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Northern Samar Background

Northern Samar is the crown of the island of Samar

Such seemingly effusive over-the-top statement may spark argument – but only until it is pointed out that the province is indeed crown-shaped and situated at the upper rim of the island closest to the southern end of Luzon.

The area now known as Northern Samar was originally called Ibabao, obviously to describe its location at the northwest side of the third largest land mass in the Philippines. The term is also used to refer to a group people known to speak the Ninorte Samarnon or Binisaya dialect.

Ibabao was used from pre-Hispanic times until about 1768 to distinguish the northeastern part of the island from the western coast, known in olden times as Samar. This distinction was necessary because of the size of the island communication virtually impossible. Msgr. Gaspar Balerite, a Native of Laoang and an authority of the history of Samar Island, definces Ibabao as the region comprising the towns from Allen in the northwest to Borongan in the east.

It was not just terrain that distinguished the people Ibabao from those in the rest of Samar. In his book La Historia de las Indios de Bisaya, Fr. Fransico Ignacio Alcina, S.J., a Jesuit priest who had worked for many years in bnoth Catbalogan and Palapag, wrote:

The saying went “Pipira and maisog sa Samar?” which in our language means, count the men of valor of Samar, and you will find so few that they do not amount to one because you will not find any. Although today (1668), they hear this unwillingly, those of other parts do not stop repeating it, especially those of Ybabao. This on the east coast, as we have said, of the same island. These were both regarded as valiant and feared in their “antiquity.” Even currently, when the occasion offers, they are accustomed to say among themselves to encourage one another: “Ybabao kita,” which means, “Remember men that we are the people of Ybabao!” this really means that they should not fail or declined from their ancient valor and bravery of their ancestors.

This is, of course, no longer true today in a society that puts more premium on diplomacy and tact in the course of resolving conflicts or divergences in beliefs and opinions.


Spanish colonization

Old Philippine map showing the Ibabao
region in Samar Island

The earliest recorded settlers in Ibabao were from the islands of Indonesia, who had traveled by sea more that 2,000 years ago. There may have been indigenous tribes already inhabiting the island, but archaeologist believe they may have migrated to other lands through bridges in prehistoric times.

Another wave of settlers was the Malays. Both Indonesians and Malays were skilled seafarers and used tools crafted from stone and metal to build houses, hunt animals, plant crops, and defend themselves against enemies.

The Ibabaonons were already organized into several political units called barangays, each led by a datu, when the Spanish colonizers arrived in the 1500s. the term barangay originally referred to a type of sea craft that the early native settlers used for travelling.

Spanish chronicle Antonio Pigafetta, who was part of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition from Spain to the Philippines, wrote about their perilous sea voyage and accounts of their lives in the Bisayas Islands. He was one of  only 18 men, from an original crew of about 240, who set out from Spain three years earlier and survived to write about it.

But it was Fr. Alcina who provided the most extensive account of the life and times of the Ibabaonons from 1634 to 1668. His invaluable manuscripts were left untouched for many years unit; they were discovered in Jesuit archives in the 1950s, more than 275 years after his death in 1674.

A number of Catholic missionaries lost their lives at the hands of angry Ibabaonons who resisted Christianity or simply refused to be crowed into submission to foreign rule. One of them was the Jesuit Fr. Miguel Ponce Barberan, S.j., then rector of the Palapag mission. He bore the brunt of Ibabaonon rage over a directive imposing forced labor in the Cavite shipyard and was speared to death by a former trusted aide named Agustin sumuroy.

The assassination of Fr. Barberan was plotted in reaction to a call Governor Diego de Fajardo to forcibly enlist the Ibabaonons and haul them off to Cavite province in Luzon to augment the Tagalog and Kapampangan shipbuilding workforce. The idea of being separated from their loved ones against their will did not sit well most Ibabaonons, known for their close family ties.

Sumuroy’s deadly act of defiance provided them an outlet for their deep resentment and the townfolk saw t as an opportunity to openly resist Fajardo’s orders.


The Sumuroy Rebelion

“Sumuroy Rebellion.” Painting by Juanito Torres.

Sumuroy’s audacity ignited a rebellion, which lasted for year, from 1690 to 1691, punctuated by unrelenting rebel attacks on various Spanish military detachments and church properties. Unable to control the rebellion, Spanish authorities in Ibabaonon sought the help of Governor Fajardo, who responded by ordering reinforcement from Pampanga in Luzon and Zamboanga in Mindanao.

