Selected from Louçon et Palaouan: Six Années de Voyages aux Philippines by Alfred Marche , Paris 1887.
Translation to English and commentary
in red by José R. Perdigón.
Photo credits to Tony Valera, JR Perdigon, A Henry Savage Landon and Yahoo collections. Black-and-white engravings from Marche's book drawn by his illustrator
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 1. Map
 2. Malbato
 3. The Tagbanua
 4. Tagbanua funeral customs
 5. Tagbanua cave burials
 6. Trip to Busuanga Island's interior
 7. Farewell Calamianes

On to New Busuanga Stories and reactions to the old ones.

Map of Malbato Bay, Uson Island, Northern Coron Island and Coron town
(Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey and NAMRIA)
Click here for a 1853 Calamianes antique map in very large format

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(After spending some time in the town of Busuanga,)
   I left for Malbato on the island’s southeast on June 29 at 4:00 pm, making the trip by sea as I found nobody willing to come with me as a guide. Malbato is an hacienda established by an old retired Spanish navy officer, Señor Don Bernardo Ascanio, who had invited me to spend some time by him. He placed some of his people at my service to help with my research but continuous and exceptionally foul weather prevented him to do as much as he would have desired.

The estate passed through different owners and was used for agriculture till the third quarter of the XX Century. The Reyes family of Quezon City, administrators and part owners of the estate till the 80s, friends of mine and like Señor Ascanio, my hosts for four summers, tried to improve it with irrigation but it could not prosper due to Busuanga’s poor infrastructure and communications. They had a compound where the living quarters were, a large bahay kubo not dissimilar to Senor Ascanio’s and probably nearby if not in the same place, as well as farm sheds. Their children opted for the development of the estate into Kingfisher Park, a successful and very well managed ecopark that includes mountain and forest treks, wildlife watching and kayaking in the bay and through protected mangroves.
   The photo shows the plain of Malbato from a hill at the northwestern end of Malbato Bay. Center are the living quarters and farm buildings. Far  in the background the high cliffs of Coron  Island towering over Baqued (left) and Uson (right, barely visible) Islands.
From a photo by Tony Valera, ca 1974.

   The living quarters were on the higher part of a vast plain sloping gently to the sea by the foot of small hills. I was retained there for some time, first by the rains that fell for three months almost without let up, and then by fevers but thanks to my host’s kindness I managed to collect a handsome hoard of plants and woods useful for a lot of purposes. Don Bernardo organized several wild hog and deer hunting parties but in spite of all his good will and of his men’s skills in this kind of hunting, I caught just a single though fairly good hog but not even a decent stag. However, we felled many does and young bucks. Only some days after my departure, the hunters helped by dogs caught a large stag that my friend dressed and is now in a museum collection. My hacendero friend owned large herds of cattle kept in a semi-wild state. Twice a week he would fence off part of the hacienda and herd the cattle into corrals to inspect and treat them for sores. Left untreated, the herds would quickly disappear because afflicted animals can literally be eaten alive by the maggots swarming on the wounds. He also owned many goats and sheep but the crocodiles infesting the creeks and the many pythons in the forests greatly deplete his herds.
   I could not catch a single crocodile in spite of all the nets laid along the rivers and by the seashore. The nets are baited with live dogs, which the crocodiles love, but these most astute animals avoid the nets or just bypass them with disdain. Only once one of the baits was taken by a large crocodile, together with the net that was supposed to snare the beast.

last successful crocodile capture in the area was in the 1960s. I remember bathing at leisure in the 70s in Suba Mayor, a clean creek running through Malbato Bay's western hills where the only creatures paying attention to me were very small fish picking tickishly at my back's skin and sweat. We used the creek as a source of drinking water upstream from the ford, and as a bath and laundry facility farther downstream.
Right, Suba Mayor, looking upstream from the ford,  photo by Tony Valera, ca 1974.

