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Igorot Revolt: The Untold Struggle for Independence

The Igorots were never enslaved by the Spaniards and they fought for their independence against foreign aggression for over 350 years.

 |  25 min read

Igorot men in Northern Luzon, Philippines, 1914 J. Tewell

Now known as the Igorot Revolt of 1601, the brave natives of Northern Luzon strongly refused to accept Christianity and conversion under Spanish rule. Although the Spaniards attempted to suppress the uprising by sending an expedition to the Cordillera, they eventually did not gain much control over the Igorots.

The Igorot Struggle for Independence

It is a strange thing that the history textbooks commonly in use in the public and private schools of the Republic of the Philippines never mention the fact that the Igorot peoples of Northern Luzon fought for their liberty against foreign aggression all during the 350 years that their lowland brethren were being ruled over by Spanish invaders. One history book says we can never know the history of the Filipino people during the Spanish period because they were slaves to the Spaniards or at least forced to play the role of slaves.

Certainly, this is not true of the Igorots. They were never slaves to the Spaniards nor did they play the role of slaves. Quite the contrary, Spanish records make it clear that they fought for their independence with every means at their disposal for three centuries, and that this resistance to invasion was deliberate, self-conscious, and continuous. That it was largely successful is indicated by the fact that at the end of the Spanish Regime, when the Cordillera Central had been carved up into a dozen military districts, the last Spanish census listed one-third of the estimated mountain population as completely independent.

Northern Luzon, Khadchug Rice terraces, Central Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines, Unknown date, probably 1930s J. Tewell

Foreign visitors to the Philippines all during the Spanish regime noticed this Igorot independence. An Italian traveler mentioned it in 1696, a Frenchman in 1766, an American in 1842, a German in 1878, and an Englishman in 1896. And it was a cause of great embarrassment to the Spaniards themselves.

When Governor Diego Salcedo landed in Aparri in 1662 and traveled to Manila through Ilocos and Pangasinan, he said he suffered a sense of shame to see all those mountains inhabited by the Igorots, "owners of the gold mines and enemies of the Christians". So in 1779, an official said:

"It is certainly a shameful thing for our nation to suffer such disorders without demanding satisfaction for the Igorot crimes against our vassal natives, and a mockery and cause for laughter among other foreigners".

And a hundred years later Governor Primo de Rivera wrote almost the same thing,

"It is certainly humiliating for Spain and her government at home and abroad, to realize that thousands of human beings, some at the very doorway of the capital, and many others within sight of Christian towns with government forces and authorities, not only live in pre-Conquest backwardness but commit crimes even to the extent of collecting tribute from the Christian towns themselves without receiving any punishment for their boldness".

Of course, the Spaniards did not consider this resistance a fight for independence. They considered the Igorots to be bandits and savages and lawbreakers because they did not submit to Spanish rule like the lowlanders. And they explained the Igorot defense of their liberty as the instincts of uncivilized tribes who had always been at war with their more peace-loving neighbors. But the first generation of Spanish records does not make it clear that the Igorots' lowland neighbors were peace-loving, or that the Igorots were their enemies.

Quite the opposite, they make it clear that the Ilocanos and the Pangasinanes and Igorots were business partners in the gold industry. A Dominican account of 1593 says the Igorots brought their gold down to their special friends and agents in Pangasinan, and the famous book by Dr. Antonio de Morga of 1609 says the Igorots mined the gold but that the Ilocanos refined it and distributed it to other places. When the first friars went to Mangaldan, Pangasinan, in 1588, they found the people there making regular business trips to the mountains, and worshipping a mountain god called Apo Laki In 1745 the place that is now called Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya, was inhabited by Panipuy Igorots who also inhabited villages high in the mountains of what is now Kayapa municipality and the southwestern borders of Ifugao. And when a Kalinga chieftain raised a revolt in Isabela in 1787, the mayor of Camarag, who remained loyal to the Spaniards, was his own brother. Considering the similarity of the present languages of Pangasinan and Benguet, and of Isinay and Lagawe, who can say where the dividing line between highlander and lowlander was when the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines?

Bontoc Igorot headhunters, Cordillera Administrative Region, Philippines early 20th Century Dean C. Worcester

As a matter of fact, early Spanish accounts don't even make it clear that highlanders and lowlanders were very different racially or culturally. The first missionaries in Zambales, Pangasinan, and Cagayan said the natives were all headhunters there, and the same word mangayaw, is found as far away as the dialects of Mindanao and was recorded by a first-generation Spanish conquistador in the Visayas.

When Juan de Salcedo drove the Chinese corsair Limahong out of Lingayen in 1574, he found the bodies of Chinese who had escaped and were killed by the local people and they were all headless. In fact, when Salcedo's own body was sent to Manila for burial in the San Agustin Church after he died outside Vigan, the head was missing.