The reinforcement troops consisted mainly of Lutaos, former Moro raiders converted into Christianity, who were now fighting side by side by Spanish authorities to crush a rebellion ironically led by a former rabid defender of the Church. Some Sumuroy’s men turned against him when the rebellion turned uglier than it already was, with the former Church warrior killing more priest and burning churches in the heat of the battles.

After a year of bloody skirmishes in one of the most violent chapters of Spanish rule in the Philippines, Sumuroy’s was captured and beheaded to serve as a stern warning against those who might wish to do the same against Spain.

Sumuroy remains a controversial figure in the annals of Philippine history. Many consider him a hero for his courage and audacity to fight an enemy with superior firepower in the face of a perceived unjust order from Spain. Others, however, mostly Spanish authorities and within the religious community, belittle his achievements, comparing him to a Moro pirate out to destroy and pillage the Church. They questioned his motive in leading a revolt against Spain, saying that it was meant to settle a score against Fr. Barberan, who publicity accused him of adultery.

Despite Spain’s mighty military power, some scholars believe that sumuroy and his men could have successfully engaged the colonizers in a more protracted resistance movement with the natives’ courage, natural fighting skills and

Agustin Sumuroy monument and historical marker, Sumuroy Wharf, Palapag
Agustin Sumuroy monument and historical marker, Sumuroy Wharf, Palapag

Knowledge of terrain. But its was the message and power of the Cross, carried by zealous Spanish missionaries, that in the end won the hearts and minds of many Ibabaonons and made them turn against their own leader. It was his own blood relatives and followers – convinced by Spanish priest that their deeds were wrong and sinful – that brought about Sumuroy’s capture and eventual death by decapitation.

The rebellion was a desperate and direct reaction by the Ibabaonons to and order by Spanish authorities to send fathers and sons to work in a shipyard facility in Cavity against their will. It was a revolt, strictly speaking, as it did now call for independence from Spanish rule, but it did send a loud and clear message to Spanish authorities and it provided the initial spark to a later revolution that sought to end 300 years of Spanish rule in the archipelago.


Galleon Trade

Commerce was brisk in the era of Spanish conquest and domination. The expedition of Magellan in 15212 was precisely for the purpose of   finding a new trade route for Spain in the Far East.

The galleon trade route

The galleon trade between Acapulco and Manila that began on October 8, 1565 was the consequence of this quest and provided a vital spark to the economy of the Ibabaonons for 250 years, with at least two ships ferrying important documents, people, and goods between Acapulco and Manila every year.

Ibabao was a popular destination during the Spanish period because it was the first land mass to be seen by passengers on board a galleon bound for Manila, after a long and perilous sea voyage from Acapulco in Mexico that sometimes ended in tragedy. It was also who welcomed their colonaial masters in both their homes and hearts.

Lookouts were established on the Capo Santo Espiritu, located at the highest peak of the mountain range of what is presently Brgy. Maragano in Palapag at the Northeastern tip of the island overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Sentries monitored the arrival of the galleons and immediately reported the news to officials in Manila through a long queue of relayed messages. The cape also stood as the marker used by Spanish sailors to recognize their destination and make a stopover to rest after several months at sea.

Each trip of the wind-powered galleon ships from Acapulco to Manila lasted at three months, depending on the weather, and the loss of a galleon ship at sea meant dire consequences for the economy and mood of the colony. It was vital for the galleon to arrive in Manila safely and literally in one piece, because it held the fate of the entire colonial economy. For one, it transported the situado, the budget used to cover the operational expenses of the colony. The ship also carried important documents, such as royal decrees, appointments, legislation, and silver money earned by individual merchants and trading companies.

The galleon likewise transported passengers returning to Manila or coming fir the first time as civilian or military appointees of the Spanish colonial empire ant religious congregations. Just important were the goods from Spain and Mexico, to be traded for local products such as abaca hemp and spices. Some Chinese traders joined in the trade and offered Chinese products such as silk and porcelain. Later, Chinese products accounted for most of the goods from the East, relegating the local products, mostly spices and foodstuffs, to minimum volume.

In those days, galleons would often drop anchor near the island of Laoang and Batag at the mouth of Palapag River, where a royal naval station was established. The passengers of the galleon, especially the new appointees who were to take up their post, were warmly received with much fanfare and merrymaking by priest and local officials in Palapag. Or, further ob from Samar island they would dock at Capul of they were forced to take refuge from inclement weather of sea turbulence. This was a refreshing break from their long journey before proceeding to their final destination, usually in Manila, sometimes in Cebu or Ma-I (Mindoro), and other parts of the archipelago.

