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CASA REAL DE BUCAY,
FIRST CAPITAL OF ABRA
Casa Real in Bucay today is a monumental arch , complete with columns and capitals, topped by the insignia and crown of the Kingdom of Spain. Built of stone and mortar covered by bricks, it was the gate to a long-gone military fort high on a cliff above the Abra River on the eastern confines of the town. The fort had to do with the creation of Abra in 1846 as a province segregated from the Ilocos with Bucay as its capital. Other than the monumental arch of today, nothing but a few scattered mounds of bricks and stones remain of the fort. The arch itself is in a very precarious state after the 1991 earthquake that brought devastation to Baguio and Cabanatuan. The picture shows a crack through the middle of the arch; it could come down crashing, God forbid, on the next typhoon or earthquake.

Casa Real is a unique structure that highlights:

  • The creation of Abra as an independent province in 1846;
  • The institution of Bucay as its first Capital;
  • The strategic character of Bucay. As the easternmost town in Abra, separated from the foothills of the Cordilleras by the very wide Abra River and perched on the east high above it, Bucay became the natural choice for the pivot of the first line of defense against the “Tinguians” of the neighboring mountains;
  • The application of Spanish XIX-century military architecture, incorporated in the town plan, to serve the security needs of the area. 
A selection of papers presented in the First International Congress on Fil-Hispanic Architecture was launched as a book in mid-2006 with the title Endangered Fil-Hispanic Architecture (Manila, 2002.) “Endangered” describes very appropriately the elegant XIX-century arch that Bucaeños call Casa Real. It joins a long list of historical architectural structures in the Philippines that in the words of Instituto Cervantes’ Javier Galvan at the foreword of the papers, “are victims of natural calamities, neglect and even of intentional destruction.”

The importance of the restoration and preservation of Bucay’s Casa Real and its environs can be underestimated only at the risk of a great loss. Every single effort to recover and maintain the icons of the historical heritage of the Philippines becomes crucial for, also in the words of Javier Galvan, this heritage “constitutes a common wealth” and  “helps to explain who we are and where we come from.”

Fort General Martinez and Casa Real: arch and ruins

Called Fuerte General Martinez in its heyday, the fort was a rather elaborate complex of military facilities. The plan's legend notes with precision its acreage in old Castillian units: 110 m in the front and 73 m deep, a little over three fourths of a hectare or a little less than two acres. Captain Don Ramon Tajonera, first governor of Abra, made of it the site of Casa Real or provincial government, adding to its military role in the development of the recently created province of Abra.  To form an idea of its nature and organization, one must start by looking at the plan of Bucay Tajonera made when the town was alreday completed in 1848. The drawing, right, based on Tajonera's town plan, details the fort's features with more clarity.

The map shows the fort as a walled-in square protected by a wood and canes palisade, with elevated observation and guard houses on the four corners. Today, only its main gate made of a core of stone and mortar covered by bricks remains (see top photo) and it is called “Casa Real.” Within the fort were the officers’ quarters (a small remnant of their brick walls is still enduring abandon inside and to the right of the main gate, photo below), headquarters for the troops, a kitchen for the troops in a separate building, a warehouse for tobacco, storage for artillery pieces, horse stables and a sun dial. Outside of the back (south) wall near the tobacco warehouse was a platform where cargo transported by river would be temporarily arranged. There was a small gate connecting this platform and the camarín de tabaco or tobacco warehouse.

Two detailed visits to the site made in February and March of 2006 revealed the existence of crumbling ruins of the fort’s structures, largely covered by an overgrowth of vegetation (see the map showing the location of the ruins.) We made the first visit in the company of Ms. Gemma Cruz Araneta who video taped the field trip of discovery and later edited and broadcast it in her TV program “Only Gemma” from RJTV on February 27, 2006 with the intriguing title “Secrets of Bucay.”

In the vicinity of where the map places the officers’ quarters, besides the ruins of two posts (left photo) probably framing a door, there are remnants of a long wall some 19 m long, and of an interior room. The drawing in the map suggests that the officers' quarters building had two wings connected as a letter “L”, these posts with the wall and the room seem to be part of the secondary wing, parallel to and near the fort’s west wall; the main wing, the front of the building, has completely disappeared. In front of where one would expect the main wing, there is a curious diamond-shaped, low-height brick structure some two meters on the side, with a roof-like top, no more than three-fourths of a foot in height; my guess is that this was either a flower bed, probably with something in the middle, perhaps a flag, or also the base of a sun dial, though the map assigns a different place for it.

