Upon arrival from Manila in sitio Cagang-Cagang, Samboangan, Mindanao, in 1635, the Spaniards set fire to all the surrounding sitios and barrios; the native Subanons, Lutaos, and maybe the Negritoes, if then still around (missing for the past decades in the peninsula as they are incorrigible nomads), fled like ants from a burning log. And then, the mass clearing of native inhabitants around the sitio complete, with undeniable flawlessness, a fort was built there that same year, on June 23. It was named La Fuerza Real de San Jose. Thereafter, the invaders put up a community northwest of the fort: the evacuees, native Subanons, Samals, even the sea gypsies, and animists turned-instant-Christians were its first settlers, so mi compoblanos. As the self-appointed protectorate, the Spanish fort commander guaranteed the hamletted people the protection of the Spanish military and its cannons in the newly-built fort, and the guardia civil, the blessings of the saints, and offerings of the sacraments from the lusty (and possibly lustful) friars. Rallying the Subanons and Samal Lutaos and animists to the new community, the colonial commandant shouted this slogan, which was both an inspiration and a warning, infused in the cry:
‘All-out war outside [of the settlement and fort], peace and freedom within the range of the artillery.’
Thus, built just outside the periphery of the new fort, the nuevo comunidad de Subanons y Lutaos, el Viejo Poblado —as it was later called when another community was put up farther north— grew fast as new emigrants, inspired by the slogan, came to settle down and find a new life. Some years later to no one’s surprise, even down to the lowest Spanish soldier, the community became a thriving village, where one found companionship in songs, dances, and drinking tuba, a fermented wine from the coconut tree .
To the fort of La Fuerza Real de San Jose, there was added a fortified area and a curtain with an orillon toward the east, attached at one end of it; it was nearly thrice as big as the fort in land area, and with the Viejo Poblado and the nuevo comunidad or New Settlement—these trio of incipient tableaus formed what would be then called New Samboangan — not Jambangan as many nincompoops profess.
In 1646 the restless Dutch, Spain’s in-grown toenail in Southeast Asia, attacked the Fort, but was repulsed, and after that no other attempt was made by the Dutch. They learned their lesson quickly. In the Celebes region, however, both the Dutch and Spain kept crossing swords, banging shields, banging heads, and hurling curses and challenges at each other across the seas; worse than runny-nose, dirt-smudged street children in the slums.
In 1662, twenty-six years after its foundation, the Spaniards abandoned La Fuerza Real de San Jose by order of Governor-General Lara, who cowered in a corner in Malacañang Palace, before the imagined shadow of Pirate Koxinga, who had just conquered Formosa from the Dutch. Governor Lara pictured Koxinga already crossing the crevices and parlors of the expanse of the Seas to attack Manila. But the Chinese pirate, who was still restless and hungry for loot even after Formosa, never came and his shadow, dark as it was, never cast over Manila, much less Malacañang Palace. Neither did a gust of Manila brine touch his cheeks. His insatiable thirst for murder and looting was quenched as he was stricken with progressive consumption, a surprise blow from nature, which ended his piratical looting and ravenous ambitions for conquest.
But Governor-General Lara and the lusty friars and bishops, the latter slothful and obese by too many fiestas and gorging of lechon or roast pig, never short of opportunity when it came, in any form, professed that the Chinese pirate’s natural death was a visionary sign and icon from heaven, the planets and the stars, uncontested proof of the great power of the Catholic Church¾declaring it a miracle: God or the Holy Ghost intervening and striking down the pirate Koxinga, to protect the Lord’s servants, coward or slothful, damned or blessed, with finality and implacable permanency none had expected. So, the Chinese pirate, feared by all, everyone terrified even by the mere specter of his infectious shadow, and trembled at the sound of his name ‘Koxinga’ ¾ he, the most feared, the conqueror of Formosa ¾ never even saw a silhouette of Manila, much less Malacañang Palace, nor breathed the fragrance of the sweet smelling sampaguita flower of Las Islas Felipenas.
Since La Fuerza Real de San Jose had to be abandoned, it could not be left just as it was, with no one to guard its water well and chapel, and the beautiful garden in the yard . The then fort commander, Don Fernando de Bobadilla, entrusted it in 1662 to the proud head of the Zamboangueño Voluntarios, Fernando Macombong a Christian convert and son of the legend Felipe Macombong, hero of Palapag and the only Indio officer buried with honors at Paco Cemetery in Intramuros, the resting place of the Peninsulares, Manila ¾ so mi compoblanos. The formidable sultan of Jolo, Saliganya Bungsu, was his grandfather, and his grandmother was Nayac the Most Beautiful Subana princess of Pulung Bato, Samboangan. Through affinity and arranged marriages, the Jolo sultan was a brother-in-law of the ‘disciple of the false Prophet’ Sultan Kudarat of Maguindanao, (dubbed, tongue-in-cheek by the illustrious friars), farther east to Cotabato.