The galleons would sometimes stay longer than usually during the habagat monsoon season, rather than risk the treacherous waters of Tagbaloran or San Bernadino Strait going to Puerta Cavite. Ibabao’s key location along the Strait, the shortest entry and exist channel from the Pacific Ocean, gave it stature and water refilling station for galleons before they sailed of across the Pacific to North America, where Acapulco is located and where goods from the Philippines and nearby island, including Chinese products, were traded in great quantities.


Water from Bobon, then considered a part of Capul, and from other parts of the Ibabao region, was hauled in substantial quantities into the galleonds for the voyage back to Capulco.

Trade and commerce flourished in this part of the world, leading in the development of trade practices designed to enhance trade, and protect local and foreign investors. The concepts of custom taxes and insurance policies were introduced and refined during these years that opened countries to international trade and commerce.

After serving two and a half centuries as a major transit point of international trade, business slackened in the early 1800s, with mostly goods brought into the country by Chinese junks dominating the trade. This was deemed by Spanish authorities no longer beneficial to the interest of Spain and the Philippines so the Galleon trips were discounted.



The Society of Jesus or the Jesuit Fathers were the first missionaries to set foot on Samar Island. Two priests – Fransico de Otazo and Bartolome Martes, together with a certain Bro. Domingo Alonso – founded a mission in 1596 in the small village of Tinagon, now known as Brgy. Dapdap in the town of Tarangnan, located of the western side of the island.

It was a difficult period in the history of Samar Island because of the locust infestation that was prevalent between 1596 and 1597. There was acute famine as rice production was affected by the pestilence, causing hunger and sickness among the natives. But the Jesuits were unfazed. They found in this dire situation an opportunity to preach the Gospel through their works of mercy as they traveled from village to village with rice and medicines to help relieve the sufferings of the townfolk.

In the absence of roads, the missionaries rode on bancas and paddled their way to reach remote villages under worse conditions, especially during the southwest monsoon when they were pummeled by heavy rains as they navigated crocodile-infested rivers. They also trekked through dense forests filled with wild animals and venomous snake, including the notorious Samar cobra, to reach every nook and cornet of the island to deliver food, medicine, and the “good news” of Christian salvation.

In the end, it was these good deeds, not the sword, which endeared them to the Ibabaonons when the Jesuits, led by Fr. Miguel Gomez and Bro. Juan ontineda, established a new mission center in the town of Catubig, which covered the areas of the Ibabao Region sometime in 1596. After a while though, the missionaries realized that Catubig was located much too deep in interior and decided to move the center to the coastal settlement known as Palapag around 1605 and 1606.

Similarly, they found their original mission center in Tarangnan too vulnerable

Farcade and ruins of the original church of Palapag built in the 17th century
Farcade and ruins of the original church of Palapag built in the 17th century

To Moro attacks and so decided to move it to Catbalogan became the major missions centers in the island, with Palapag in charge of the Ibabao Region, including the eastern coast facing th Pacific.

Between 1608 and 1609, Palapag suffered from a great drought which also resulted in hunger and diseases. The missionaries again took this as an opportunity to preach the Gospel through their works of mercy, feeding the poor and hungry, and providing medication to the weak and sick.

While attending to the natives’ temporal needs, the missionaries also found time to explain the Gospel to women, who were more available and willing to listen to their doctrinal teachings than the men. The women communicated these same teachings to their husbands, and in time the Residencia in Palapag became as active and vibrant as those in Tarangnan and Catubig, with more men, women, and children converted to Christianity.

Sometimes around 1774 or 1775, the worst recorded Moro attack took place in Catubig with the vicious raiders razing the town to the ground and killing those who got in their way. The pirates seized everything and anything of value in the town and captured hundreds of native Catubignons to be sold as slaves in the south. The young women were particularly known for their grace and beauty, and fetched a good price in the slave market.

This incident reportedly prompted the survivors of the Moro siege to transfer the poblacion from what is now known as the poblacion of Las Navas to the present town proper of the Municipality of Catubig.

Church fortress wall in Capul
Church fortress wall in Capul

Fr. Vicente Lopez, OFM, a Franciscan assigned in Catarman around this time, was said to have been moved by this story and took it as his responsibility to become the protector of the lives and properties of the Ibabaonons by training himself in the art of war. Ultimately, many priests, following his example, assumed the role of military commanders to protect Church properties and the people who looked up to them as their leaders.

