Diego and Gabriela Silang - Los  Indios Bravos  (1)


"Anno domini 1762”, the pious fraters are now writing as date under their entries in the church registers. The fraters and church-uppers - having the political power in the provinces – can  still sleep peacefully.

That’s also the case with regard to the province of Ilocos, which had already in the early days of the Spanish colonization the reputation to be a "land of revolts". Some regionally restricted revolts had been recorded in the past provoked mostly by economical grievances. The natives rebelled against too high taxes, forced labour and state trade monopolies (among others tobacco, betel nuts, palm liquor). The first rebellion in Ilocos Norte Spares occurred in 1589,  six tax collectors lost their life. Andres Malong is the head of a rebellion in the neighbor province Pangasinan in 1660. He proclaimed himself as king of Pangasinan; the disturbances also spread to Ilocos in the following year. But the Spanish troops suppressed the rebellion already in the following year. Now more peaceful times seem to come in Ilocos.

 1. The political environment

Over there in distant Europe France and England went in the Seven-Years War  since 1756. Areas of dispute are America and India. For a long time the Philippines – as a Spanish colony - remained spared this conflict. It changes when Spain – as an ally of France -  enters into the war in 1762. Now the English try also to weaken the Spanish empire in the colonies.  

Colonial Draper, who went to the Philippines already before, succeeds in convincing the English war department that an attack on the Spanish colony of the Philippines would be worthwhile. In 1762 an expeditionary force of eight ships gets compiles in the Indian town of Madras. It counts eight merchant ships – leased from the British East Company and three war frigates under the command of admiral Cornish. With just about 1700 men – recruited from different nations – the ships head on Manila.

Manila gets besieged seven days. Although the Spanish troops outnumbered the British troops many times over, the Spanish ruler surrender after short, intensive fights. At least on the paper the Philippines have now become a British colony. However,  the zone of British control is limited to the area of Manila; in the provinces the Spaniards are still the top dogs.

The Spaniards are undecided how to react to their new colonial gentlemen. They are split in their attitudes. The archbishop of Manila Rojos pleads for a peaceful adoption. Other Spaniards under the leadership of governor Anda call upon for resistance and declare the place Bacolor in Pampangas as the new temporary capital. The Filipinos learn for the first time that the Spanish sovereignty is also fragile. This experience gives some Filipinos impetus to emancipatory endeavors. Now a fight against the colonial masters appears more promising.

But now it is time to introduce the two central figures in our article – Diego  and Gabriela Silang.  

2. Early years

The 1730 born Diego Silang y Andaya grows up in Pangasinan as an orphan. The Roman Catholic municipality priest in Vilan, Cortes y Crisolo, takes the bright boy in his care and teaches him the Spanish language. Soon Diego has a good command of the Spanish language. He gets a job as a correspondence messenger between the places Vigan and Manila. So he comes into contact  with many people, he closes friendships.

Once the ship with which Diego Silang sailed to Manila gets into a typhoon storm and capsizes. Only few swimmers reach the beach. They fall, however, into the hands of a wild tribe which lives at the coast of Zambales. They spare the life of Diego only due to his youth. For some months he lives the savages until he is ransomed by a clergyman.

Maria Josefa Gabriela Carino Silang is born a year later than Diego in 1731. A life full of dramas is waiting for the daughter of a farmer and a non-Christian woman from the tribe of the Itneg. Her mother never becomes acquainted with her. The father takes care that she gets a Christian education. Most sources report now that the adolescent  girl was first adopted by the rich businessman Don Tomas Milan. Later at the age of twenty he married her. Another source  (2) insinuates that the father would have forced her  to m marry the businessman. The marriage lasts only three years, then the aged husband passes away. The young widow, who is described as  beautiful and warm-hearted is courted by many men. She decides, however, in favor of Diego Silang. In 1757 they both get married. Her second marriage also remains childless, six years of life are still granted to the two.  

3. The free and independent Ilocos

The Britons have conquered and occupied Manila by now. Silang, who already has some adherents, believes that the attacked Spanish rulers would be more ready for corrections and concessions against assurance of allegiance.