   One day, while lying in bed, my hunter came to tell me that there was a huge snake by the forest edge that had just swallowed a cow. Suspicious of the news, I asked the man to show me the animal. One hour later I saw a huge snake with a rope around its neck being towed by a carabao snorting in fear. When the party reached the front of the house I dressed up and went down to kill the python, which was seven meters long. The body was some 40 to 45 cm around except for the stomach that was hugely inflated. They had caught the snake in the middle of its digestion. My men had passed a rope around the neck without problem and after tying the other end to the carabao’s horns in spite of his protests, they brought the catch to me.
   Once the animal was immobilized, I made an incision on the snake neck with my scalpel, not without some difficulty for its hide was thick and tough. The reptile barely stirred and working a chisel and mallet through the incision I ruptured the snake’s spine. Again, the animal barely stirred. The rupture of the spine rendered the animal inoffensive and a second incision on the abdomen showed that it contained a small calf two or three months old, whole and intact, its legs tucked under the body.
   I had the python skinned immediately and its hide was donated to a museum. We used the meat to poison crocodiles, we just chopped it to pieces into which we injected small doses of strychnine. I suppose the poison was effective for from that day on we never saw a saurian in the area.

Monsieur Marche does not mention sharks or sawfishes, the other large dangerous animals in those waters. A few days before one of my visits to Malbato in the early seventies some local fishermen saw an enormous sawfish, a type of ray, tangled in their net. Some ten men were needed to drag its huge immobilized body; they cut its long nose and showed it to us, it was some three feet in length and was flanked by 32 pairs of sharp triangular teeth about three quarters of an inch in length. Another time, skin diving with friends in the eastern channel between the islands of Busuanga and Corón, we saw a white shark about my size, six-feet long, loitering close to us, which forced us to move to different diving grounds.

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   On July 24, I had the chance to take the measurements of 19 Agutaynos, men and women. Numbering between 1000 and 1200, these people populate the island of Agutaya in the Cuyo archipelago. The island is very poor with no more than a few trees so they have to travel far to find the materials needed to build their houses and boats. They own a few animals that diminish in number rapidly from day to day. They succeeded in developing decent coconut groves but typhoons destroyed them all. They are very attached to their island in spite of its poverty, refusing to abandon it even though they could move to islands like Busuanga where there is more free land than they could ever possibly cultivate.
   They weave their own clothes with abaca or cotton purchased outside the island. Their main industry is harvesting balete (sea urchins) and minuscule shrimps that are sun-dried and sold to the locals and the Chinese who find them delicious. At times, driven by hunger, they hire themselves out as manual labor but after two or three days, their hunger satisfied, buy rice with the little money they earned and return to their island.
   Their type, quite regular, is different from the Calamian Tagbanua; they seem to have kept it quite pure. But though living in the Cuyo archipelago they speak the Tagbanua language of Calamianes.
   Finally, on the 28th, I could observe five Busuanga Tagbanua, one of them a female. Despite all efforts by my host, it had been impossible to convince them to come until then; they were very afraid and their fear increased when I measured them, exactly the same as in other parts of the archipelago.
   (Photo at left by A. Henry Savage Landor, author of The Gems of the East, New York and London, 1904.)

Till very recently at least if not till today, the Tagbanua are shy of other folks. Also in the seventies, we followed some Tagbanua in a small boat returning home to a small bay very near Balolo Point at Corón Island’s north-western tip. We were sure they came from fishing and all we wanted was to talk them into selling us some fish. The moment they beached the boat they scampered quickly climbing through the bush into the cliffs, probably to the safety of their home. After some twenty minutes a young boy in his early teens came down and we told him not to be afraid, that all we wanted was to buy fish and that we will pay for it. He finally calmed down and acceded to sell us a sizable fresh good looking red lapulapu (grouper.) Monsieur Marche mentions later in the narrative how the Tagbanua are exploited, the reason why they were and still are shy of other peoples.
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The bodies of the dead are brought from the dwelling and buried with all their weapons and belongings. The mode of burial varies. Some Catholics among them truly bury their dead, but the great majority remain faithful to the old custom of all Tagbanua groups, which consists in laying the dead on tree branches. In the latter case, when the corpse and its supports decay and fall to the ground they gather the skeletal remains as well as all of the deceased’s belongings and take the lot to a cave. Occasionally, the bones are stowed in a small coffin or in a clay urn. Before he dies, the Tagbanua makes well known how he wants to be buried and where he wants to be laid, and his will is executed always no matter the difficulties, so afraid are the living of the dead man’s vengeance if even his most insignificant wish is not satisfied.
   A widow does not leave the family hut until seven or eight days after the husband’s death and only at an hour when she expects to meet no one, for anybody who meets her is sure to die prematurely. In order to conjure this danger of causing the death of others perchance meeting her on the way, the widow kicks a tree immediately after leaving her hut, which according to their beliefs will die in a short time.
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   Finally, on August 20, 1884, taking advantage of improved weather, I was in a position to attempt an expedition to the north of Busuanga Island. I left at six in the morning to pass first by Peñón Island (Corón) riding a good boat courtesy of my host. We anchored in the town of Corón located on the island’s eastern coast at 8:30.
   Taking a guide to go around a cape towards the town’s southeast, I visited a hot water spring under a vast rock a short distance from the sea. The natives call the spring Makinit, its water is sulphuric and its temperature is 41 degrees Celsius.