So, before sailing to Manila, the commandant Don Bobadilla told the Zamboangueño Voluntario officer to defend the fort against all enemies, its chapel and beautiful garden, protect and defend it with all life. To which order Macombong, an heir to Moro and Subanon royal ancestries, without batting an eye, likely speaking in the nascent Chabacano tongue, said:
‘Contra todos enemigos, si ... Pero, unico uno que no puedes defender: Sultan Kudarat ( Against all enemies, yes … But only one I cannot defend against: Sultan Kudarat!).’
A Visit by the Buccaneer Dampier
The French buccaneer (a scented euphemism for pirate) Dampier, crossing the Pacific from the west coast of Mexico, sailed into Mindanao by way of Guam. From the Mindanao river, present day Rio Grande, clogged with giant hyacinth in some parts of its estuaries, Pulanggi and Dulawan, blocking their flow and flooding the sitios round them, Dampier sailed southeasterly and then to Zamboanga. Here is his account:
‘The next day we were abreast of Chambongo [Zamboanga] .... On the 17th day [of January 1687], we anchored on the east side of all these keys in 8 fathoms water, clean sand .... A little to the westward of these keys, on the island Mindanao, we saw an abundance of coconut trees: Therefore, we sent our cannon ashore, thinking to find inhabitants, but found none, nor sign of any, but great tracts of hogs, and great cattle; and close by the sea there were ruins of an old fort. The walls were of good height, built with stone and lime: and by the workmanship seemed to be Spanish.’
The San Jose Fort Rebuilt
In 1719, by order of the king, the Spaniards returned to Samboangan and rebuilt he fort they had abandoned in haste and fear of the Chinese pirate Koxinga in 1662. Without a soul seen on its ramparts for over half a century, a horrible sight met the returning Spaniards’ eyes: the interior of the fort was a picture of a hurriedly abandoned place, like a hencoop with all the birds having flown away quickly. Here and there were strewn broken utensils, water jars, pieces of coral blocks and plaster of masonry. In some places, in particular after the north and northeast entrances, and before the curtain of the south orillon— excretions of goats and cows caked the stone-cobbled floor.
However, Engineer Ciscara, contrary to the Dutch pirate Dampier’s observation (who himself had unlikely inspected the ‘ruins’ of the fort), noticed that the ‘fort wasn’t entirely in ruins,’ as he found that its outer walls had remained impregnable to both nature's and man's intrusion; even the interior walls needed only a few repairs. If a few cannonballs struck them, he thought, the fifty-seven years of abandonment and neglect would not cause the walls of the fort to collapse. Of the four bastions in the fort itself, the orillon was as good as new, even the three bastions looked strong enough not to need any repair. When the bastions were rebuilt, it was to enlarge them, extended outwardly, and not for repairs. With this extension, each bastion became big enough to hold more cannons. The bastions' raison d’être was more than enhanced: each cannon could blow to Kingdom Come any fool Moro pirate and foreign looting vessel that entered Basilan Strait.
Greedy for world dominion and craving for a piece of the peninsula, like Spain, the other colonists, the Dutch, Portuguese, and English, had attacked the fort at least once; but it remained for them just a craving, as it was.
Ciscara started first with the repair of the interior structures, and then the joints of the walls. At the center of the interior court, an old deep well was dug up again, disturbing over half century of indefatigable quiet and peace; and a guardhouse, barracks, munitions magazine, and a chapel rebuilt as separate buildings flanking the four walls. A moat was installed surrounding part of the fort, and the fortified area outside it, to at least temporarily stop any land intruder from the east, before the cannons would smash them. Water not for drinking came from the river Tumaga, several kms. northeast, one of the tributaries of Masinloc and the extended river Pasonanca, seven kms. from the then abandoned comunidad of the Lutaos and the Subanons and the fort itself. Each tributary took its name from the barrio it passed or transgressed. On the most seaward side of the fort was a terreplein. There were two entrances to the fort, the northeast and western entrances. The northeast entrance would be closed in the 18th century, about the time a shrine at the exterior curtain was sculptured for the namesake of the fort: Fortaleza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Saragossa.
Northwest of the fort and separated from it only by its moat was the fortified area, mentioned earlier, with a long curtain of palisades rising along its southwest side, and here the moat ran around it completely — before land bridges in some parts broke it — connecting the latter to the fort.
Though unlikely that land forces would assault the fort at its fortified area, bigger in land area than the fort, it was protected on the northwest by a masonry curtain flanked at one end by an orillon, named Santa Barbara, and at the other end by a cavalier named Santa Catalina. Northeast were the moat and the impenetrable mangrove swamps beyond, a natural barrier and defense protecting its entire northeast flank.
Invaders assaulting the fortified area by land would find themselves either lost in the great swamps or cut to pieces by grapeshot from guns of the orillon and the cavalier; retreating northwardly to the hills and mountains would not be wise, for there were tribes there that were not quite friendly. One animistic tribe was cannibalistic, and another known to indulge in human sacrifice to their diwata gods during a ritual called buklog. And this was not just rumors. Cre ‘bos.
