Butuan's storied past
There’s a hill in Butuan where a huge cross lords over the surrounding trees. It’s facing a mountain range in the distance where an eye-catching, plateau-topped peak stands out from that elevated region. Both the Bood Promontory and Mount Mayapay are prominent sights in Agusan del Norte’s capital. Both also signify the city’s unique attraction to visitors: a glorious past that compensates for its lack of natural wonders.
Is Butuan akin to Mexico’s Indian civilizations that flourished before Hernan Cortes’ arrival? Artifacts that were unearthed seem to point to that comparison; its regional museum’s stored historical and cultural materials prove Butuan’s prehistoric existence.
But it is the balangays that might be Butuan’s biggest claim to pre-Hispanic fame.
These wooden plank-built and edge-pegged boats average 15 meters in length and three meters wide across the beam. Nine have already been discovered in Sitio Ambangan, Barangay Libertad, which is near the Butuan Bay shores. The oldest among those excavated is about 1,650 years while the latest is about 700 years old. The vessels represent the main mean of transportation in our islands thousands of years ago.
History Professor William Henry Scott noted in his treatise called Boat Building and Seamanship in Classic Philippine Society that the design of the balangay and its variations were of the same, basic style as the boats of the early Vikings, those Scandinavian seafaring warriors that colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th century. So it doesn’t seem remote to imagine that while our seafaring forefathers were navigating within the warm, tropical areas of the Pacific Ocean in balangay boats, at about the same time in the far, northern region of the Atlantic Ocean, the Vikings were riding around the cold, Scandinavian coastlines on wooden seacraft designed similarly as the balangay.
According to Chinese records (“Song Shi”/Sung History), Filipinos went to China before the Chinese came to our country. It describes Butuan (“Pu-duan”) as a small country in the sea to the east of Champa (South Vietnam), farther than May-I (Mindoro). A record on March 17, 1001 A.D states the arrival of King Quiling to China by means of balangay boats for a trade mission via Champa. A Butuan-China Friendship Arch will soon be erected near the domestic airport to commemorate the tribute mission of the Butuanons to China a millennium ago.
Another historic landmark is Ferdinand Magellan’s staging of the first Catholic Mass in the Philippines but it’s a controversial issue because history books and our government recognize the isle of Limasawa in southern Leyte as the site of the first mass. A priest happens to have a pile of proofs to bolster Butuan’s legitimacy.
Not far from the Agusan River is St. Joseph Cathedral. What would distract the devotees’ pious concentration are framed documents hanging near the entrance door. The writings feature the church’s history but the bulk of it shows scientific evidences that point to Butuan as where Magellan and the rest of the Spanish fleet landed before sailing to Cebu.
Reverend Father Joesilo C. Amalla gave a Mass during one fine Sunday evening and he invited me to the Diocesan Ecclesiastical Museum afterwards, which is located besides the church. A lot of stuff can be written about it, as the museum showcases collections of religious and liturgical arts and materials that were used by religious missionaries in Agusan and Surigao. But it’s Fr. Amalla’s words regarding the First Mass issue that attracted me most. It’s impossible for my sight to wander once he spoke because his pace of talking is fast and he’s more than voluble. For a moment, the priest turned into a scientist pounding off information faster than the speed of light (pun not intended as an offense).
The historical basis for locating the first Easter Mass dates to the diary of Antonio Pigafetta called First Voyage Around the World. Pigafetta was an Italian traveler who joined Magellan’s global voyage and was also among the few survivors who returned to Spain. American scholar James A. Robertson translated the Pigafetta manuscript and there’s a possibility that he made some mistakes because he wasn’t well acquainted with the Philippines. The most glaring of these mistakes is interpreting Mazaua, which Pigafetta and the other members of the crew called the mystery isle, as Limasawa.
Specifically, the following issues being disputed (on why the Mass wasn’t held in Limasawa, Leyte) are: (1) the name itself; (2) the travel time between the places visited before and after Mazaua; (3) the latitude position given by the voyagers; (4) the condition of the voyagers in arriving at the place; and (5) the geographical features of the place as described by those who were there.
An article regarding the issue was written by Sonia Zaide, daughter of historian Dr. Gregorio F. Zaide, published in Starweek Magazine in November 5, 1988. She lengthily discussed those five issues. But it was her father’s admission that a mistake was made in accepting Robertson’s interpretation that proves to be her article’s most revealing fact.
Fr. Amalla added that Limasawa could be passed by if one takes a ferry ride from southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao City. His description, as well as the other locals of Caraga I asked about, is that the isle is rocky and not as fertile as what Pigafetta recounted. On the other hand, the present geography of Mindanao reveals no islands in Butuan Bay. So how could the Agusan capital be the one?
He presented another batch of evidences showing how the landscape of northeastern Mindanao is different 5 centuries ago. It revealed some parts of the Butuan region as islands during the eve of Spanish colonization, gradually integrating to the Mindanao mainland as the century progressed (continental drifting is the scientific term for that). One of these islands is Masao, which fits Pigafetta’s descriptions.
I didn’t find it hard to believe because on a trip to Surigao del Sur, I encountered numerous vegetated hills, a few of them awkwardly located in long stretches of rice fields. A closer look at the lower parts reveals coral-like structures that hint at the possibility that these hills were surrounded by seawater a long time ago. Passing by Dinayhugan Dam in the northern municipality of Carrascal confirmed my hunch. A huge cliff overlooks the dam and the Dinayhugan River. One of the town’s oldest citizens told me a story he heard from his grandfather: the cliff once served as the locals’ fortress against sea-traveling enemies. No need to go near to detect the coral-like features of the cliff.
So what happened to Masao isle after the passing of the centuries? Experts believe that the Bood Promontory, which is not far from the National Highway and facing the lovely view of Mayapay and its neighboring peaks, could be the present site where Magellan staged the first Easter Mass. A cross approximately close to 7.5 meters in height was erected there and a park is being added as well, which is near completion.
As for Masao, it turns out to be an idyllic barangay by the seaside many kilometers away from the historic hilltop. Its small grandstand has sketches of Magellan’s landing and Easter celebration. The beach may not be blazing in sparkling whiteness but there’s a gorgeous view of Agusan’s mountain range on the right and Camiguin Island’s Hibok-Hibok Volcano on the left.
During the recent anniversary celebration of the First Easter Mass, Fr. Amalla pointed out that the embroiling dispute shouldn’t distract everyone from the fact that the numerous artifacts in preservation is proof that the Philippines, like ancient China and India, wasn’t a nonentity before the Europeans discovered Asia and that should be what the locals of Butuan should be celebrating.
(First published in Manila Times on August 1, 2003)