Makinit (hot) is today a regular item in Corón’s tourist attractions menu.

    I continued my sojourn and in two hours I dropped anchor in front of Corón Viejo (Old Corón,)  in the island of Peñón de Corón, which is between Culión and the island of Busuanga. Corón is formed by a massif of mountains with the aspect of extinct volcanoes. The main rock mass is all quartzite though some agglomerate blocks may be found also.

Corón Viejo used to be a “visita” or outlying small settlement that was visited, hence its name, by a priest from a main town, which could have been Corón or even Busuanga. An old map dated 1853 marks the old Visita of Corón as abandoned, it was by the lagoon from where today tourists start the trek to Lake Cayangan. I read recently in a traveller’s blog that he saw two Tagbanua dwellings very near the lagoon .

   The island has a great number of caves and crevices where swifts nests so coveted by Chinese gourmets are found in abundance. It is inhabited by Tagbanua living in the wild. They build huts a few feet above the ground that are practically open to the four winds but the majority live in caves. Peñón de Corón is also a refuge for all of the area’s thieves, murderers, amd other undesirables.
   There are many small lakes in the center of the island. The natives say that the largest of them communicates with the sea and they can drink from its water, which it is so briny that no other human could drink from it. Unfortunately, access to the lake is quite difficult in the best of weather, in the rainy season very dangerous and impassable even for the natives. The trail goes over mountains and in some places you have to fall on all-fours to crawl the length of deep ravines.

The narrative could very well describe Cayangan Lake and its surroundings. In the early seventies the trek to the lake was no less difficult and the photo at right can prove it (Tony Valera, ca 1974.) The author brings up the rear in the line of trekkers climbing down.

Today, for the benefit of the soft-footed tourist, boats can dock by an elevated sand landing in the lagoon and do the trek to the lake by stone wide slab stairs built on the cliff with convenient rests and hand rails. Also, a board walk was built by the lake front over the rocks. Visiting the lake is subject to fees. The lake water is still as limpid and briny as in Monsieur Marche’s days.

The photos below (JRPerdigon, 2011) show the contrast in the hiking return from Lake Cayangan in the 70s.


   The old town of Corón is on the bay where we dropped anchor. I found nothing on the emplacement it occupied except a few miserable huts and five or six natives that left hurriedly when I approached them.
   It is amazing to see people as poor as these when it is well-known that it is them and only them who harvest edible swifts nests that are sold in Manila at 2.50 to 5 francs an ounce depending on quality. They also harvest balete (sea cucumbers) whose price is very high; certain species are sold for the exaggerated amount of five francs a piece. I must say that these unfortunate people are shamefully exploited by the Chinese and other townsfolk that advance them rice on credit and some scraps of cloth against the next harvest. Carefree as well as lazy, the Tagbanua are incapable of paying overdue debts and the scheming businessmen end up with a 1000 per cent profit depriving the former of anything that could be saved.

