05 May 2017

Captain Roberto Lemery, the Spanish Outpost Commander after whom a Town is Named

The bridge that separates Taal from Lemery.  Image credit:  Google Street View.

A quick examination of the list of Batangas’ cities and municipalities shows that the names of all the province’s 34 geopolitical subdivisions sound distinctly Tagalog or Spanish – except one, the municipality of Lemery. Lemery is more a French rather than a Spanish surname.1 Not that there is anything unusual about this because the histories of France and the Iberian Peninsula are very much intertwined so that there are those of Spanish citizenship who go by this typically French-sounding surname.

One of these, in fact, was a Spaniard who was Governor-General of the Philippines for 75 years in the nineteenth century. His name was José Lemery e Ibarrola Ney, a Madrileño aristocrat who also carried the title Marques de Baroja.2 It was after him that the town of Lemery in the Province of Iloilo has been named.3

The similarly named town in Batangas, however, is apparently named after an altogether different Lemery. How this came to be was discussed in a 1953 document entitled “Compilation of Historical Data for the Poblacion of Lemery.4” The document also provides insights about how the town of Lemery grew from being a small coastal settlement into a distinct municipality of its own.

As narrated by this document, fisher folk from the town of Taal, the northern part of Mindoro and the southern part of Cavite were drawn towards Balayan Bay by the bountiful harvests of fishes and started to settle the coastal plains of what in the present day is known as the town of Lemery. The harvests were salted and dried in a burgeoning industry that supplied demand from Cavite, Laguna and non-coastal towns of Batangas.

In time, as the settlement grew, it came to be known as “Punta.” The document hypothesized that the name probably meant direction “because of the great number of people going in the direction of the settlement.” In this context, the document’s definition of the word “punta” was probably erroneous and the name was more likely derived from the Tagalog to go, i.e. the place where people went. There is certainly nothing in the topography of the area to suggest that “punta,” which in Spanish means tip or point, was used to describe the settlement as having been founded on the tip of a peninsula, as was often the case elsewhere around the world.

At any rate, initially Punta was administered from Taal, and the auxiliary priest of the town was sent to the settlement every Sunday to say Mass for the inhabitants. In 1806, however, for the first time a permanent priest was assigned to Punta. His name was Sancho Geronimo, originally from Madrid in Spain. Father Geronimo apparently lived for no more than a dozen years since.

In 1818, his replacement suggested a change of the barrio’s name from Punta to San Geronimo in honor of its first permanent priest. This is a curious one because the name would have given the impression that the barrio was being renamed after a saint. But while indeed there is a Catholic saint by the same name, he was of Arabic descent and had absolutely nothing to do with the town.5 We can all therefore assume that “San” was either Father Geronimo’s nickname or, as suggested by the authors de Ocampo and Saulo, the result of a calligraphic error6.

For the ensuing decade, life at San Geronimo was generally peaceful until the first stirrings of revolutionary fervor reached the place from Cavite. A secret group hostile to Spanish administration was discovered by the local priest, who promptly reported this to the Spanish colonial authorities. This resulted into the immediate harassment of the barrio’s inhabitants by military authorities. Those suspected of affiliation with the secret organization were flogged or executed.

If anything, the Draconian measures enforced by the Spaniards only succeeded in convincing more of the barrio’s inhabitants to join the growing revolutionary organization. In 1839, a group led by one Fausto Bungkal kidnapped and killed the priest and his sacristan. As a consequence, martial law was declared in the barrio, and not that this prevented more locals from joining the revolutionary group.

Realizing this, the commander of the San Geronimo military outpost, one Captain Roberto Lemery, decided that a change in approach was necessary. Martial law was revoked and he instructed military and church personnel to study the language so that they might better understand the locals and be able to cooperate with them.

Lemery himself learned to speak the language fluently and “became the only white man friend of the people of San Geronimo.” In the barrio, he was well-respected and was generally known for his “kindness, understanding and helpfulness.” Because the barrio people were no longer harassed and their voices were being heard, revolutionary activities ceased altogether.

In 1856, seventeen years after his first appointment as commander of the military outpost at San Geronimo, Lemery died of malignant fever, an inheritable disease7. The barrio went into mourning upon his untimely death, after which its leaders would file a formal request with the Spanish colonial government for the renaming of San Geronimo to Lemery in honor of the late commander. The request was granted in 1858.

Lemery separated from Taal in 1862 to become a district municipality.  However, in 1907, already during the American occupation, by virtue of Executive Order 1549 of the Philippine Civil Commission, Lemery would become an independent municipality8.

[Just as a footnote to this article, I am unable to find any evidence of a Captain Roberto Lemery over the Internet. In contrast, there is plenty of documentation about Governor General José Lemery e Ibarrola Ney, which is hardly surprising given his esteemed position in the Spanish colonial hierarchy. This is not to say, however, that the story in the Department of Education compilation is untrue; but more that it was written down from folklore.]

Notes and references:
1 “French-language surnames,” Wikipedia.
2 “José Lemery e Ibarrola Ney,” Wikipedia.
3 “Lemery,” online at the Province of Iloilo Government Official web site.
4 “Compilation of Historical Data for the Poblacion of Lemery,” submitted by the Department of Education District of Lemery to the Division of Batangas, 29 April 1953.
5 “San Geronimo,” Wikipedia.
6 “First Filipino Diplomat: Felipe Agoncillo, 1859-1941,” by Esteban A. De Ocampo and Alfredo B. Saulo, 1977.
7 “Malignant hyperthermia,” online at MedlinePlus.
8 “Lemery,” online at the Region IV-A DILG web site.

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