The Spanish colonization of the Philippines, specifically in the coasts and plains of the archipelago is well-recorded and accounted for. However, very little is attributed about the colonial effort to subjugate that of the highland tribes, specifically that of the Cordillerans.

For more than three centuries, the Cordillera natives resisted the unceasing armed expeditions of the Spaniards. Efforts at ruling the mountain tribes proved to be ineffective. Attempts of propagating Christianity among the Igorots were likewise dismal failures.

At present, it is still an overwhelming question as to why the Igorots were able to avoid the clutch of Spanish colonialists. What steeled and urged these mountain dwellers to resist Spanish colonization? It may have been triggered by their love for freedom and homeland. What were their responses towards Spanish colonization? And what did this bring them in the end? A review of Cordilleran history would reveal some answers to a somewhat obscure chapter of our past.

The Highlands During the Pre-colonial Period

Previous to Spanish colonization, there was no Filipino nation to speak of. There were only small and independent communities scattered over the archipelago where there existed appropriate political, social, cultural and economic systems. High above the mountain ranges of what we now know as the Cordillera region were communities that may be characterized in their mode of production as primitive, semi-communal, and semi-slave. There was a distinct social stratification within these settlements. But one very significant feature was the trading among the communities.This trade extended to the lowland communities as well, which resulted in certain similarities between the upland and lowland culture. These similarities included the language, death rituals, tattooing and ornamentation, and headhunting practices among several communities. Most of all, there was never a hint of national oppression. But this rather languid way of living had its dramatic turn when Spain slowly wormed its way among the communities.

Expedition of the Gold Mines and Early Spanish Advances

Most of the coasts and plains then of the Philippines were under Spanish rule when King Henry III sent orders to the Philippines to exploit the gold mines in the highlands. Spain was in desperate need then for financial backing after it joined the Thirty Years War in 1618. It was common knowledge that gold mines were abundant in the mountains. The natives had continuously traded gold with their lowland brothers who were by then under Spanish rule themselves. The gold was the answer to Spain’s need to combat the Dutch. This was the major factor that lured the Spanish conquistadores to penetrate the mountains.

Prior to this decision, the Spanish colonialists attempted to subjugate the highland tribes like all the other settlements in the country. Their first attempts had been futile. The highlanders simply ignored the pacification advances of the Spaniards. They did not just refuse the colonization. Being warlike and headhunters in nature, they beheaded any insistent alien who came within the range of their established borders. From this behavior of the natives sprung the term Igorots as how we call them now. This came from the Spaniards’ labeling for the entire highland population which was Ygollotes, meaning “people from the mountains”. But this had a derogatory connotation then such as dirty, uncivilized, pagan, barbarians, and headhunters to the Spaniards and the Christianized lowland Filipinos as well. Yet pacification of the upland population did not cease. More so that the need for gold urged the conquistadores to invade the highland region.

Photo by John Tewell

The first expedition for the Igorot gold mines was led by Governor Garcia de Aldana y Cabrera in March 1620. He was with some 900 Filipino soldiers from Pangasinan. A group of 50 Igorot chieftains met him and his troops and tried block his passage. He ignored them and continued to a village in Boa anyway. There, he burned the town and established a fort called Santissima Trinidad. They built their own cogon houses and even a chapel wherein two Dominicans said Mass for the first time in an Igorot settlement. All the while, Igorots went on beheading soldiers they chanced upon. Aldana retaliated by threatening the chieftains but to no avail. He then quickly scouted the mines and returned immediately to the lowlands where he died soon afterwards.

At about the same time, Philip III died but his successor ordered the expeditions to continue. So in 1623, a larger expedition was led by Sergeant Major Antonio Carreno.He built two forts, namely, Fort Santiago and Fort del Rosario, both near Antamoc, Itogon. The Igorots wisely attacked during the rainy season, leaving the Spaniards’ muskets useless. Moreover, the forts were razed to the grounds. The remaining soldiers then retreated.

The third expedition was under Captain Martin Alonzo Quirante who rebuilt the forts. Finally, he returned with 5,600 kilograms of ore for assaying. But the three expeditions had already caused a great deal of money and many lives with no profit.The Spanish government agreed to cancel the whole project. All the forces for this expedition were then withdrawn.

It was indeed a triumphant victory for the Igorots that lasted for another two centuries in which the Spaniards never occupied the gold mines again. But it can be concluded that the Spaniards were struggling for their interests in the cultural, politico-military, and economic aspects most importantly.

