A Glimpse at Life in Batangas Early in the 1600s

Taal Lake, formerly Lake Bombon.
The Spanish government official and historian Antonio de Morga1 gave a fascinating glimpse of what life must have been in the Lake Bombon (Taal Lake in the present day) area in the latter years of the sixteenth and early years of the seventeenth centuries. The Seville-born de Morga was assigned to the Philippines from 1594 to 1604. He served as deputy to Governors General Luis Pérez Dasmariñas and Francisco Tello de Guzmán. Upon his reassignment to Mexico in 1609, he published a narrative2 on life in the Philippine Islands which is considered among the most important sources of information about the country during the early years of Spanish colonization3.

De Morga described Lake Bonbon4 as 20 “leguas” or leagues from Manila, the Spanish league understood to be roughly three miles5. The lake, he wrote, was “not as extensive as the former (in reference to Laguna de Bay), but with a great abundance of fish.” This was a time when Taal Lake was still a marine ecosystem that was connected to Balayan Bay by a wide channel rather than the freshwater environment it has become in the present day.

He went on to describe how the natives caught the fishes by building corrals or cages made of “bejucos.” These bejucos, according to de Morga, were “slender canes or rushes, solid and very pliant and strong; these are employed for making cables for the natives’ boats, as well as other kinds of ropes.” De Morga was likely referring to a climbing vine which in the Philippines is better known in the present day as rattan6.

“They (the natives),” de Morga went on, “catch the fish inside these corrals, having made the enclosures fast by means of stakes.” Apart from using corrals, the natives also caught fishes using fishing nets called the “attarayas,” “esparavels” and “barrederas.”

In their annotations to Volume XVI of the series “The Philippine Islands,” Emma Helen Blair, James Alexander Robertson and Edward Gaylor described the “attaraya” as a “species of fishing net;” the “esparavel” as a round fishing net which is jerked along by the fisher through rivers and shallow places;” and the “barredera” as “a net of which the meshes are closer and tighter than those of common nets” and used for catching smaller fishes.

A final way of catching fish, de Morga wrote, was “with hand lines and hooks,” as was done elsewhere all over the world.

For food, the natives frequently had a fish “as small as the “pejerreyes,” a Mediterranean specie which grew on average no more than three inches. These natives, de Morga went on, seemed to prefer this fish, which they called the “laulau,” to larger ones. They dried and cured the “laulau” under the sun and had various styles of cooking it.

In their notes, Blair, Robertson and Gaylor cited Jose Rizal’s conjecture that the “laulau” was probably either the sardinella tawilis or the “dilis,” the Philippine anchovy7. The web site Philippine Foodie, however, lists a present-day fish called either “lao-lao” or “law-law,” scientific name sardinella brachysoma8. This marine or saltwater sardine looks remarkably like the tawilis.

The natives, de Morga wrote, ate the fish with “a green fruit, like walnuts, which they call ‘paos’.” According to Rizal, this “paos” was, in fact, the miniature mango called “paho,” scientific name mangifera altissima9. (Since the ‘h’ is not pronounced in Spanish, “pahos” would have indeed sounded like “paos” if said by a Spaniard.) “They also prepare “charras” in pickle brine, and all sorts of vegetables and greens, which are very appetizing.”

Early inhabitants of the Lake Bombon area ate their fish meals with paho, a miniature mango.  Image credit:  Market Manila.
Blair, Robertson and Gaylor noted that the word “charra” was Spanish for a cryptogram, a plant which produces spores such as the mushroom. Filipinos will quickly recognize, however, that de Morga was describing the “achara” (or its Tagalog spelling, “atsara”), a pickle made from green papaya10.

De Morga further wrote that the natives also stored in quantities instead of the expensive saffron, a poor man’s version called the “kasubha.” According to the web site Tagalog Lang, the “kasubha” is frequently used in Philippine dishes “as a coloring agent for rice dishes11.”

The natives’ practice of chewing betel or “nganga” must have made quite an impression on de Morga that he wrote lengthily about it:
“The fruit resembles an oak acorn, and is white inside. This fruit, which is called bonga (“bunga” is the Tagalog spelling), is cut lengthwise in strips, and each strip is put into an envelope or covering made from the leaf. With the bonga is thrown in a powder of quick lime. This compound is placed in the mouth and chewed. It is so strong a mixture, and burns so much, that it induces sleep and intoxication. It burns the mouths of those not used to it, and causes them to smart. The saliva and all the mouth are made as red as blood. It does not taste bad. After having been chewed for a considerable time it is spit out, when it no longer has any juice, which is called capa ("sapa" in Tagalog is sap). They consider very beneficial that quantity of the juice which has gone into the stomach, for strengthening it, and for various diseases. It strengthens and preserves the teeth and gums from all inflammations, decay, and aches.”

Notes and references:
1 Spelled Murga in some historical documents.
2Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas,” by Dr. Antonio de Morga, published 1609 in Mexico, part of “The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898: Volume XVI,” edited by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, with additional annotations provided by Edward Gaylord.
3Antonio de Morga,” Wikipedia.
4 An alternative spelling to “Bombon” used in Spanish documents, the other being “Bongbong,” at a time when names and spelling were not as yet standardized.
5League,” Wikipedia.
6Rattan,” Merriam-Webster.
7Dilis,” Wikipedia.
8Philippine Fish Species - List of Common Fish in the Philippines,” online at Philippine Foodie.
9Mangifera altissima,” Wikipedia.
10Atchara,” Wikipedia.
11Kasubha,” Tagalog Lang.

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