22 May 2021
When the ships of Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines in 1521, the explorers were surprised at finding an advanced culture with the abundance of gold ornaments. Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, marveled at ordinary natives wearing large chunks of gold jewelry whilst their leaders who invited Magellan’s crew to local feasts served food in vessels made out of real gold!
The alleged preponderance of the metal could thus give some historical credence to a Negrense legend born during the Spanish era, which told of a large, heavy belfry bell made out of pure gold. It was hung in the church of the village called Saravia./1/
Saravia, however, had the misfortune of having been located by the shoreline, and was thus constantly attacked by the Moros from the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu. /2/ The Moro pirates with their vintas (swift outrigger boats) would unexpectedly come from the sea, often in the middle of the night, and pillage the town. There were burnings, lootings, killings./3/ Carrying the residents' most prized possessions, along with some of their womenfolk, the plunderers would then quickly vanish into the sea. It was said that these women became slaves in the households of the Moros./4/ Because of these perpetual threats, a heavy spirit constantly floated in the air, and the settlement never prospered.
Sometime later, Saravia became a town and its small church was reconstructed. With much fanfare, a massive golden bell was installed in its new belfry. The renovated church offered new hopes to the townsfolk as it renewed their belief that their novenas to the Virgin Mary would keep the Moros at bay, much as Mary also protected the neighbouring town of Victorias from Moro attacks. It would seem as though deliverance was finally at hand.
After the locality was sacked once more, the priest persuaded his parishioners that God only helped those who also helped themselves. Therefore, a plan was devised. On rotation, robust young men with good eyesight served as look-out, guarding the belfry tower by day and by night. When a Moro vinta was spotted, the look-out was supposed to ring the golden bell, the vibrating sound of which would purportedly echo throughout the whole island.
A number of days passed, and soon enough, the deafening sound of the bell filled the night air. By the time the Moros landed, they found the town deserted whilst bolo-wielding young men guarded their homes. The rest of the townsfolk had fled to a pre-determined location in the nearby forest. The would-be raiders retreated back to their vintas, and the town celebrated its liberation from the Moros. It had finally found the way.
However, victory would be short-lived, and the town’s celebration was premature. The Moros as well inferred the ringing of the bell and its role as a warning device. They therefore embarked on a plan of their own. As the inhabitants of Saravia started to let off their guard in their false sense of security, the Moros executed their plan.
One sunny day just after noon when it was assumed that most would be taking their siesta, the Moros attacked. The marauders figured out that the reflection on the water of the sun overhead would partially blind the view of the belfry look-out. Moreover, instead of directly landing on the shoreline of Saravia, they used as staging point a small islet at the side of the town, with no direct view from the look-out. The townsfolk were thus caught completely unawares, and the Moros’ expedition was an unmitigated success!
On their way out, the pirates burned the belfry and removed Saravia’s warning device, carrying the golden bell with them. Too heavy to be brought to their vintas, it was said that the bell was finally dumped in a deep lake called Uyog at the back of the village’s graveyard. Numerous efforts were later made to retrieve the valuable bell from underneath the mud without any success.
The Spanish government finally gained ascendency in their some 200-year war against the Moros during the latter half of the 19th Century. This was facilitated by the arrival of steam powered ships invented by an American and used in France earlier in the century. Faster, more maneuverable, and more powerful, they bombarded Moro strongholds. From their fortified headquarters in Zamboanga, these gunboats patrolled Christian settlements in the southern and central Philippines.
By the time the Americans came at the end of the 19th Century, their task remained chiefly to maintain law and order. Moro raids in the Visayas had ceased to be a threat, and the Americans passed a policy of non-interference.
Then came Philippine independence and the construction of roads and bridges to modernize the infrastructure of the province. Saravia, now called Enrique Magalona, is currently a town with some 60,000 inhabitants.
Over time Lake Uyog became increasingly smaller, turning into marshland until completely drying up. In its place now runs a cemented highway linking the town to the rest of the province.
Many older residents, however, claim that when the weather is fine and the day quiet, they can hear the muffled sound of the steadfast bell, warning them of advancing strangers. Especially on a still night next to the dried-up lake, one can still feel the tremors in the ground and the distinct alarum sound of the bell.
Ascription: From interviews done by Chona Gosiaoco. A version also appears in PHILIPPINE FOLK LITERATURE Vol. III by Damiana Eugenio.
Footnotes: /1/ The Philippines is reputed to hold large untapped gold deposits; /2/Islam was already firmly rooted in southern Philippines when the Spaniards came. The Sultan of Sulo was, for instance, related to the ruling families of Brunei. Initially, relations between them and the newcomers were cordial until the former felt their sovereignity threatened. By the time of the piratical raids in Spanish-held Philippines, the word "Moros" had become synonymous to Muslim pirates. At war with the Spanish government, the motives of the Moros were originally political in terms of retaliatory attacks, before turning economic, and perhaps to a much lesser extent, religious; /3/ Christian towns were often helpless against the forces of the Moros as there was a prohibition on the Filipinos to bear arms. In 1599, for example, a Maguindanao tribe with 3,000 men and 50 boats plundered the coastal towns of Negros: houses were looted, fishing boats and farm implements destroyed, and whole settlements reduced to ashes. This hampered the development of Negros for years, and influenced the Christian communities' perception of Islam for centuries to come; /4/It was not only women who were enslaved but on occasion whole communities. Between 1599 and 1604, the Moros netted on average 800 captives a year. In fact, it was said that at one time, 50% of the population of Sulu were slaves. These captives were often sold in the lucrative slave trade of the region. Possibly, as some historians suspect, Magellan’s slave Enrique, the expedition’s lone interpreter, was a Moro captive from the Visayas sold to the Portuguese. Enrique would play a pivotal role when he disappeared from Magellan's head ship Trinidad, presumably to turn informant to Lapu-lapu. If this were true, the first person to circumnavigate the world would have been a Filipino. See Laurence Bergreen, OVER THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, William Morrow & Co, 2003.