The native mountaineers of Panay who were also unconquered by the Spaniards, to this day, dig up their ancestors' bones and bury them again after cleaning them just like the Ifugaos, and just so Dr. de Morga said the Tagalogs kept their ancestors' bones in the houses and worshipped them. The kind of earrings the Ifugaos called ling-ling-o have been dug up out of 2,000-year-old Filipino graves in Palawan. All over the Philippines, from Aparri to Jolo, the Spaniards noticed that Filipinos considered a sneeze unlucky at the beginning of a journey and that they would turn around and go home if a snake or lizard crossed their path, or if a bird flew from one side to the other. A study by a U.P. professor makes a list of supposedly Chinese words in Tagalog but this list includes a lot of words which are common all over the mountain provinces, like atang, bantay, kotkot, bosog, botyog, and sowitik.

Moreover, a recent study of vocabularies from languages and dialects all over the archipelago by a Yale linguist indicates that Tagalog and Bontoc, for instance, have more basic words in common than either of them does with any language outside the Philippines-like Borneo, for instance. It is hard to explain this similarity if the Tagalogs came to the Philippines in a separate wave of migration 2,000 years after the Bontocs were already settled in the mountains of the Grand Cordillera Central.

Anyway, whatever the picture was in pre-hispanic times after the Spaniards started the conquering of lowland Filipino tribes, those who submitted to the Spaniards naturally became enemies of those who didn't. A Spanish complaint of 1606 says the Igorots prevented the other Filipinos from becoming Christians and stole children who had been baptized to raise them in the old pagan religion. Some Jesuit theologians in 1619 argued that a just war could be made against the Igorots because they prevented free passage through their lands to the Ilocanos and Cagayanes, "our friends and vassals of the King, Our Lord." And missionaries helped to make enmity between converts and pagans, too. The first missionary in Manaoag bribed converts to report pagans who secretly held caniaos. Governor Cruzat in 1690 issued an order that lowlanders would be punished by 100 lashes for having dealings with pagan Igorots. An Augustinian missionary handbook of 1731 says that Tinguianes and Igorots should be attracted by peaceful means, but that after all peaceful means have failed to convert them, they should be threatened and their fields are taken away from them.

And the records make it clear that the Igorots often had justified complaints, too. In 1753 the head of the Augustinians had an Igorot petition translated for the Governor-General, asking for the return of the gold, silver, and blankets that had been grabbed by the agents of the Governor of Pangasinan. In 1773 the Igorots burned the church in San Nicolas, Pangasinan, in revenge for the loss of their gold which they entrusted to a local businessman. Accounts in both the 18th and 19th centuries say the Igorots collected land rentals in the foothills of the Ilocos, Cagayan, and Isabela because they claimed to have owned that land before the Spaniards relocated lowland converts there. A friar writing in Kiangan in 1857 said the major cause of fighting between Ifugaos and Christians was conflicting claims to the same hunting grounds-and he adds, "the pagans are not always to blame, either".

At any rate, if the Igorots and the lowlanders were natural enemies from time immemorial before the coming of the Spaniards, how come the Spaniards were always complaining that lowlanders were always escaping and running away to join the mountaineer pagans?

A 17th-century petition calls Igorotland "a den of thieves where delinquent Christians take refuge and escape the law", and after the Diego Silang uprising of 1762-63 the Governor-General called it a place "where rebels take refuge because they are their allies and our enemies." As a matter of fact, the whole population under the control of the Spaniards in the Ilocos went down by one-sixth during the first 25 years of the conquest. One modern scholar has concluded that they all escaped to the mountain provinces-and Father Lambrecht, after a careful study of the internal evidence of the Ifugao Hudhuds, thinks all the Ifugaos migrated into the present province of Ifugao after the Spaniards invaded the upper Magat River Valley.

Northern Luzon, Banaue, Philippines (4) Unknown date, probably 1930s J. Tewell

Modern Filipino writers seem to be just as slow as the Spaniards to give credit to the Igorots for their defense of their homeland. History professors in Manila classrooms have been known to say that it was all just an accident of history or geography. By this they mean either that it was too much trouble for the Spaniards to invade the mountains or that they didn't want to do so in the first place.

The idea that the Spaniards didn't want to invade the mountains of the Igorots is just flatly contradictory to their records. They heard about the Ilocos gold mines before they ever set foot in Luzon, and it only took them five years after the founding of Manila to reach the Baguio mines. They established short-lived forts in Boa and Antamok in 1620, 1623, and 1624, and in Mankayan and Lepanto in 1668-but they were never able to stay until after the invention of the modern repeating rifle. A hundred years later they tried to open a road through Igorot territory between Pangasinan and Cagayan, and in 1750 began a war with the Ifugaos. In 1767 they were repulsed in Kiangan itself, in 1793 they were met by natives wearing metal armor, and during the 19th century, they made dozens of expeditions into that province. Yet in the 1850's the Ifugaos killed or drove out all the Spanish missionaries in Mayoyao, Bunhian, and Kiangan. In the 1880's they were picking off members of the new occupation forces one by one, and during the revolution, they completely massacred the Kiangan garrison and sent a war party of 600 down to attack a garrison in Isabela.

