For Catubig is not a coastal settlement like most others, where a wide stretch of beachfront is always nearby and fresh fish and seashells in rattan baskets are sold at cheap and cheery prices. With no direct portal to the sea, the town would seem an unlikely target for avaricious visitors with sinister intents.
And yet – a curious and intriguing feature – for a town located miles away from the coast, it has church similar to the ones in Capu, Laoang and Pambujan, where coastal defense and hometown security were always challenge.
The fact is, the church of Catubig, with its pillars and walls buttressed by solid rock materials, was meant to be a fortress church, by design and application. While still preserving its function as a place for worship and catechizing, it played a central role in defining the colorful history of a small town with a big fighting heart, waging battles against Moro raiders, and later against Spanish and American colonial masters in the name of freedom and self-determination.
The municipality of Catubig is located today along the length of the Catubig River, one of the largest water channels of the province, gushing from the highlands of Las Navas and flowing out into Laoang Bay. It is also bisected by the similarly large Hagbay River, and a network of smaller tributaries branching off from the main waterways.
Before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, however, the community to which the town traces its roots was settled by a brook called Cagninipa, feeding into the main river and thus called because of the nipa plants that grew abundantly in the soft mud on its banks. The settlement was also called Cagninipa and is considered one of the two oldest pueblos in the entire island of Samar.
Among the first wave of Spaniards who came to Cagninipa at the turn of the 17th century were a number of Jesuit priests, drawn by their mission to evangelize. They had traveled down the river from Tinagon, the place now known as Dapdap in Tarangnan, Samar, where by then they had already established a mission center. The missionaries brought with them stocks of food and medicines for the natives, and they could not have come at a more auspicious time, for famine and hunger had swept through the village following a massive rice infestation then.
Touched by the foreigners’ kindness and generosity, the early Catubignons immediately welcomed them. So it was in the midst of this riverbank settlement that the friars decided to build their first mission residence for the Ibabao region, making it the seat of Christianity in the region through the years 1596 to 1605.
In 1605, the Jesuit residencia in Cagninipa, which had served as home and retreat house for priest ministering in the Ibabao region, was moved to Palapag, closer to the harbors where galleon ships docked. The ships that came docked at Palapag from Acapulco in New Spain (Mexico) ferried not just goods and silver money, but also civilian and church officials from Spain.
Despite the transfer, however, Jesuit missionaries continued to maintain a chapel in Cagninipa and regularly assigned priests to nurture the Spiritual life of the people.
After many years of relative peace, the river thundered with the menacing sound of vintas headed for Cagninipa one fateful day in 1774 or 1775. Kris-brandishing Moro pirates jumped off the vintas and rushed inland, burning and pillaging everything in sight, rounding up hundreds of young men and women, and forcing them into their boats. Able-bodied captives were to be employed as slave oarsmen in other Moro raids, while the women were to be sold off in Mindanao. A few managed to scamper to safety in the mountains, while many who resisted were brutally slain.
Returning to a ravaged and desolate land, most of the survivors stayed just long enough to bury their dead, having decided to abandon the settlement and the horrific memories of their homes in flames and a river of blood.
Cagninipa, whose present-day location is not within Catubig but in Las Naval, was not the same after that. With a reduced population, it became merely a barrio of Palapag until the 1800s when it slowly recovered, turned itself around to become a major producer of rice, abaca, fruits, and cacao, and regained its old status as a pueblo.
Yet despite its status as an old pueblo during Spanish era, Catubig was officially elevated to a municipality with its own charter only in 1948.
From Cagninipa to Catubig
There are two versions, both rather plausible anecdotes, of how the natives of Cagninipa dropped the old name of their town and settled for Catubig.
The earlier tale recounts how the first Spanish colonizers, coming upon the community already settled by the Cagninipa River, were said to have asked the locals the name of the place they were in. unable to understand the language of their unexpected visitors, the townsfolk surmised that they were asked where they were going. And, as they were close to the river or on their way there, it is presumed that their answer adverted abundance of water, perhaps to assure that there was enough for thirsty travelers.
A later version, traceable to the descendants of town elder and Philippine-American War Hero Domingo Rebadulla, claims the name-change happened only in the early 1900s, shortly before the bloody Battle of Catubig from April 15 to 19, 1900.
Two American “surveyors” are said to have espied a cat sunning itself by the banks of the Cagninipa River. Hoping to strike up a conversation with a young maiden carrying a load of laundry down to the river, they asked her, “What’s that cat doing?” Not yet within sight of the cat from the elevation where she was and unable to understand the question too well, the lass thought they were asking what was behind the embankment, so she responded, “Tubig.”
The Americans thought that tubig was the local term for cat, so they coined a new word from translations – Catubig. The story is said to have overheard by some bystanders, who recounted it to Rebadulla. At his behest, the town was renamed Catubig to signify friendship between the Americans and the natives.
But such friendship was to be broken in time, when it was subsequently learned that the Americans were not surveyors but military officers intent on taking control of the town as they had already done in Luzon. It was this duplicity on the part of the Americans, and the fierceness ignited by the desire for freedom among the Ibabao Samarnons, that led to the Battle of Catubig, a heroic event almost overlooked in the annals of the Philippine journey to independence
Beyond beaches, rock and suns capes
There are no coastlines of any length or color in Catubig, a rarity in a province known for its wide open beaches and majestic rock formations. But there is more to this historic town than white beaches, towering ocean monuments, and spectacular suns capes.
Its character and history are borne by the old stone church of St. Joseph the Worker, built in 1886 and, like most Spanish colonial churches, set at the center of the plaza to inspire awe and tower over the rest of the surrounding structures.
The church is a simple rendition of baroque architecture similar to the Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, without a separate belfry. Built by local craftsmen under the direction of a multi-tasking priest – preacher, architect and military strategist – the church was both witness and active participant in the historic Battle of Catubig. Its belfry, located at the upper center of the facade, was used by local revolutionaries to signal their attacks against the American colonial forces.
The Catubig River remains an important means of transportation for the locals despite the recent completion of concrete roads leading south lo Las Navas and north to Laoang and Palapag.
For travelers with more time to spare for sightseeing, a river cruise is both scenic and exhilarating. The wide river, weaving through some of the most spectacular vegetation and verdant gorges on both sides, leads to Laoang Bay, with its waters originating from the majestic Pinipisakan Falls at Las Navas at the opposite end.
For fun, adventure, and a loftier view of Catubig River, the town’s hanging bridge is not a resort feature one needs to buy tickets for to cross. It is free and real life activity in this town, whose life throbs with the flow and rhythm, ebb and rise of the river.
The bridge, held end to end by high tension cables and enclosed by cyclone wire, is the regular passageway of the local folk, some crossing the wobbly bridge and doing a literal balancing act with baskets of goods over their heads. For visitors and tourists, the act of crossing the bridge is an adventure in itself.