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The day after we arrived in Corón I went to explore two cavities by the bay’s eastern end, excavated with picks on the cliff, where I was assured that there were human bones. It was true.
   First I made one of my men climb who with a lot of difficulty reached the entrance to the first cavity. Once there, we tossed him a rope that we used to join him. I found three skulls in this cavity, two of which well preserved, as well as other skeletal remains but these were in such poor state that I left them behind. The same man who climbed the first cavity got also to climbing the second from where we gathered two more skulls. We also found pieces of coffins, marine shells and perforated pebbles that must have been tied to fishing nets like those still used by the natives. This site is probably ancient because I saw no iron traces but only some pottery shards of ordinary clay. Judging by the shape, the material used and the way it is fired, the pottery manufactured by the natives today is similar to that found in these burials.
   After having explored other similar excavations where I found nothing, I headed east towards a large cave I had heard of; but the weather turned foul constraining us to find a haven immediately. Few days after, in the course of a new exploration, I managed to enter the cave, from which I gathered twenty skulls and some ethnographic materials like vases, common clay cooking pots, one or two knife blades, and a few spear shafts and stringless bows.
   The natives that I met in the Corón Viejo camp saw me the morning I travelled to the caves and they also saw me climbing to them, but since I prudently hid my loot in sacks, they thought that I just went to pay a visit to their ancestors, which surprised and pleased them no end. They told my men later that the ancestors, happy at our visit, spent the next night playing tam-tams and beating drums. I have searched in vain how the natives could have arrived at such notion. The wind that rushes into these caves with a strong resonance seemed to me the most natural explanation for their story.
   I returned to Malbato on the 26th and next day I left to explore Mayo-Payao Island, where the Tagbanua of Busuanga Island bury almost all of their dead. A short distance from Malbato and near Peñón de Corón’s north point, the island is made of a group of rocky hills covered by luxuriant vegetation reaching all the way to the sea.
   Almost all burials are crowded in a small sandy cove and spread through the trees where it is difficult to find them as nothing marks their place. Only two or three still have sticks to hold a few leaves forming a roof, others were scattered all over the place by pigs and then the tabuns came to dig in the sand their egg nests. I must say I found many more eggs from this bird than skulls, all to the glee of my men who counted on enjoying succulent omelettes at the end of my digging. I gathered but three skulls and one skeleton, all in good shape.

Tabun or tabon is a rather large big-footed fowl as elusive as their human fellow Calamianons, the Tagabanua. A coastal forest dweller, it leaves for the beach to dig nests three feet deep in the sand where it lays eggs. One stormy late afternoon on a Dimanglet Island beach where we thought the weather would force us to spend the night, we saw behind us two tabuns walking about, probably waiting for us to clear so they could dig their nest. The species is dwindling and is protected. It is illegal to gather tabun eggs, elongated, twice the size of large chicken eggs and very sought after by the locals. Once we were given two by a local Tagbanua, Kulasita by name, a very old woman, I didn’t find them of particular gourmet grade.
Foto from a Yahoo collection.

   The first week of September I finally found a real good Tagbanua cemetery on Dibatac Island that I had bypassed several times. This cemetery was entirely different from all the others that I had visited till then and it provided me the answer to a question that was had been nagging me for a long time, to wit, by which process the skeletons I found ended up in caves or in buried urns.
   Conic in shape, Dibatac Island is covered by a dense growth of small trees. There the dead bodies are laid on a kind of stretcher without legs hanging from tree branches and covered with a light roof made of leaves. On the side or below are placed the dead man’s weapons and other belongings. After a more or less long time, the rattan vines holding the stretchers decay and the bones fall down to the ground from where they are collected in small wooden coffins more or less ornamented or in large funerary urns and then transferred to a cave.

While boating along down the east coast of Corón Island, somebody pointed to me a stand of trees on the beach, pandanus palms if I remember well, as one of the places where the Tagbanua “hang” their dead. We were advised not to come near them in deference to the native burial grounds.

   This kind of burial must have been quite common in the Philippines, or at least the archipelago’s northern parts, until it was discontinued after the Europeans’ arrival and the propagation of Catholicism.