The Jesuits remained in the Philippines until July 29, 1768, when they were expelled from their Philippine missions and from all Spanish colonies by virtue of a decree issued by King Charles III over the Inquisition issue. The decree of expulsion opened the door for other religious orders to come into the mission areas that used to belong to the Jesuits.

Like most other provinces in the Philippines, the history of Northern Samar is intertwined with the Catholic Church. Early missionaries used the symbol of the Cross to convert fierce Moro in the Ibabao region from Mohammedanism and other local religions to Christianity. Spain turned to the natives, whom they called Indios, for support in fighting off rabid Moro raiders, local rebellions, and Dutch and English invasions until the time when the Filipinos themselves learned to fight for their own independence and freedom – first against Spain, and later against the United States and Japan.


Filipino-American War

After Spain surrendered to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, the Americans did not relinquish control over the Philippines and became its new colonial master. The Americans’ continued presence in the islands disappointed General Emilio Aguinaldo, who felt betrayed after fighting side by side with the Americans against the Spaniards.

As de facto president of the Philippines under the Malolos Constitution, General Aguinaldo assigned General Vicente Lukban to take Command of the Filipino forces of Samar and Leyte in December 1898. This was about the same time that American soldiers landed on the beach of Catarman as part of a “pacification” campaign, a coded search and destroy mission to flush out their Filipino enemies and members of the resistance movement under Aguinaldo and other groups resisting American colonial rule.


The country’s new colonial masters were armed with powerful rifles and cannons, while Filipino soldiers were equipped only with a few crude or stolen guns, bolos, and bamboo spears. Despite the obvious handicap, the locals were determined to exploit their familiarity with the terrain to harass and inflict the most damage on their new enemies form across Pacific.

Two of the most memorable battles they fought are defined in the annals of Philippine history as the Battle of Catubig and the Massacre of Balangiga, where Filipinos managed to defeat the then emerging global military power through

sheer creativity and innovation. These victories have been belittled by American propagandists, insisting that the natives resorted to “deceit and treachery.”

These are, of course, a simplistic and lopsided commentary of events considering the Filipino insurgents’ inferior military training and weaponry, which required them to device various strategies to engage their enemies in attack and retreat military tactics with minimum losses. Later analysts tend to think that the Filipinos would have stood a better chance against the Americans had they immediately adopted retreat and attack guerilla warfare than conventional warfare adopted by General Aguinaldo.

According to analysts, deceit and treachery were legitimized as strategy and unconventional warfare whenever it suited American military operational purposes. In capturing Aguinaldo, for example American soldiers used the Filipino president’s coded order, which the Americans managed to intercept and decode, to send American troops, disguised as Aguinaldo’s Macabebe soldiers, to capture and take into custody the Philippines’ revolutionary president in Isabela.

The war was brutal and vicious on both sides. American soldiers burned villages and tortured suspected insurgents to extract information, while Filipino guerillas similarly tortured prisoners of war and terrorized civilians suspected of cooperating with American forces. It divided the Filipinos, with one group supporting the so-called policy of attraction used by the United States to entice Filipinos, and the other group supporting Aguinaldo’s plans to immediately free the country from colonial domination.

The new colonial power adopted a two-pronged carrot and stick approach, with US soldiers on the one hand engaging the revolutionaries in intense battles, while peacemakers  adopting a more subtle and diplomatic resolution to the struggle.

Samar Island chose the former and provided one of the most unyielding grounds in the resistance movement against American colonial rule.

The United States’ policy of attraction offered a significant degree of autonomy, started social reforms, and established plans for economic

development that over time gained popular support and undermined Aguinaldo’s independence movement and eventually helped the Americans win the hearts and minds of many Filipinos. In the light of this policy, President William McKinley created the Philippine Commission and appointed members who exercised limited executive and legislative powers in the Philippines.

In 1907, the Philippine Commission was established, and represented the Upper House of the bicameral Philippine Legislature, with the elected Philippine Assembly serving as the Lower House. Another major milestone happened in 1916 with the enactment with the Jones Act, which created the Philippine Senate, an elective legislative body to replace the Philippine Commission.

This later paved the way for the passage of the historic Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which called for a constitutional convention and the creation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines with a 10-year transition period leading to full independence and nationhood of the Islands on July 4, following the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Commonwealth.

The following year, the 1935 Constitution of the Commonwealth of the Philippines was drafted, and overwhelmingly ratified in a plebiscite.