Igorot Responses Towards the Spaniards

The Spanish colonizers continued using various means to achieve their objective of integrating the Cordilleras within the colonial structure already set- up in many parts of the Philippine territory. All these efforts were geared towards the exploitation of the region’s resources, particularly gold. Despite these persistent forces, the Igorots stood their ground. Collectively, Igorots were fierce and violent warriors and headhunters. They were known to kill and rob Spanish subjects. Such a characteristic definitely posed a threat to the Spaniards. They were also pagans who clung firmly to their beliefs. They rejected the introduction of Christianity, making it harder for the colonizers to pacify them. And most importantly, the Igorots always had a strong sense of independence. They refused the intervention of “other” people towards their homeland and indigenous lifestyle. Here are several Igorot encounters with the colonizers to help us see how they dealt with the subjugating forces of Spain.

Isnegs or the natives of Apayao were subjects for conversion in terms of religion. But their chiefs, Alaban and Lanag, reacted by killing the missionaries and leading communities farther up the mountains of Apayao.

A revolt by the Isnegs massacred the soldiers when a Spanish soldier abused a woman from their tribe. And not very far from there, another Isneg, Juan Manzano, led an uprising against the Spanish priests and soldiers. Rather than submitting to capture, he commited suicide.

The Ifugaos in Kiangan, on the other hand retired to the hills when the troops launched their first attacks. But while the soldiers were looting and helping themselves, the Ifugao warriors returned with reinforcements, descended on the village unexpectedly, throwing stones and spears while shouting wildly. This made the soldiers panic; they fled in disorder with the Kiangan warriors pursuing them. They effectively drove the Spanish forces out. So the proud people of Kiangan continued to defend their homeland against foreign aggression and attacked the government highway.

A Spanish priest wrote that the Ifugaos were very difficult to control because they very numerous and robust. But for the Ifugaos, it was a matter of loving their land so much that made them struggle to keep the Spaniards at bay.

The Ilongots on the other hand went on beheading soldiers and burning churches. It was pretty obvious that they plainly did not want to be subjected under the clutches of the Spanish rule, be it the church or the government as a whole.

Image from the “Igorots” by Bill Amos

The colonizers by this time decided to extend their territory fuarther up north where Kankanaeys and Ifontoks settled. An unsuccessful raid is made in Bontoc. It was without question that the Bontoc people were fierce and violent warriors and notorious headhunters as well. But gradually, the Spanish forces somehow managed to set up local garrisons within this village. Still, the Ifontoks never gave up. They attacked the garrisons, set fire on public buildings, killed many troops and wounded many more. Furthermore, they stole what they could especially the rifles and other weapons of the Spaniards.

These tribes all over the mountain range of the Cordilleras continued their resistance towards the Spanish forces. They burned and attacked garrisons, burned Spanish settlements, stole their arms and ammunitions and did not tire of taking heads.They attacked unexpectedly with their spears and bolos and arrows. It should be taken into consideration also that nature helped the Igorots in their resistance against the Spaniards. They made wise use of the rugged mountain terrain in defending their lands. It was a lot harder after all to colonize mountainous regions as compared to the coastal areas and the plains. The mountains provided the Igorots various means of defenses.They knew their land too well and this was without a doubt an advantage for them against the Spaniards who were not at all acquainted with these areas.

All in all, they created an ominous image for themselves. They threatened the colonizers and other Christianized Filipinos as well.

From here, it appeared like it was a clash between the Igorots and the Spaniards with the Christianized lowlanders. An Edict by the Royal Audiencia in Manila gave permission to the natives of the lowland to make slaves of any mountaineer they could capture, reasoning out that it was illegal to oppose the colonization projects of Spain. The Igorots by then had made a name for themselves as robbers, and vile pagans who captured and killed priests and prevented the propagation of Christian salvation.

The Effects

It wasn’t until the last years of the Spanish regime that the conquistadores were able to establish a more or less stable foothold in several parts of the Cordillera.

Spanish military expeditions continued and even intensified up to the dying period of the colonial rule. Simultaneous with these military expeditions were religious missions whose main objective, contrary to claims of Christian salvation, was the dismantling of the indigenous culture which had been the people’s source of unity against colonization. These religious missions attempted to deceive the people into allowing the unhampered exploitation of the region’s resources. Through the years, they managed to pacify a number of communities by converting them to Christianity.

It should also be noted that in the entire course of these expeditions, the colonizers used armies composed of lowlanders from nearby provinces of Ilocos and Pangasinan— a manifest example of Spain’s use of “divide and rule” tactics. This led to the disintegration of the harmonious relationship that previously existed between the lowlanders and the highlanders. It aggravated whatever differences that existed between them. The Spaniards were responsible for fueling a conflict between the highland and lowland people.