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On September 15, 1884 I mounted a carabao (water buffalo) at five o’clock in the morning for an excursion to the island’s interior. The buffalo is a mount I would not recommend to amazons. The only saddle is a more or less thick piece of cloth on its wide back, which does not dampen the knots of the animal 's spine on the rider’s behind nor makes riding astride any easier. Best is to ride it side-saddle, like a woman. Once so installed, one could last one or two hours riding a carabao, but you must avoid a whole-day ride or you will feel bushed and find impossible to sit down properly for several days. Its mounting gear provides stirrups and the only bridle is a rope tied to a ring perforating the carabao’s nose. Its gait is as rough as an elephant’s, except its steps are shorter and therefore more painful. It trots at a rapid and continued pitch.
   We crossed the creeks around my host’s property and reached the foot of the mountains surrounding the plain; the trail led us through a small forest of trees and bamboo stands. It may have been the sun that we had not seen for a long time or perhaps the beauty of the scenery but to me this corner of land seemed to be the prettiest in the Philippines.
   After climbing some 50 meters we moved on to the other side of the mountain and found ourselves on yet another plain bordered by beautiful hills partly forested partly covered by cogon. On the plain marched calmly herds of semi-wild cattle that did not mind at all our approach. Herds of small horses reacted differently, galloping away the moment they noticed us. Then here and there a family home, farther a village by the side of a pretty stream...

The visitor landing for the first time on Busuanga King's Ranch airport and traveling to Coron by car will be surprised by the large number of cattle roaming the interior of the island, just as in Mr. Marche's days. The only difference is the the herds are likely to cross over or even march down concrete paved roads.
   The cattle industry in Busuanga is in turmoil since the time President Marcos allowed the King family to operate cattle grazing on lands whose property is in contention until today. But the industry is not likely to collapse any time soon, there is simply too much god grazig grass in Coron to let it go to waste.
Photo reproduced from Yahoo collections.

