Lagutaw’s Revolt: An Inspirational Tragedy

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Scott Magkachi Saboy


Indigenous Responses to Colonial Incursions Online Conference

One legacy of European colonialism to the Americas was disease, especially smallpox, which contributed to the depopulation of natives. For instance, the Spaniards crushed the once mighty Aztec empire with the help of the pestilence, and White Americans also intentionally or unintentionally infected Native Americans with it.

The indigenous peoples in that continent suffered from other ailments endemic to their respective communities prior to the arrival of their colonizers, for sure, but they had no immunity to the variola germ and other new pathogens brought in by the outsiders (see detailed discussion on the topic in Kelton 2007 and Cameron, Kelton & Swedlund 2015).

It was no different from the Spanish colonization of the Philippines which brought the plague to the country towards the end of the 1500s (Fenner, et al. 1988, 228).

Lagutaw’s Story

In The Discovery of the Igorots, William Henry Scott writes of a fascinating account of a late 18th century smallpox epidemic in some areas of what are now known as the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, which gave rise to the tragic but inspirational story of the Kalinga hero named Lagutaw (spelled as Lagutao, following Spanish orthography).

Scott’s portrayal of this event is so skillful that to not quote it in full would rob the story of its full dramatic effect and deny us the privilege of unpacking the still-relevant themes and issues embedded in the details of the narrative. So here it is:

Smallpox broke out in four towns of new Christians — Carig, Camarag, Angadanan, and Cauayan — in 1786, and by the next spring, the survivors were suffering famine due to a shortage of field labor. Many of the neophytes who fled to the mountains did so at the exhortation of a number of pagan shamans, chief among whom was one Baladdon, whose mother was herself a celebrated priestess who claimed to be able to multiply rice in the pot like the loaves-and-fishes miracle. Moved by Baladdon’s arguments about magical herbs and divine curative powers, and enslavement resulting from Spanish benefits, a prominent pagan by the name of Lagutao who happened to be the elder brother of the Mayor of Angadanan agreed to head the movement. Accordingly, he appeared in the outskirts of Camarag and Angadanan at the end of March 1787 as the redeemer of his people, and rallied the discontented to his banner with promises of a free mountain life exempt from tribute, tithes and tobacco monopoly. Then, at the head of some Kalingas — as mountain pagans were called in the Cagayan Valley — he persuaded his relatives to join him and confronted his brother, Mayor Onofre Liban, with the same demand. The parish priest, who was present, recorded the Alcalde’s response as follows:

‘Look, Lagutao, you don’t know what you’re doing. Leave your brothers in the Christianity in which they were nurtured and are accustomed. You don’t understand these things because you’re a pagan and believe everything the old folks and shamans say. Your brothers are better off as Christians: we lack nothing, and are always attended by the better justice of the government and the mission. So don’t destroy us all or yourself.’

You make a fine speech,’ replied Lagutao, ‘but prove nothing. I tell you, brother, that I am taking you all off to the mountains, come what may. Here you are dying of the smallpox the Creator has sent to chastise us for having given up the ways of our ancestors. Moreover, you have to pay tribute as is the custom among Christians, and can’t even take a smoke without buying tobacco with the sweat of your brow. So come with me as the rest of our brothers have done.’

‘Enough of this,’ the young mayor replied. ‘Cut off my head if you wish, and leave my body here as the sign of my loyalty, to God and to King!’

Upon hearing these bold words, the Kalingas reached for their bolos, but Lagutao came between them, and the argument continued until they were interrupted by word that the government troops from Carig were approaching. Lagutao therefore left his brother and retreated to a little barrio of Camarag called Carulay, taking rice, cows, and carabaos with him, and followed by some 1,200 local people, not counting the children and many invalids carried in hammocks.

The local commander, Don Mateo Cabal, a native of Cagayan, with years of experience flushing Ilongot, Isinay, and Igorot recalcitrants out of the hills, meanwhile organized his troops — 300 riflemen reinforced by 2,000 auxiliaries armed with their own weapons. On Holy Wednesday, he met the insurgents at a place called Payac, and opened fire. Lagutao was killed outright, as well as his brother Meddanang, his son-in-law, and eleven others. The following day, another battle ensued in which more than a hundred were killed, and many of those being carried in hammocks were left to die of hunger or their sickness. Eighty-one prisoners were taken — including women, youths, and little boys — but not one soldier was killed or wounded. When Mayor Onofre Liban heard the news, he fell into a melancholy from which nobody could rouse him. He had hardly slept or eaten since the confrontation with his elder brother on Palm Sunday, and he now declined so rapidly it was no surprise to the grieving survivors of his family when he expired after mass on Easter Day.

Onofre Liban is memorialized in Dominican histories of the Cagayan Valley as a paragon of Filipino virtue from the Spanish standpoint — that is, as the perfect vassal. Quiet and gentle, hard-working and helpful, he was of serious bearing, little given to chatter never disturbed his peers and was esteemed, and respected by all. He was so humble he twice refused election, and only accepted it the third time (with tears in his eyes) when his priest persuaded him it was God’s will. He always stayed in town except during harvest and planting, minded his own business, and worked hard in his fields. He was never known to miss his Christian duties either in church or out, or to contact debts to anybody. He didn’t go around from house to house, or to dances or carouses, and never laid hands on women. And he died of a broken heart at the age of 24. (Scott 1974, 158-160)

An Asymmetrical War

From the get go, the natives already lost the battle: the enemy had the numbers, weaponry, training and, perhaps, strategy. Against a ragtag band of fighting men, women and children most likely armed with just stones, spears, bolos, head-axes, and shields, the pursuing army’s operation seemed like a simple target practice with some chickens in a coop.