Within this period, the concept of Filipino nationalism against Spanish colonization was born. This developed from localized revolts which eventually reached the stage of nationwide revolution in 1896. This was participated by a large number of the Filipino working class, including the Cordillera people.

For the Cordillerans, their resistance was largely successful. It is indicated by the fact that at the end of the Spanish regime, when the Igorot territory had been carved up into a dozen military districts, the last census still listed one-third of the estimated population as completely independent. It is without a doubt that these mountain dwellers fought for their liberty with their means of disposal for 320 years, and that this resistance was deliberate, self-conscious, and continuous. So successful was their defense that for three centuries, they generally remained outside effective colonial control. But three centuries is a long time. Three centuries of a distinct experience with colonialism can spell a world of difference. And it did. It created a majority out of the colonized Filipinos who now shared more things in common as they suffered exploitation and oppression under Spain. It also made national minorities of those who did not undergo the great economic, political, and cultural changes which the majority experienced, and who were able to retain much of their indigenous lifestyles and institutions throughout the whole period of colonial rule.

William Henry Scott (Author of Barangay)
W.H. Scott (Image from Wikipedia)

To quote from Dr. William Henry Scott, a renowned Igorot historian, “… 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 the whole mountainsides into terraces to wring out a bare subsistence for living, their tribute-praying brethren in the lowlands were learning to farm like the Spaniards and cook like the Chinese. While Graciano Lopez Jaena was ornamenting the Spanish press with his graceful prose, and Jose Rizal was hobnobbing with European scholars in half a dozen languages, their illiterate Igorot compatriots were being exhibited in the Philippine Exposition along with other native plants and animals. In their mountain…independence, the Igorots missed out on all the convenient innovations enjoyed by their conquered brethren…. It was a heavy price to pay for liberty. And it is a price not yet fully paid…”

Now, was the independence painstakingly achieved by the Igorots really worth it?

Cordillerans as a National Minority Group

Today, we know Cordillera as a region inhabited by the majority of Igorots. And, we know the Igorots as a national minority group. They are still regarded erroneously as headhunters and barbaric individuals. Such notions are inevitable since the Igorots differ from most in terms of culture and traditions. But contrary to these perceptions, the Igorots are highly civilized. With the American occupation at the turn of the century, the Americans accomplished what the Spaniards were not able to do. American missionaries successfully integrated the last of the resisting forces through the spread of Christianity. Unlike their colonial predecessors, they did one thing that was a potent instrument in drawing the natives towards them. It was education. They established schools and taught the illiterate. Their years of settlement in the Cordillera communities led to the influx of ample Western culture.

But despite this integration of the Cordilleras within the colonial structure of the nation, the Cordillera natives managed to preserve most of their practices. They clung to their spiritual beliefs and continued their indigenous lifestyle, at the same time learning the new ways introduced to them by the Americans. Such an attitude most probably made them distinct as we compare them now to other Filipinos who bowed down under Spanish colonial rule. In more ways than one, the Igorots never totally gave way to foreign influence. Somehow, they managed to stay independent until the end.

It is not a question as to why accounts about the colonial efforts of the Spaniards towards the Igorots did not find their place in standard Philippine textbooks. Documents are not completely willing to provide insight on the motivations and methods of the Cordillera natives in warding off the colonizers. It was indeed a thorn in the side of Spanish pride. Governor Salcedo himself spoke to his first council with considerable passion about the mountain ranges inhabited by Igorots, owners of the gold mines and enemies of the Christians. “It is a scandal to the Christian Filipinos and a cause for derision and mockery for foreigners that in the very heart of the island which is the main one, there should be such pagan enemies of ours—and with the fame of their rich gold mines, too.”

It was certainly a shame to the Spanish nation to permit such excesses. And another century later, Governor Primo de Rivera wrote: “ It is certainly humiliating for Spain and her government at home and abroad to realize that thousands of human beings live not only in pre-conquest backwardness but commit crimes and depredations, carrying their audacity to the extent of demanding tribute from the very Christian towns without receiving castigation for their troubles and without any authority, having been bold enough to impose itself upon them…”

It was indeed a battle for three centuries for these Cordillera natives. Their love for their homeland and lifestyle and everything they had kept them going. Even if it meant going farther and farther up the mountains, they took the risks just so they will not fall under the ominous wing of the conquistadores. Suffering the periodic destruction of their homes, fleeing from more and more remote mountain ranges, enduring miserable existence, and having labeled themselves as a national minority constituted the considerable price the Igorots paid for their freedom.

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