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Capul Island

Island of Capul Northern Samar

The island of Capul, to 16th century Spanish conquistadores at sea for weeks and at the mercy of violent churning waters and a cruel scorching sun, was a vision of Pacific paradise. With a gently sloping shoreline of beige sand, in the shade of coconut and palm trees teased by the soft breeze into a dance to the rhythm of waves from San Bernardino Strait and Pacific Ocean, it was a haven.


Spanish adventurers took refuge and spent many idyllic days on this island after voyage from way beond the horizon. And why wouldn’t they? Friendly natives always welcomed them with smile, song and sway – truly a balm for weary bodies and flagged spirits en route to a new life of north in Manila or westward to Cebu.

The alluring spell of Capul holds to this day.


The island of Capul, once known as Abak, is located northwest of mainland Samar Island and is home to a gentle and hospitable people with a dialect all their own, Abaknon, markedly distinct from Ninorte Samarnon, Bicol, and Cebuano.

According to folklore, the first inhabitants of Capul were the followers of King Abak, leader of a small kingdom in Java. The king and his subjects, entrenched in the ways of their own indigenous religious beliefs, disdained Muslim conversion and so had to flee the island of Java. They left three sailboats or barangays around the 13th century, at the height of the Muslim expansion in Asia.

Each of the three sailboats held members of one family or branch of King Abak’s community. The winds of fate brought the sailboats to southern Mindanao, where one of the vessels is said to have remained, while the others sailed on. The second one is believed to have landed on an island at the junction of the tumultuous San Bernardino Strait and Samar Sea between the island of Samar and Bicol, and the third forged ahead and anchored on farther shores.

Today, a commonness of dialect, which linguistic scholars collectively refer to as Sama-Badjao languages, appears to be the only link among King Abak’s descendants Abaknon is considered  one of the rarest dialects in the world and is feared to be on the verge of extinction. Those familiar with the dialect, as it is now called in Capul, note its uncanny similarity to the dialect spoken by the Bajaos in Mindanao, and one spoken in some parts the Marianas Islands.

It was King Abak’s men or the Abaknon that the Spaniards met on the island at the turn of the 16th century, when they arrived from Spain. Again according to folklore, a Spanish crew member from one of the galleons engraved the word “Acapulco” on one of the giant rocks on the island. Three of the letters were erased by the elements, leaving only the word “capul” on the rock. Through the years, the tale continues, began referring to the island as Capul.

Capul Island 1


Capul was among the first places in Samar visited by Spanish Jesuit missionaries, who first set foot on the island as early as 1596. After the initial encounter, the missionaries undertook more regular visits to the island from 1600 to 1694, but it was not until 1695 that a priest was permanently assigned to the island, the Jesuit Fr. Franciscus Pertrus, who used this opportunity to evangelize not only the island but other settlements close by, in what are now Matnog, Bulusan, Sta. Magdalena and Calbayog.

Chapels were built in which to gather the people for catechism and worship, but these were initially of light materials, vulnerable not only to natural but also human onslaughts. The first church on the island was of hard wood and nipa, constructed in 1696 but razed to the ground by Moro bandits who attacked and plundered the settlement in 1715.

Within the year, another church was built on the same site, this time a more permanent structure of stone. But this too was no match for another Moro slave raid in 1768, which also resulted in the death of Fr. Juan Isandi, the last Jesuit pastor assigned in Capul. This was also the year that the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines and other Spanish territories around the world.

capul_3After the vicious attack that claimed the life of his predecessor, Fr. Miguel Rico de Jesus decided not just to rebuild the church of stone but to construct the stone walls of a fortress to surround the church.

In 1781, Fr. Mariano Valero, an architect, renovated the church, including in its design a stone-walled fortress in the shape of a cross, with doors and windows of strong rocks and hardwood, and a watchtower not far from the church. The watchtower, set atop a hill with a clear view of the town and harbor and the entire breadth of San Bernardino Strait, enabled local sentries to monitor seacraft movements and to warn the people of impending attacks.

The church came to be known as the Fuerza de Capul (strength of Capul) and at the time was said to have been the most imposing and beautiful structure throughout Samar Island.

The watchtower was strategic. A tower sentry on duty would use a budyong (bullhorn) to alert the community of any strange of suspicious fleets approaching from the sea. At the alarm, the townsfolk would gather inside the church, taking with them enough food and water supplies for sustenance. The doors and windows would be bolted from within while trained soldiers and volunteers attempted a counter-attack, manning cannons mounted at the fortress ramparts.


Time has stood still for Capul long after the two and a half centuries of galleon trade that ignited the development of Manila and Cebu. The island remains a 16th century relic, with bits and pieces of American and Japanese artifacts to add to close to 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. The centuries-old church and fortress continue to stand proudly on the island, their moss-covered stonewalls and rusting cannons lonely and resolutely standing ground against the ravages of time and neglect.

The island’s strategic importance along a maritime route continued to be recognized during the American period, with the construction of the lighthouse at the northern tip of the island to mark the western entrance into San Bernardino Strait from its mouth at Ticao Pass coming from the Pacific.

capul_4The Capul Lighthouse is one of three major guideposts located along San Bernardino Strait, with the two others located on Batag Island off Laoang and another on Biri Island.

Japanese forces also used Capul Island as a major military outpost and lookout, building strategic defense trenches carved into the mountain slopes overlooking San Bernardino Strait.

Remnants of the mountain trenches and concrete structures to protect the communication lines if the Japanese are still intact, mute witnesses to the battle off Samar Island that served as one of the major battlegrounds of World War II and that turned the tide in favor of the American Forces.

Memories of past grandeur

As one of the country’s earliest pueblos or towns, Capul used to include among its sitios the town of Allen, which in turn has been sub-divided into the present municipalities of Victoria, San Vicente, San Antonio, San Isidro, and Biri. Like Palapag which used to cover the entire length and breadth of the 2nd District of Northern Samar, the pueblo of Capul used to encompass the whole of the First District and served as the capital of Samar from 1848-1852.

capul_9As the municipality slipped into economic insignificance, it has returned to its present status as an island town living on the memories of its colorful history and past grandeur.

All is not lost for Capul though. Its sandy beige beach is still as inviting as it was many years ago and the waves that roar into its shores continue to trigger graceful dance routines from coconut trees near its shorelines.

The people understand and speak Waray and some Tagalog, but they continue take special pride in their unique Abaknon dialect, which they alone can speak. Abaknon songs and dances have survived the test of time and continue to be performed by the locals for their visitors and friends as they gracefully did centuries ago for their guests from Mexico and Spain.

The island, along with Biri, has recently been identified by the provincial government as one of its premier tourist destinations. This distinction hopefully comes with development resources to provide more access roads and other transport facilities to make it accessible to more local and foreign tourists.

Provincial and town planners hope to encourage private partners to establish the relevant infrastructure to make it one of the major tourist destinations in the country similar to Corregidor Island in Luzon.

Ironically, Capul’s present allure is precisely in its being untouched and natural, its quaintness as a pre-Hispanic pueblo with a 400-year-old church designed to address a recurring 16th century problem of vicious Moro pirate attacks that left pillaged villages in their wake.

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