   On the other side of the plain we cleared another hillock by whose foot ran a pretty creek dignified by the locals with the name of river; later we passed near a ample expanse of water that they called "lake."
   This is a very picturesque place; bamboo stands with their dark foliage are reflected on the lake; the trees around cover it with shade and the heat invites to take a plunge in these transparent waters but we must guard against such temptation: these waters, so limpid, teem with crocodiles, to the point that my men declined getting into them even if to retrieve the pigeons I shot that fell in the water. They were destined to be our breakfast but luckily we were able to shoot more of them later as they were abundant in the area.
   At ten in the morning, after walking across many small valleys and a river larger than the others, we found ourselves at the edge of a large plain some five kilometres long. A torrential rain surprised us when we were about to traverse it and decided to continue but we did wrong, for once in the middle of the bowl-shaped valley the buffalos felt the water reaching their bellies and refused to proceed; mine just decided to lay in the water with no thought of the rider's comfort. Luckily, I managed to jump on the next buffalo carrying the luggage and so avoid a veritable mud bath.
   With a lot of effort and setting foot not on ground but in water, we were able to lead our animals towards a small elevation and once there we tried to keep dry as best we could in a rain that grew thicker and thicker by the minute pushed by a violent wind and stung our faces as if it were hail. We paused on this elevation for more than three hours, with no shelter, without the possibility of lighting a fire to make our breakfast and watching our little piece of land turning gradually into an islet.
   Towards one in the afternoon one of my men said that he had found a way out and that it was imperative to leave as quickly as possible lest we become completely surrounded by water. Numb with cold and soaked by a rain that began at 10 earlier in the morning we took again to the trail, . We followed our guide and it all went well for some time. But pushing through a wall of trees we arrived at a fast flowing creek whose current was broken by numerous trees in shallow water. We could not turn back, so I mounted my buffalo and we began to cross the torrent.
   When we were in the very middle of the current one of the men shouted. “Crocodile!” At that, the man who led my buffalo by the nose leapt and climbed a tree and so did the rest. Sitting on my mount, I armed my shotgun and looked in the direction pointed by my men; I did not see a thing but all assured me they saw a very large crocodile. Assuming it was true and in order to scare the animal and reassure my escort, I fired my gun in the indicated direction; my men pretended the animal was dead or at least mortally wounded and I left them in their ignorance: I fired only small shot and I am sure that my victim was left unscathed and doing very well.
   The saurian’s presumed death made us regain confidence, my guides climbed down the trees and we finished crossing the creek. Once at the foot of the mountains we were reassured with the certainty that we had not drown but on the other hand we were utterly lost and nobody knew where we were. After several marches and counter marches one of the men found a trail that according to him must lead us in less than an hour to a farm owned by one of the richest Filipinos in the island. It was then about two o’clock in the afternoon and the rain kept on falling ever harder making us walk skirting the mountains to avoid flooded plains.
   What a journey! Weapons, supplies, everything was wet, it was impossible to start a fire and even my clothes, which I had removed and rolled in my waterproof sack, got soaked in every water course that swept our trail at every turn. At last at a half hour past six we arrived in the promised farm but it had no fire or dry firewood, the owner was absent and I had no other option than to set camp in the kitchen. My men managed to light a fire and while a skinny chicken was set to boil, everybody squat around the stove to dry their clothes. Finally at around ten in the evening, after regaining our strength, and well we needed it for we did not have a thing to eat since five in the morning, we could put on our clothes again. Then we lay down to sleep. We had a shelter and that was all it mattered.
   Next day at dawn, the sun already up, everything augured a better journey. But animals and men, broken by the fatigue of the day before found very hard deciding to restart the trek.
   The country that we crossed all these days offers quite a uniform look. It has plains of all sizes most of them shaped like a horse shoe more or less closed. They are surrounded by mountains rarely surpassing 200 meters in altitude. All the valleys have normally a depression in the center so that they can very easily be irrigated. The mountains are for the most part deforested by the natives who every year clear new lands to plant mountain rice. These plains communicate with each other by narrow passes at low altitude and are generally levelled.
   The island is criss-crossed by numerous water courses and pocked by ponds. Though fertile, it is barely cultivated due to lack of hands or more precisely, lack of natives willing to work. Found on the plains is a large quantity of cattle, the largest herd being owned by my host with more than 2000 heads. The animals fare well in spite of two great enemies, the crocodiles and the boas that every year devour a great number of calves.
   Commerce in Calamianes is mainly about swifts nests and trepang (sea urchins), in a minor scale also virgin wax and turtle shells; you can also find some pearls of poor lustre and often stained. If the people were not so given to drunkenness or so lazy, with a little work all could be rich for the land produces in great abundance.

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The archipelago of Calamianes is in contact with Manila by a small mail steamship carrier that docks in Culión once a month.
   On October 7, I took leave from my hosts, whose kindness never faded during the whole of my visit that lasted more than three months. I regretted having to say good-by to Don Bernardo and his charming family, that sad farewell was an addition to a traveller’s pains and not the least of them. We became friends, we had to part maybe for ever and that at the moment when we began to appreciate each other and get used to be the target of each other’s concern. But like the Wandering Jew of the story, we had to be again on our way and lead our steps somewhere else.
   After saying good-by to the Ascanio family, I left Malbato at six in the evening in Don Bernardo’s boat that set sail to meet the Manila mail steamer expected to pass by Culión. A soft wind pushing us smoothly towards our destination, all was well until ten in the evening when a sudden gust of wind made us capsize having reached half way towards our destination. The sky, clear till then, turned black and in a second we found ourselves lost at sea not knowing where the wind would take us. We stayed like that till two in the morning with all my efforts addressed to make sure we would not be pulled into the high seas; I had the sails rolled up and with just the oars we kept our bow pointing to the wind. At times we heard near us the surf breaking on the rocks of nearby islands and for a moment we would feel like our only hope was to be thrown on top of a rock where we could wait out the hurricane’s passing.
   The weather cleared around three in the morning and we glimpsed the fire of the steamboat, which we realized we had overtaken. At the sight of the steamer my exhausted mates took courage; one hour later we were aboard the Gravina, whose captain, an old acquaintance, offered me clothes to change into and served me hot coffee that he had ordered prepared when he saw my boat. The steamboat had also met the tempest but managed to take shelter while we fought against the furious seas.

Next day we debarked and set foot on the pier at Manila.
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