Japanese Occupation

The road to total independence did not come easy, with another colonial power seizing control of the country halfway through the Commonwealth Period. On December 8, 1941, Japanese warplanes entered Manila and dropped tons of bombs that killed thousands of civilians and destroyed vital installations in the city. This officially opened another chapter in the colorful history of the Philippines.

The province of Samar was one of 12 key provinces occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army, with the towns of Capul, Catarman, Catubig, Pambujan and Laoang among those where the Japanese established barracks and imposed their presence primarily because of their strategic importance for sea travel.


To this day, remnants of the Japanese presence – grim reminders of war and occupation – are still to be found in these places. In Capul, for instance, foxholes dug by the Japanese remain pockmarked on the mountainside overlooking San Bernardino Strait. From that vantage point of the island, hidden by forest cover, they had a clear view of enemy movement coming from the Pacific. A rock-like manmade radio base is still in place, where it played a major role in the Japanese strategy to stop American warships approaching from the Pacific Ocean into Samar Sea and eventually entering the Gulf of Leyte.

The naval battle between American and Japanese warships off Samar Island was the heart of the action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, considered one of the largest sea battles in history and the final major naval engagement of World War II. With the imminent defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army, Japanese Pilots engaged in kamikaze or suicide attacks in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of the war.

It was both desperate and in vain. It was also at this point when Japanese soldiers stationed in Samar engaged in a frenzy of horrific acts, executing hundreds of suspected guerillas and their sympathizers in public plazas, including one in Catarman, near the present Cathedral.

The guerilla movement aborted the spread of Japanese Imperialism elsewhere in Samar Island and throughout the country. Many Nortehanons evacuated to remote barrios to avoid Japanese atrocities.

Others joined the guerilla movement and inflicted considerable damage on the enemy. Of them willingly gave up their lives in defense of freedom and democracy.


The Post-War Years

On July 4, 1946, the Philippine Islands, a title sparingly used by the Americans to refer to their prized colony in the Far East, officially became the Republic of the Philippines, a title it had already earned on June 12, 1898 in Kawit, Cavite, by virtue of a Proclamation of Independence made by General Aguinaldo.

Despite the Japanese Occupation, the timetable of Philippine Independence from American colonial rule was still considered within the 10-year plan set by the Tydings-McDuffie Law of 1934. It was a major event in Samar as it was in many other places in the Philippines that had always yearned for freedom from colonial rule and hungered for independence.

When the Philippines was once again proclaimed an independent nation in 1957m the entire Samar Island was only one province and, therefore, was the largest province in the Philippines in terms of land area during the period. Residents from the other side of the island had to travel for days to reach Catbalogan, the capital town, to transact with the local government.

The problem was somewhat resolved with the passage and approval of Republic Act 4221 creating three provinces out of Samar Island – Northern Samar, Eastern Samar, Western Samar (Samar), authored by Congressman Eladio Balite and Felipe Abrigo. The Act was signed into law by President Ferdinand E. Marcos on June 19, 1965, and ratified in a plebiscite on November 9, 1965. For Northern Samar, the Municipality of Catarman was designated as the provincial capital.

Northern Samar Provincial Capitol, Brgy. Dalakit Catarman
Northern Samar Provincial Capitol, Brgy. Dalakit Catarman

Four years after its creation as a separate province, Northern Samar was once more plunged into turmoil when President Marcos placed the entire country under a State Martial Law. The National Democratic Front, founded two years earlier, saw in Northern Samar a rich source of fresh recruits, mostly peasant farmers, who saw in Martial Law the ultimate suppression of their freedom and perpetuation of their economic deprivation. They were joined by idealistic students and some religious who chose to live in the mountains to wage their battle against perceived oppression and suppression.

The collapse of the dictatorship in 1986 through People Power rekindled the Nortehanon’s flickering hope in the government. Hope flickered, but the flame was not steady enough to be sustained despite four administrations that banked on democratic principles to push for countryside development.

The story of Northern Samar in a continuing drama with no end. It is an epic struggle against odds, against enemies of the past and the present, but not without share of joys, laughter, and hope that come naturally in synch with the chapter of this beautiful land people. A remarkable resilient people deeply committed to their historic past and to building a better future for themselves and their offspring, to assuage and compensate for the pain and slog of getting there.

It is saga that continues to unfold in this land of stunning beaches, spectacular waterfalls, unexplored caves, and protected forest with shifting patterns of light and shadows – stories that should make a land great and its people greater.