Bankaw's legacy

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 24, 2003.)

LAST Black Saturday, the interior barangay of Camansi in Carigara, Leyte once again performed the centuries-old turugpo folk ritual, an annual festival of cockfighting, carabao fighting, horse fighting and gambling.

This once-obscure ritual was originally observed every Good Friday, the holiest day of Christendom. But it was moved to the next day sometime in the mid-1970s, in deference to an appeal from the Bishop of Palo. At the time, it had become inevitable that, with Department of Tourism's promotion and support, the event would become a national and international tourist attraction.

This folk ritual is an enduring legacy of the historic Bankaw Revolt.

History books cited Rajah Bankaw for his failed revolt in Carigara, Leyte, in 1621, the centennial of the Spanish contact.

The Bankaw Revolt was labeled as a religious uprising, with a gory tale about a beheaded native ruler and a chilly message implied by white men who carried a cross on one hand and a sword on the other, just in case things did not go their way.

But the accounts of the Bankaw Revolt bordered on fiction and seemed to have been quoted from an official cover-up report. The biographical "facts" they posited were not borne out by source documents. The "blow-by-blow" story of the fighting between Bankaw and his warriors on one side, and a Spanish-Cebuano force on the other, did not seem to concur with the folk memories.

Most books cited an erroneous item in a history written by a Jesuit priest, Pedro Murillo Velarde, in 1749. The accounts had it that Bankaw feted the Legazpi expedition in Limasawa in 1565. He supposedly received royal thanks from King Philip II, through Legazpi, for the hospitality extended by the natives to the Spaniards since the time of Magellan in 1521.

But the chronicles of the Legazpi expedition did not mention any meeting between Legazpi and Bankaw. Legazpi's men landed on a depopulated island, recently raided by the Portuguese, when they dropped by Limasawa in 1565.

Bankaw was converted to Christianity and became loyal to Spain. But in his old age, he entertained the idea of returning to the religion of his forebears. He reportedly incited his people to rise in defense of their old gods and religion.

He was helped in his cause by his sons, particularly Pagali, who was described in history books as a native priest. Pagali was a "good student" of the Jesuits in the Dulag boarding school.

Bankaw's activities alarmed Jesuit Fr. Melchor de Vera, who hurried to Cebu and warned the authorities of the uprising. Alcalde-Mayor Juan de Alcarazo sent a flotilla of 40 vessels, manned by Spanish soldiers and hundreds of Cebuano fighters to Leyte.

The book accounts became semi-fictional again: "The rebels were offered peace, but they spurned the peace offer, and fled to their fortification in the hills. The Spanish-Filipino forces pursued them and defeated them in a decisive battle. The aged Bankaw perished in the fight, together with his first son and Pagali (Pagali was the first son); his second son was beheaded as a traitor; and his daughter was taken captive. Bankaw's head was severed from his body and placed on a stake and exhibited in public as a punishment for his infidelity and apostasy."

However, the official report of the battle is not corroborated by local folklore, place-names, and rituals - now acceptable as legitimate sources of historical data.

Two barangays of Carigara named Hiraan (i.e., verbal altercation) instead suggest a rowdy public negotiation between Bankaw's camp and his armed visitors. The hiraan might have been held to negotiate Bankaw's return to the Catholic fold and might have been conducted with the presence of all members of Bankaw's family.

But the unwelcome guests seemed not interested in peace. Indeed, the Spaniards might have already decided to get rid of Bankaw and his family, having outlived their usefulness. And the Cebuano fighters, excited about the possibility of settling old scores with the Warays, probably came for war with some help from Spanish soldiers.

Thus, what seemed to have occurred during the hiraan was the massacre of Bankaw and his whole family. And the Spaniards reported an actual battle to hide their treachery.

But probably the most fitting legacy of Bankaw and his revolt is the name Leyte. The island was formerly known as Abuyo, before it became Ila-Iti.

"Ila" is a possessive form in a collective sense, as "theirs" or "belonging to"; "Iti," the Good Boy, appears to have been the baptismal name of Bankaw. Thus, Ila-Iti means this place belonged to Iti and his family.

Centuries before Hollywood popularized the song "This Land is Mine," the theme of the movie "Exodus," the natives of this island had been shouting, "This is Iti's land!" with the vehemence of a Moses.

In "Ila-Iti!," later corrupted as Leyte, they registered their continuing protest and resistance to the Spaniards for their ungrateful extermination of the "royal family" of Iti, the Rajah Bankaw of history, whose forebears and family extended acts of hospitality to the foreigners since the arrival of the Magellan expedition in 1521.

Sadly, the significance of the name Ila-Iti got lost and became forgotten with the passage of the centuries. It is actually time to feel the meaning of the word once again.

Unfortunately, unlike the title and message of a Salvador Dali painting, we lack or have lost "the persistence of memory."