Imagine being aboard a wind-powered galleon ship travelling halfway around the world – tossed and thrown about by giant sea waves, terrified by gales and storms, and terrorized by pirates from Europe and Asia. Envision coming upon a giant land mass and being welcomed by friendly natives along wide stretches of white sand, dazzling rock formations, and with tropical forests as a backdrop.
This was no mirage for hundreds of men and women around the 16th century, out to find a new place and a new beginning in a tropical paradise across a vast ocean. The experience was a liberating one for the crew and passengers of sea crafts fitted with large hulls, giant mast, layered decks, and fiery cannons for defense against marauding pirates from different continents. They would disembark in royal port in Palapag, celebrate Mass in thanksgiving, and welcome the end of their long Pacific journey with a flowing mix of Spanish wine and local tuba, dances, and songs.
Scenes such as these are not difficult to imagine even today n Palapag.
The town of Palapag was already a thriving community when the early Spanish voyagers cast anchor o its shores and established the settlement as a pueblo in 1585, under the administration of Govern General Don Santiago de Vera. The local folk had initially resisted the conquistadores, but were later overwhelmed by the latter’s sword and cross.
The settlement was originally called Patag, the vernacular term for plain. Like the other settlers in the Ibabao and Samar regions, the natives were of Indonesian descent and believe to have come from the eastern part of the island.
When the Spaniards first came upon the village, they asked a group of locals what the place was called. The townsfolk, busily pounding away at the bark of a bakhaw (mangrove) plant, did not understand the foreign language. And, thinking they were being asked what they were doing, answered, “Nagpapalpag” (pounding). And, as common folklore goes on the naming of towns, Nagpapalpag stuck, and evolved over the years into Palapag.
The missionary work of Jesuit in many parts of the island did not go unnoticed among the Palapagnons, who had wanted the same attention and services for themselves. Around 1600, they petitioned the Spanish authorities to establish a mission center in Palapag, similar to the one established in Catubig, just across the mouthing, and Tinago (Tarangnan) on the western shore of the island.
For the religious hierarchy, the petition was most welcome as the request had come from the same people who had earlier opposed their presence. Besides, the town’s irregular coastlines and deep coastal waters presented an ideal location for a major seaport.
At the time, the Jesuit priests had already established a residence in Catubig. It was growing in size and strength, but was too far from the coast where galleon ships docked, with their carriage of civil and religious officials and chests of valuable supplies from Spain.
In the end, they decide to move the mission residence from Catubig to Palapag, where they established two ports off the coast of the town. One was Batag Isand, and another at the tip of Laoang Island, then a barrio of Palapag, called Calomotan, now a barangay that continues to serve as a port for small sea crafts.
There is probably no other place in the entire island that has been subjected to and devastated by bloody conflicts more than Palapag. Throughout the galleon trade, the ports of Palapag witnessed savage battles for economic dominance and control among the three world superpowers at the time – Spain, Holland, and, and England.
These were also sites of bloody skirmishes waged by the Palapagnons against Spanish authorities, as well as battles between Spanish soldiers, supported by the natives, and Dutch and British would-be colonizers, and Moro pirates. The collaboration between Spanish troops and the local militia apparently worked well for Spain in the beginning, so it recruited more Palapagnon menfolk for combat duty.
But the strategy did not work for the Spaniards in the long run. An old rule disallowing the Filipinos from carrying arms was rescinded, thus the townsfolk were able to store arms, mostly bladed weapons, which they later used against the Spanish authorities. Moreover, most of the menfolk refused to volunteer as soldiers for the king of Spain, and chose instead to migrate to other pueblos to avoid forced recruitment. Some of them actively resisted the draft and joined rebel forces.
The town of Palapag used to encompass most if not all of the entire Second District of Northern Samar. Its territory once included the Pacific towns of Gamay, Mapanas, and Lapinig. Laoang was also a barrio of Palapag before 1768.
Reduced to an area of only 17,960 hectares, Palapag today is slightly bigger than Pambujan and San Roque and smaller than Laoang and Silvino Lubos in land area. However, many of the historical landmarks that give the town its unique distinction are still part of its landscape, including that peak of Mount Maragano, where local sentries of yore stationed to observe and monitor the movements of sea crafts, both friendly and hostile, near the mouth of the San Bernardino Strait.
The sentries were trained to use fire signals to warn galleons of the presence of Moro pirates, Dutch murderers, and other enemy ships the area. If a galleon crew saw fire or smoke rising from the Maragano peak, it meant that there was an enemy ship in the area and so the galleon would take another route to avoid detection and assault.
The ruins of the old church are still in the poblacion, next to the new church built in the 1980s. The ancient church had been destroyed and rebuilt several times in the past, including during Sumuroy’s revolt in 1649. Fr. Fransico Alcina chronicles this in his book Historical de las Islas e Indios Visayas. He personally administered the reconstruction of the church 10 years after Sumuroy’s bloody uprising.
The old Palapag church was the second residence founded by the Jesuits, where religious superiors lived and which members of the religious community in the Ibabao region called home after visiting different places to undertake missionary work. It was also used by priests for their periodic meetings and spiritual retreats. Palapag’s ancient convent is believed to be where Fr. Alcina wrote the manuscript of his book on the culture and history of the Visayas, which was discovered in Jesuit archives more than 200 years later.
The church relative distance from the coast suggests that the fortified church complex was not built for defense against sea pirates, but from other hostile groups resisting conversion and evangelization. Nonetheless the church did endure the test of Moro pirates when they swooped down on the town in 1769 and, as some documents suggest, possibly caused damage to the church.
The exact year when the old church was left in ruins has not been determined, but sources indicate it must after 1846 because of old documents suggesting the existence of an old stone church with a thatched roof. The old church was destroyed by a strong typhoon and the damage was so extensive that church officials thought it was no longer worth saving.
Town of valor, tales of heroism
Though now reduce to a fraction of its old territory, Palapag has not lost any of its old-world charm and mystique, buttressed by stories of valor, gallantry, and heroism. Brgy. Maragno and the old church ruins in the poblacion are just two of the interesting sites to look out for in Palapag. Brgy. Mapno is said to host of one of the most enduring sources of spring water in town. While it now looks like an ordinary artesian well to many, stories handed down by generations claim that it has been there since Spanish time and was in fact the spring from which the galleon crew obtained their fresh water when they docked on the Palapag shores.
There are more nature sights in the deeper recesses of the mountains and hills, swamps and coastlines. The Rakitdakit rock formation is one. Located off the coast of Brgy. Cabatuan, the rock’s rugged lionine contours appear to embody the mood and temperament of the Ibabaonon and pintados ofd yore.
The rock formations stand between the sea and a vast mountain range. During low tide, it is clear that the massive rocks are part f the mainland, but they are cute off and stand as massive rock islet during high tides.
The mountain range towering over the shore includes Mount Boboyaon, site the historic La Mesa de Palapag, where Sumuroy and his men made their last stand against Spanish colonial forces.
Palapag’s vast sea coast facing the Pacific includes Brgy. Talolora, home to an idyllic fishing village and pariguan or beach resort. It has also its share of history as site f the ruins of the stone sentinel tower known as Centinela de Palapag, located about five kilometers from the old church ruins at the poblacion.
There are more secrets in Palapag’s remaining hinterlands, many of them still waiting to be explored. The beauty of Palapag is not just in the natural splendor of its beaches, rock formations, caves and waterfalls, but in the stories that each of them have in the ever unfolding epic drama of life and faith of the Ibabaonon.