The governor's house, a hospital, and living quarters were located inside the fortified area, and southwest to seaward was the village of the Lutaos and the Subanons.
Like a square-shaped monster, the fort has two pairs of claws either to pounce or grip its victims. These are in the features of four bastions in straight flanks, and one is in the form of an ace of spades: the orillon. A kind of a deadliest tool of a beast as fangs and paws are to lions was the main orillon, east, and thus around it the fort’s defenses were centered and oriented. It was also the heart in which the fort thrived and lived. Pointed toward the sea, the orillon, upon sighting pirates and raiders heedlessly venturing within sight, would beat and throb as a heart would, sending juices to the smaller orillon, northeast, and the other bastions. And the monster in the fort would awaken, with froth in its mouth, and its fangs and paws bared, ready to crush whatever living thing had ill-advisedly wished to harm it.
It was the biggest fort hereabouts in the Spanish colony of Las Islas de Felipenas and in Southeast Asia. It covered an area of 7,282 square meters. The curtains connecting one bastion to the other are slightly 50 meters long. Its above-ground exterior masonry of cut blocks of reef made up the lower wall, cornice, and parapet.
A distinguishable feature can still be noticed of the lower wall to this day (2006 A.D.), although now it is weathered to a dark grey and climbers have partially cloaked it. Save for the northwest curtain, all the lower walls are battered, sloping downward and outward: 1.00 meter outward for each 5.00 meters of vertical height. Not for aesthetic reason, mi compoblanos, but to deflect cannonballs and to give the monster of a fort a firm hold on mother earth by a wider base.
Fort Pillar has 18,540 dressed coral blocks for the exterior masonry of the curtains, and for the interior 12,744 blocks: a total of 31,284. But that is not all yet. Forty-nine gun platforms, the interior ramp, two entrances, and miscellaneous stone features would require at least an additional 4,500 blocks. Thirty-five thousand seven hundred eighty-four coral blocks is a minimum estimate for the masonry.
Think of this: human hands had cut each one of those coral blocks, pushed and plastered with lime mortar.
Originally, the main entrance to the fort was the site of the present shrine of La Virgen de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Saragossa. Of architectural interest, at the top of the shrine is a niche in the masonry. Set in it is a stone figure of the Virgin and Child. Exactly when the shrine was placed there nobody knows; but we have the month and the year. For immediately below the niche is a plaque, which reads:–‘Governando este presidio el Sr. Don Juan de La Torre Bustamante. Este Frontispico fue construido el Enero de año 1734.’
A second plaque interrupting the line of the cornice but set above the top of the former entrance reads:
‘Rigiendo las Españas la Catoloica Magestad de Don Felipe V, Emperador del Nuevo Mundo Americano, y Gobernando estas islas el muy ilustre Sr. Mariscal de Campo Don Fernando Bustillos Bustamante y rueda Gobernador y Capitan General se establecio y reedifico esta Real Fuerza de Ntra. Sra. del Pilar de Zaragoza lo que hizo el ilustre General Don Gregorio Padilla y Escalante a 8 de Abril de 1719.’
Obviously commemorating the re-establishment of the fort in 1719 and the change in the name from La Fuerza Real de San Jose to the Fort of Our Lady of the Pillar of Saragossa.
In the center of the northwest curtain is where we have the present entrance, 2.50 meters wide. The writer in his youth had passed through it many a time to gape at long, large cannons on the orillon and on its limestone floor watched the awesome Zamboanga golden tropical sunset, listening to the quiet weeping voices of the ghosts of the past.
Built as a bastion and a citadel to halt Islam’s from spreading like the long- legged wild grasshopper weeds, and to crush Moro piracy in Las Islas de Felipenas, so mi compoblanos, the fort, as said earlier, was many times not spared from having to defend itself from local and foreign assaults. On the domestic assault, the Moros led it with crazed screams, rendering the air expansive and nervy, their wooden shields rattling, and spears shaking, their long tips glittering in the sun; and the Dutch and the British topped the foreign attacks, assaulting it with repeat-rifles and cannonade.
Of course, more constant in their raids and looting than any of the invaders were the Moro pirates. Two major attempts were lunged to capture Fort Pillar: in 1720 and again in 1734. A notorious Moro pirate Datu Balasi, who fashionably called himself king of Bulig, nearly crushed the fort’s defenders with the biggest invading force assembled at this period: 3,000 Moro pirates, rushing upon the fort screaming their heads off, its reputation as the citadel of Christianity, at stake and in great risk, so mi compoblanos. Balasi would have certainly succeeded, if not for the timely arrival of 1,000 Mindanaoan reinforcement; there the Spaniards and their Indio allies would have found themselves either beheaded or hanging on a tree, as they had hanged Moro pirates—an ironical turn of fate.
The fort of Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Saragossa, the palisade area, and the pueblo of the Subanons and Lutaos were the genesis of the modern town of Zamboanga, so mi compoblanos. And for over two and a half centuries to the time of the telling of our story, the fort had remained free and unconquered by Moro pirates and foreign invaders.