as an independent republic this long, exploiting their mines, without the Christians or other pagans having been able to seize their mineral wealth, implies a great population. If they were few and not disposed to cooperate among themselves, they would not have been able to resist becoming Christians and obedient vassals until now.

“Although their agriculture is most primitive, they do not have those duties, sometimes enforced, which the Christians havelike government service, running messages, making roads, attending church, and various tasks incompatible with working and cultivating their fields. Those who live by working in the gold, copper and iron mines care little about making fields. And why should they wear themselves out in agriculture when the gold, knives and pots they produce suffice for everything? But from this it is not to be concluded that their land is completely barren and miserable, for it abounds in precious materials.
The fact is that the Igorots are contented with it, and that it costs the missionaries much battling, strife and diligence to get them out of their lands and make them live among Christians. They give many reasons for not coming down. They say that the towns of the Christians are very hot, that there is much smallpox and many epidemics, that there are crimes, robberies and conflicts between people, and that there are many to give orders and make the poor people work. Much less are the tribute, monopoly, and government officials hidden from them. And even though they also have to be subject to the whims of their leaders up there, these are lighter and they can evade them. In short, they do not envy the products and conveniences of the Christians, and only seek free trade in blankets, G-strings and animals for their gold. And with this alone they keep themselves perfectly happy in their mountains.”

This independent attitude would not have been so objectionable if it had been kept in aloof isolation on the heights of the Cordillera. But the fact was that the Igorots. came and went to the lowlands as they pleased. It was galling enough that they raided tribute-paying Spanish subjects and carried off lowland heads-or even whole lowlanders as slaves or objects of ransom. But what was worse was that these depredations did not interrupt 350 years of lowland commercial cooperation with them.

In Pangasinan and Ilocos they traded gold, copper utensils and counterfeit coins, wax, and rattan for rice, pigs and cattle. The Ifugaos made their purchases with rice in the Cagayan aind Magat valleys, anctwith iron tools they made from broken iron pots, they got from the Ilocos, which the people of Nueva Vizcaya considered superior to Manila bolos. Lowland merchants travelled around buying up carnelian beads to sell them at a peso a piece. Igorot G-strings were woven on Ilocano looms in-the 18th century as in the 20th. Igorot miners refreshed themselves with basi carried up from lowlands and molasses cakes. And Igorot traders themselves moved freely back and forth across the Cordillera. They sold Ilocano iron tools in Nueva Vizcaya as early as 1690, and in 1780 a missionary in Aritao sent a letter to a fellow friar in Bauang by some Ifugao traders from Tinok. Nor were these Igorot traders completely ignorant of lowland politics, either: a native of Kayapa told a Spanish friar who was trying to convert him in 1785, “So what about these Englishmen who captured Manila-they were white men and Christians, weren’t they?”

This untaxed trade was especially objectionable in the case of the Igorot gold monopoly. Neither the king nor the missionaries could put the gold out of their minds for,veryAong. Priests called it a “magnet to men’s hearts” and preached that God had hidden the gold in the most remote parts of the pagan world to attract greedy Christians there so the Gospel would be spread. When King Phillip III foolishly took Spain into the Thirty Year’s War, he wrote the Archbishop of Manila:

“With your experience in the islands, you well know the importance of maintaining them not only because of the Christian faith, which is the main reason, but also because of the condition of our Royal treasury, and so, because it is necessary above everything else to have the necessary treasure or money for it, it is deemed that the only and chief solution must be to exploit those mines of the Igorots.”

When Governor Salcedo sent out the 1668 expedition to Mankayan, he ordered them,
“Even if you come across the gold mines, make no show of esteeming them, nor look for them, because it should not seem that you, have any other aim than to reduce their souls to God; save the exploitation of the mines for later.”

These expeditions to the Igorot gold mines, however, were all so expensive and so unproductive that after the failure of the 1668 entry into Lepanto, the Spanish Government never attempted another one. By 1800, however, a new economic crisis arose with the Igorots. In 1780 the government instituted a monopoly on tobacco in the Philippines, and it was so successful that, for the first time in 200 years, the colony actually showed a profit for the home government. The monopoly promptly became an object of sabotage by the Igorots. They not only grew contraband tobacco themselves, but carried it all the way from Cagayan to sell illegally in the Ilocos. At first, this Igorot trade was winked at under a hopeful policy of trying to attract them, and under the illusion that not much money was involved. By 1836, however, it was discovered that tobacco’ taxes in Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur had dropped off by 66%. The government therefore sent Colonel Guillermo Galvey through Benguet, Lepanto, Bontoc and Ifugao in 1829-39 to put an end to the tobacco smuggling and Igorot independence. But still, even after their fields were burned, their villages levelled, and their population decimated by the smallpox carried by the soldiers, the Igorots continued to evade the monopoly. So the government agreed to exempt them on the understanding they would only sell their tobacco to a government station. But a Spanish official reported in 1842:

“Experience has shown the uselessness of this arrangement because the pagans carry ten bundles to the government and then sell a hundred as contraband, for the price they get from the lowlanders is always better than what they get from the government monopoly.”

Galvey’s decimation of Benguet, however, did make its miserable survivors the first tribe of Igorots to be officially listed as Spanish subjects. Lepanto soon followed, and Bontoc in 1859. But not until the 1890’s under energetic Governor General Valeriano Weyler, the so-called “Butcher of Cuba,” were troops permanently quartered in Kalinga or Ifugao. The last Spanish census of 1898 claimed 120,444 pagans recognizing vassalage to the King of Spain. It must have been a tenuous sort of vassalage, however, to judge from chance references by foreign travellers at the end of the Spanish regime-a detachment of 40 men wiped out on the march for example. Or two garrisons in the Saltan Valley massacred one Sunday morning during mass. Or the number of Spanish heads shown to German scientist Alexander Schadenberg. Or, for that matter, the Spanish jawbones still decorating heirloom gangsas in more remote parts of the mountain provinces even today.

Meanwhile, during those three centuries when Spanish firearms never really conquered the lofty liberty of the Igorots, they were paying a heavy price for their independence. Moving off into more remote parts of the Cordillera, they had to pit their brawn and brains against raw nature and sterile soil. And while they learned to carve whole mountainsides into terraces to wring out a bare subsistence of living, their tribute-paying brethren in the lowlands were learning to farm like Spaniards and cook like Chinese.

While Graciano Lopez Jaena was ornamenting the Spanish press with his graceful prose, and Jose Rizal was hobnobbing with European scholars in a half dozen foreign languages, their illiterate Igorot compatriots were being exhibited in the Philippine Exposition along with the other native plants and animals. In their mountain province independence, the Igorots missed out on, all those convenient innovations enjoyed by their conquered brethren – the iron plows, the horses and cows, the pancit and pan-de-sal, the camisas de chino and barongs tagalog, the grade school primers and those prestigious blue eyes and curly, blond hair.

It was a heavy price to pay for liberty. And it is a price not yet fully paid. For even their descendants who are congressmen, professors or bishops must send their children to government schools where they dutifully stare at textbooks which say they are different from all other Filipinos because their ancestors came in the wrong wave of migration. But never a word about their 350-year resistance to foreign aggression.

1. The Igorot struggle for independence: William Henry Scott, Malaya Books, Quezon City, 1972 (via the University of Michigan Digital Library, 2005)
2. Photo credit: Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan. Wikipedia Commons for rice terraces.


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