The massacre is a miniaturized representation of the 300-year asymmetrical warfare waged by the Spaniards against Filipinos, and may also be seen as one of those events during the Spanish occupation that prefigured the result of what would be known about a hundred years later as the three-year Philippine-American War.

A Vice Called Piety

The propagation of Spanish Catholicism and later of American Protestantism on the Philippine Islands has been both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, it gave rise to a blend of Asian and EuroAmerican cultures that enriched this complex — if contested — social construct called “Filipino identity”; offered an alternative ethical system which helped stamp out certain indigenous practices — like headhunting — which were once essential to the survival of specific communities but had become counterproductive and anachronistic with the onset of modern life; provided admirable models of piety; and facilitated Filipinos’ access to formal education which enabled them to use both the languages and the educational system of the colonizers to articulate their views and eventually assert self-rule.

On the other hand, the Christianities that were exported to the Philippines in many instances became political tools of oppression, disenfranchisement and division. Vast tracts of lands, for example, were stolen by the priests from the natives many of which are owned by the Church even today. This reminds us of this joke which has been variously attributed to Desmond Tutu, Jomo Kenyatta or Rolf Hochhuth:

“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us close our eyes and pray.’ When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”

This, in turn, reminds us further of this more serious note from Chinua Achebe’s widely translated opus, Things Fall Apart:

“Does the white man understand our custom about land?” “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad, and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Achebe 1995, 57; cf. Cushner 2006)

The break up of indigenous lands into distinct territories of the religious colonizers coincided with the splintering of communities themselves as dramatized by the fraternal split between Lagutaw and Onofre Liban. It is a story that has been repeated every time natives got enticed by new religions.

How many families have been split, how many communities have been divided because those among them who converted to a sect or church have come to see their own blood relatives as “unbelievers” and hell-bound? How many Onofre Libans have been uprooted from their indigenous cultures and raised to regard themselves as more pious than their families and friends simply because they had embraced some newfound church rituals and beliefs? How many new converts to the various Christian sects have forsaken their rich traditional cultures and even led in the destruction of their own material culture just because they had bought the idea that the symbols of their forefathers’ culture are evil? How many of these new converts have truly studied the origins of their new religious and have realized that these actually grew out of religious traditions which they now regard as “pagan”?

This is not to say that all foreign missionaries who came to the Philippines were bad, for there have been a few European or American missionaries who were sympathetic to the natives, much like the very likeable missionary named “Mr. Brown” in Achebe’s novel whose proselyting methods greatly contrasted with the adversarial stance of “Mr. White” (Achebe 1995, 58-62).

In real life, at least among the Kalingas of northern Philippines, the CICM priest Fr. Francisco Billiet and the Anglican clergyman Fr. Al Griffiths will always be remembered as prime examples of foreign missionaries who truly regarded the natives as their brothers and whose works benefited the natives immensely.

This is not to say, too, that we should subscribe to Rousseau’s notion of the “Noble Savage” (i.e., natives as representatives of pristine and/or superior culture) for our own indigenous cultures have their share of imperfections or frailties.

This is not to say as well that all natives who converted to new religions have cast off their own roots, for there have been many who combined what are good in both new and old traditions and deployed these to promote the welfare of their own communities.


Lagutaw’s revolt against the vastly superior colonizers may have been short-lived, but its value for us lives on. It lives on because the various issues implicated in his heroism still exist among ethnic groups today:

  • ownership and management of their lands in the face of state-sanctioned intrusions;
  • invasion of local territories by foreigners in the guise of propagating democracy and enlightenment;
  • rejection of one’s own culture and imbibing a foreign one; and
  • proselyting by native and foreign missionaries or evangelists and its impact on social cohesion and local tradition.

In sum, Lagutaw’s revolt remains relevant and inspirational for it is a story about freedom, a desire to break free from the shackles of abuse.

In high school, I had memorized a quote from a story about Native Americans. If I remember it correctly, it was entitled “Give It Back to the Indians” by Bill Messenger (?). I don’t know if my recollection is accurate verbatim, but here it goes:

“The future is the same for all of us. Nothing keeps one form for long. The great ice floes melt and rivers rise to forested valleys. Mountains crumble to become plains, and valleys, lakes become reedy marshes. We are men and women for a time before we rejoin the blown sands of creation. Only once can we know the world, as well as live in it. Only once do we move at our own command. That is why to be human is to be free.

For me, Lagutaw’s story is universal — it cuts across time and place — for it tells us the value of our humanity.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. 1995. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. PDF.

Kelton, Paul. 2007. Epidemics and Enslavement : Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Cameron, Catherine M., Paul Kelton, & Alan C. Swedlund, eds. 2015. Beyond Germs Native Depopulation in North America. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Cushner, Nicholas P. 2006. Why Have You Come Here?
The Jesuits and the First Evangelization of Native America.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fenner, F., D. A. Henderson, I. Arita, Z. Jezek, & I. D. Ladnyi. 1988. Smallpox and Its Eradication. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Scott, William Henry. 1974. The Discovery of the Igorots: Spanish Contacts with the Pagans of Northern Luzon. Rev. ed. Manila: New Day Publishers.

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