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The Untold Story of the Igorots' Revolt

The Igorots taught Spain a lesson it would never forget.
IMAGE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Savages. Backward lowlifes. Criminals. That was how Spain viewed the Igorots in the 17th century. Even the teaching of history has not been kind to the Igorots, who were relegated as traitors in the Philippine-American War, thanks to one Igorot named Januario Galut, who led the Americans around Tirad Pass to rout Gregorio Del Pilar’s forces. In fairness to Galut, he did not know there was a war, and he was simply helping the foreigners “navigate” the mountains.

One story about the Igorots is largely left out in history books. It was the Igorot Revolution of 1601.

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The Igorot Revolt of 1601

In the late 1590s, Spain had begun to conquer the lowlands of Northern Luzon. They were largely successful because they co-opted the datus into convincing their barangays to resettle in the new towns established by the Spaniards.

But the Spaniards were unsuccessful at bringing the Igorots into the fold. The Igorots had been wary of the lowlanders for centuries and isolated themselves in the mountains up north. Their name “Igorot” is actually an Austronesian term for “mountain people.”

In 1601, Spain attempted to Christianize the Igorots by launching a holy crusade to evangelize the “heathens.” Another motive for this holy war was to gain control of the gold-rich mountains of the Cordilleras.

Igorot men in Northern Luzon, Philippines, 1914

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Leading the crusade was a friar named Esteban Marín, who was instrumental in pacifying the natives of Pampanga. Marin had previous encounters with the Igorots who came to Ilocos in the 1580s to trade. When Marin and his expeditionary force tried to Christianize the Igorots, they were killed. 

Apparently, Igorots were highly territorial and not keen on entertaining white foreigners telling them their gods were demons.

After Marin’s death, Spain sent a larger crusade to the Igorots’ domain led by a certain Lieutenant Aranda. They enlisted locals from Pampanga and Pangasinan to capture every Igorot they could find and turn them into slaves.

It was a terrible decision. 

A force of 3,000 Igorot warriors descended on them out of nowhere, decimating the combined Spanish and Indio forces.

It was a humiliating defeat for the Spaniards, who never acknowledged the 350-year Igorot resistance as a fight for independence. They just considered the Igorots as bandits or savages they never got to educate.

Igorot Military Tactics

Although technologically inferior, the Igorots were no strangers to warfare—they were proficient warriors the lowlanders feared most. In fact, they were notorious pugot-ulo (headhunters). 

According to Kahimyang Project, traditional Igorot arsenal consisted of bamboo lances and wooden shields. They also used stakes planted in tall grass. The stakes were highly effective at wounding enemies when planted in the grassy trails.

The Igorots would also set up numerous defensive blockades of trees and branches in mountain passes. When the enemy comes near and finds the pass blocked, the Igorots would hurl boulders and tree trunks onto the unsuspecting enemies, killing them. 

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Another strategy used by the Igorots was to keep the locations of their strongholds very secret. Only an Igorot knows where their villages are. They would not hesitate to kill a fellow Igorot suspected of giving information to lowlanders or foreigners.

In 1789, a Spanish friar documented how the Igorots operated in secrecy:

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 one of the most impressive Igorot military tactics is the feigned retreat. The Igorots would pretend to retreat and surrender as their enemies gave chase. Once they lowered their weapons and the enemies think they won, groups of Igorots would ambush the enemy. 

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The Igorots Were Unconquered for Over 300 Years

Spain never succeeded in bringing the Igorots into its fold. The fierce mountain people were pretty much left alone throughout the 300-year colonization of the Philippines. The Philippine government recognized this and tried to grant autonomy to the Igorots by forming the Cordillera Administrative Region

The Igorots are composed of many ethnic groups residing in the areas surrounding the Cordilleras. Among them are the Ifugaos, Bontocs, Ibalois, Isneg, Kalingas, and Kankanaeys.

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Sources:

  • Scott, William Henry. (1972). The Igorot struggle for independence. Quezon City: Malaya Books.
  • _____ (1974). The Discovery of the Igorots. Quezon City: New Day Publishers. 

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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