As far as saying that the Spaniards couldn't invade the mountains is concerned, is it the case that all lowlanders were conquered and all highlanders remained independent? What about the Muslims? They defended their liberty against Spanish invasion whether they lived in mountains, or tiny little islands, or right on the seacoast. On the other hand, not everybody who lived in the mountains resisted Spanish conquest or, for that matter, even wanted to. The mountains called the Caraballo Sur between Nueva Vizcaya and Nueva Ecija are a case in point. For these are mountains so rugged and easy to defend that the Philippine army had to provide armed escorts for public transportation through that area as late as the 1950s.

Igorrote men performing a War Dance, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific-Exposition, Seattle, Washington, 1909 Warner, A.C.

When the Spaniards sent four expeditions through this area between 1591 and 1594, the people of some villages welcomed them and paid them tribute, but in other villages tried to fight them off, and in still others completely repulsed them. Yet within a decade, native delegations came to Manila asking for Spanish intervention in local wars, and for another 150 years, Spanish forces were welcomed in some places and repulsed in others. The people of St. Catherine's mission, Buhay, for example, only six kilometers from Aritao, always welcomed the conquistadores and their missionaries, while the Panipuy Igorots of Aritao fought them off from behind stone walls until 1745. Yet Buhay was built on top of rocky mountains so steep people needed ladders to climb up while Aritao was exposed to attack right in the open plain of the Magat Valley. How come Buhay submitted but not Aritao?

Besides, the Igorots quickly learned that living in the mountains did not spare them from Spanish attacks. In 1755 a Spanish friar went to live in the village of Tonglo, near the public school in the present municipality of Tuba outside Baguio. After he destroyed their idols, they threatened to stone him to death, and a few months later drove him out. Since they were only a day's hike from Spanish garrisons on the coast, they must have known they were risking punishment. And in 1759 it came-three separate detachments of lowland soldiers who took three weeks to reach Tonglo, which they subjected to five hours of artillery fire and burned it to the ground so completely no trace of its location can be found today. Yet the Igorot survivors of the battle did not surrender. They simply retreated deeper into the mountains, and some of their descendants are living still in Baguio today.

This was part of the heavy price which the Igorots paid for their independence-always giving up their homes and villages and fields to Spanish fire and sword, and retreating deeper and deeper into higher and higher mountain ranges to struggle for a harder existence. It is clear that at the beginning of the Spanish occupation, the Igorots lived in better houses, in bigger villages than they did later. The 1620 expedition to Baguio found fortifications so solid they used them to build their fort. A 1740 account says Igorot houses were so spacious three families could live in one of them. The 1759 expedition found a settlement with 35 large houses all made of boards, arranged along a regular street, with a plaza, and a kind of church for their pagan ceremonies. When Galvey entered the Trinidad Valley in 1829, he found 500 houses there and started burning them. In 1883 there were only fifty left. And a German traveler in 1861 found the Agno valley full of old stone walls in the fields, all grown over with underbrush, and he reported, "Today most villages bear the stamp of misery and deprivation: the fields are badly maintained, the stone walls around the houses are falling down, and the big villages of Galvey's time have been deserted".

When the Igorots were not overwhelmed by sheer numbers and firepower, however, they proved formidable opponents. No Spanish force ever maintained a garrison permanently on the Cordillera before the Remington repeating rifle replaced the old muskets that were almost useless in wet weather. The gold mining Igorots drove off two Spanish expeditions before they could sample their ores. When Martin Quirante was finally successful in carrying away gold samples in 1625, he brought along 85 Spaniards - double the number Salcedo took to the Ilocos in 1572 - as well as 1750 Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. Nor could the Spanish government guarantee protection to their lowland vassals from the Igorot attack. In the 18th century, a Spanish historian says the Ilocano farmers had to work their fields with the sickle in one hand and a weapon in the other, and travelers could not use the royal highway along the coast without armed escorts. When one officer proposed an attack on the Igorots in 1796 and told the governor it would be an easy victory, he replied, "Don't forget to make an estimate of the pensions for the widows and mothers of those killed in battle".

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 tree trunks. They often pretended to retreat until the invaders lowered their guard, or even pretended to surrender and then wiped out the supposed victors by an 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 of 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 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 medicine 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 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 porters, or cut wood. They work, eat and drink as they wish and when they like. They have a 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 have 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 have like 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 are 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, woven cloth, 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 and Magat valleys, and with iron tools they made from broken iron pots they got from the Ilocos, which the people of Nueva Vizcaya considered superior to Manila knives. Lowland merchants traveled around buying up carnelian beads to sell them at a peso a piece. Igorot loincloths were woven on Ilocano looms in the 18th century as in the 20th. Igorot miners refreshed themselves with wine 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 very long. 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 will 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 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 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 leveled, and their population decimated by 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 1890s 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 travelers 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 brass gongs 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 that 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.

Source: The Igorot struggle for independence. William Henry Scott. Malaya Books, Quezon City, 1972 (via the University of Michigan Digital Library, 2005).

Proud Igorot.

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