22 June 2016

Glimpses of Bonbon (Early Batangas) at the Dawn of the Spanish Colonial Era

Taal Lake, which used to be called Bonbon.

Previous Chapter

(Part IV of a Batangas Historical Series)

Just over a year after first sighting the bay of Balayan in an exploratory voyage from Panay to Luzon, Martin de Goite was rewarded by Miguel López de Legazpi, first Spanish governor of the Philippines, for his services to the Crown of Spain with a repartimiento of 8,000 natives in the area of the lake and river of Bonbon. This we now know to be the present day Taal Lake area.

Spanish chroniclers spelled the name Bonbon alternatively as Bombon and even as Bongbong. It will be of benefit to readers to keep in mind that these writers were transcribing words from sounds in what was to them a foreign language; and that there are, indeed, even in the contemporary Tagalog language, certain words for which the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ are used interchangeably, depending on the preference of the speaker.

An 1860 Tagalog-Spanish dictionary’s definition of the word “bombon” suggests a possible etymology for the lake’s name: montón de ramas y palos en donde se esconde el pescado. Translated, this means “branches and twigs where the fishes hide.1” Was the lake’s name, therefore, an allusion to the fish corrals that presumably were used even in those days; albeit, contemporarily, these are called baklad in Tagalog?

Another possible source of the name is the word bunbun, which is not even Tagalog but, instead, Hiligaynon2. A 1934 Visayan-English dictionary (which is really Hiligaynon, spoken in present day Western Visayas) defined the word as “detritus3, soft sand or mud near or under water, slime or mire.” The word is also used in Cebuano and Kinaray-a.4

In other words, bunbun is exactly what one might find close to a river or lake. Whilst the Spaniards might have preferred to use “o” as in Bonbon to spell the word, to a native speaker, whether Tagalog or Visayan, it would also have sounded as bunbun. In fact, in the ancient Baybayin script, there was only one character for the vowels “o” and “u.” The two vowels are used interchangeably even by modern-day native Tagalog speakers.

A 1593 book5, the first known to have been published in the Philippines, used as Tagalog words such as tawo (man/men or people) and dili (no/not) which contemporary speakers of the language do not use anymore, but which are still used in Visayan languages.

The closeness of Tagalog to the Visayan languages was even observed by the Augustinian priest Juan de Medina6, who wrote in his book, “The language used there is much like the Bisayan, for one can cross from this town of Batangas, which is located on a very beautiful bay, to the Bisayas with great ease during the brisas.7 (Medina’s preference for Bisayan over Visayan was phonetically correct because the letter “v” is not native to local languages.)

At any rate, little insight into Bonbon was written by the chroniclers of the 1570 expedition from Panay to Luzon headed by de Goite and Juan de Salcedo. This was understandable because the expedition’s primary objective, after all, was really Manila.

There was, though, a bit of a description of Bonbon made in an unsigned document of de Salcedo’s brief if ultimately painful inspection of the area – he was wounded by a poison arrow. “They reported to the master-of-camp (de Goite) that they had entered a narrow arm of the sea8, which the land inward forms into a medium-sized lake, around which seemed to be many people and much cultivated land. The country seemed thickly populated and well tilled.9

The terrain was also described as the Spaniards pursued the natives who had ambushed them as they made their way into the lake, “A landing place was found near the town (of the natives); the men disembarked and set out on foot in search of the Moros. The latter appeared in a broad plain, covered with grass about a hand-span high.”

It would be difficult to ascertain where that “broad plain” would be in the present day because the 1754 eruption of the volcano closed off the “narrow arm of the sea.” This caused the waters of the lake to rise and probably inundate the very plain described in the document. However, given how unkind the terrain is to the south of the lake where Mt. Maculot drops off steeply, it is probably safe to assume that de Salcedo’s brief visit was to the lake’s western or northern shores.

To gain a clearer picture of de Goite’s repartimiento (or encomienda, as the two words were used interchangeably in Hispanic documents), we turn again to de Medina. Although his book was written in 1630, he was describing events shortly after the election of Fr. Martin de Rada (or Herrada) as Provincial10 of the Agustinian Order in 1572. This was just a year after de Goite received his repartimiento.

De Medina wrote:

“A convent was established in the town of Taal. There is a lake there, generally known as the lake of Bongbong. Its water is salt, and so deep that the bottom cannot be reached in some parts. It is about forty leguas (league, roughly 3 miles) in circumference, counting in its gulfs and bays. Shad are caught there, or rather tunny-fish11, which, although not like those of España, still approximate to them. The lake empties through a river into the sea. When the Spaniards went there, this lake swarmed with people. It is twelve or thirteen leguas from Manila. Its chief town was this Taal, where the religious were established. Now it is the principal convent, and has a stone church, but very few people. There lives the alcalde-mayor of La Laguna (probably the lakeside area). And there are generally Spaniards there who are making rigging for his Majesty. This lake has its islets, especially one opposite Taal, which had a volcano, which generally emitted flames.”

Just to put things in the right perspective, Taal in 1572 was a lot closer to the lake than where the present-day municipality is located, likely in the vicinity of the village of Balangon in the present-day municipality of Agoncillo. The town was moved to present-day San Nicolas two years later and then farther away from the lake in 1754 because of the volcano’s eruption.

Later in the book, de Medina first mentioned Batangas, where he said the Father Provincial had established a ministry. He described Batangas as being twenty leguas from Manila (seven more than Taal). The said ministry had a stone church and house which had become dilapidated because of the weather. Batangas then was a small town with 600 tributarios or tribute paying natives, served by two priests.

De Medina described travel time from Batangas to Taal as a day’s journey, over roads that passed through wide meadows or grasslands. These meadows were perfect, he wrote, for the domestic cattle which the natives used not only for travel but to carry their loads. According to him, this entire district was an area which the natives referred to as Comintan.


Notes and references:

1 Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala, by Juan de Noceda, Pablo Clain and Pedro de Sanlucar. First published 1754.
2 Kapulungan Binisaya-Iningles (Visayan English Dictionary) by John Kaufmann, Iloilo 1934.
3 Detritus is loose material such as stone fragments or silt that has eroded or worn away from rocks.
4 Kinaray-a or Karay-a is a language spoken mainly in Antique and other provinces of the island of Panay.
5 Doctrina Christiana, The first book printed in the Philippines, Manila, 1593. A Facsimile of the copy in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library, Edwin Wolf, Editor. 2005.
6 History of the Augustinian Order in the Philippine Islands, by Fray Juan de Medina OSA written 1630 published 1893. From the Blair and Robertson series the Philippine Islands Volume XXIV 1625 -1629.
7 Brisas meaning the breeze or winds, specifically the northeast monsoon.
8 This arm of the sea was a channel that connected Balayan Bay to Taal Lake but was subsequently blocked by the 1754 eruption of Taal Volcano.
9 “Relation of the Voyage to Luzon” published in Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands 1569-1576 Volume III.
10 The Provincial being the head of an ecclesiastical province, in the case at hand being the Philippines.
11 Tunny is a warm water fish of the mackerel family.

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