There are two more evocative sets of ruins. One is a broken monument in form of a needle made of bricks (right photo.) It must have been some 2 m high. It consists of a square base, one meter on the side, over which an octagonal tapering needle-like structure was erected, some 75 cm wide at its base. The needle broke near its base and in falling broke again into three pieces, two of which can be seen in the picture. The place where this ruin lays is in the area of the sun dial drawn on the map. Though the needle seems too thick for the main stem of a sun dial, the fact that it was remains a possibility, it could have been the support of a slanted beam, probably wooden -maybe the reason why it has disappeared-, and whose shadow used to mark silently the hours in Bucay. The other likely guess is that it was the base of the flag pole except that the flag pole in the map is rather far from the place where the broken needle rests

The other structure is a rather massive square-stepped platform (left photo.) It has a solid core of river pebbles and mortar with some brick cover. 8.4 m long by 6.5 m wide, it is no more that one meter high on one corner.  The sturdiness of the platform as well as its position in relation to the drawings on the map suggest that this was the casamata, the covered platform that housed the artillery in the fort (see drawing.)

The map also shows a platform outside the eastern wall of the fort right on top of a steep cliff by the river with a small connecting gate near the camarín de tabaco or tobacco warehouse inside the walls (see drawing.) This must have been the loading platform for tobacco coming by river. The tobacco would be hoisted to the platform and from it taken inside the fort though the small gate to the camarín.

No remnants of the perimeter wall exist. Manuscripts relating damages caused by typhoons, permits and budgets to repair the fort suggest that the wall was rather a wood and cane palisade. In addition to all of this the map shows two intriguing structures outside of the front wall of the fort marked as palomares, pigeon houses, suggesting that the available military (perhaps also civil) communication system was one “powered” by homing pigeons, the first telecommunications system in Abra?

By 1848, the year the map was made, there was no Casa Real in Bucay. Governor Tajonera felt the need for it nevertheless and in a letter existing in the National Library dated 23 December of the same year, the Governor exposes to the Manila Government the need to build one in Bucay although Tajonera notes that given the cost of a new building, they could do with fitting the fort’s officers’ quarters with facilities for the offices required by the Casa Real. It was done that way and no separate building was ever constructed for the purpose. Fort as Casa Real Site, a chapter of a study by this webmaster, delves with more detail on the remodeling of the fort's officers quarters to function as Casa Real. The work was done according to plans submitted by Tajonera to Central Government for approval. The plans and their interpretation and rendering by a contemporary architect can be seen in plates 7-12of Casa Real de Bucay,a more comprehensive study by the webmaster .

Bucay’s fort is long gone and, what is sadder, forgotten, including its name. All of the installations, except its monumental archway, have been obliterated and all the memory that is left in town is not that of being a fort but Casa Real, the name given today by the townsfolk to the emblematic arch. What was enclosed within its walls has been invaded through time by at least two private residences and a piggery, besides the untrammeled growth of unattended vegetation. Partly because of it, residents of Bucay have a very hazy idea, at best, of what was their Casa Real, its function, or even its historical circumstance. If we add to this the precarious state of conservation of the arch called Casa Real, it is easy to understand why it becomes imperative to institute immediate remedial measures. First, to arrest the worsening state of decay, neglect and legal limbo of the compound; then to revive Bucay’s historic memory; and last to restore wholly or partially the fort to the status and place it deserves in the town.

A more comprehensive study on the Casa Real de Bucay entitled Casa Real de Bucay, 1st Capital of Abra can be read by clicking the link below. The study was made by the webmaster with the help of a research grant from the Spanish Program for Cultural Cooperation (SPCC.) Finalized in July of 2007, the study is based almost exclusively on manuscripts from the National Archives of the Philippines, so far unpublished. The reader may access the complete report edited for the Web at

Casa Real de Bucay: 1st Capital of Abra

 

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Jose R. Perdigon; July 2007
Last edited May, 2009
Mail comments to jrperdigon@yahoo.com