He submits a petition in which asks for elimination of certain abuses not covered by the law. But the Spaniards do not take notice of his petition. Very on the contrary – he is charged with incitement and send to prison. The Ilocos people are very angry about this incident. The clergyman  Tomas Milan mediates and Silang comes free again. The priest belongs to the few ones, representing the "white", good Spain in the understanding of the Filipinos. The “black” Spaniards are despised or hated.  

Back again in Ilocos Silang intensifies and enlarges his demands. He requires that the hated Alcalde Mayor Zabala is removed from his position, that the "intolerable" forced labors and tributes are abolished and all "bad" Spaniards and Mestizos are expelled from Ilocos. If he would become the Commander of the  Philippine defense forces, he would join in the fight against  the British invaders. In turn his demands are rejected by the Spaniards.

Now Silang proclaims the independence of Ilocos on December 14th, 1762. But he still accepts the Spanish king. The first fights with the Spaniards take place, Diego and his followers are victorious. He succeeds in occupying the city of Vigan and other neighboring towns. His declared opponents, the Alcalde Zabala and the bishop Berandro Ustariz, flee and are later taken captive by Silangs troops. The population demands their execution, but Silang detains them only.  

The deeply religious Diego declares Jesus Christ as the general captain of the Filipinos and himself as top chief of the independent Ilocos. The independence movement still refers to a single province – the Philippine national consciousness still needs time to develop. Persons from the local old Spanish power elite are now exchanged by natives. By street callers he announces a changed tax system graded after income. He takes notice of regular school attendances and a religious education. He himself often prays the rosary. His government, however, does not meet the approval of all Ilocos people. In the literature these critical aspects, however, are not put in concrete terms.

Province Governor Anda, who organizes the Spanish resistance in the provinces, knows about the hustle and bustle of Diego Silang. At first he does not stop him, his military is otherwise engaged. But then he asks him to go within nine days to Bacolor to render account for his actions. If he should not follow the instruction, he would be considered as traitor. The announcement causes unrest among the supporters of Diego.  

4. The English allies

Now Diego Silang decides to change the side and to back the English horse. Ist´s unclear who set up first the possible alliance, but it is also insignificant. Both sides could benefit from this alliance. With the proviso of a far-reaching self-administration of the Ilocanos, Diego is now ready, to pledge alliance to the British flag. The English accept the oath and offer their protection and their friendship in the exchange for Diego’s support against the Spaniards. In September 1762 Diego Silang becomes British governor and war captain in the province Ilocos. Ilocos stands now formally under British reign.

Half a year later an English envoy is visiting Ilocos and hands over a letter from the British general governor to Diego Silang. It is worthwhile to quote in part from this letter:  

I have been very sensible of the many injuries which your Grace has suffered under the tyrannical government of the Spaniards; but I am very pleased to know that your Grace has opened to your eyes; and that your Grace will strengthen and encourage your people to humiliate the sovereignty of so cruel a nation …  In a short time, your Grace will have troops and war supplies. … I am sending your Grace a small bronze cannon in token of affection … I hope that the provinces of Pangasinan and Cagayan will soon follow your worthy example and tear off the chains of Spanish slavery…. (3). 

Silang bids the envoy welcome but the English do not fulfill their promises. He has not got any military support from the Englishmen later. Bishop Ustariz together with another twelve Augustinian monks remains in the custody of Diego Silang and they are not brought to Manila as initially planned. Apparently the British shun conflicts with the Roman Catholic clergy.  

5. The treacherous murder

Meanwhile the Spanish governor Anda has declared Diego Silang as traitor.  He offers a reward on the head of Diego Silang.

His assassination is planned. It is assumed that with his death the rebellion would collapse. The local catholic dignitary is at least informed about the plan of assassination. A bibliographical reference reports that the assassins have been blessed before by bishop Ustariz (3). Another reference even claims that the local church representatives paid the assassins (4) .

Two former friends of Diego Silang, Miguel Vicos and Pedro Becbec, are acquired for the disgraceful deed. The motives for the deed are shrouded in mystery. May be – they have been told Silang plans the murder of the bishop and the Augustinian monks.

First Diego Silang and his two assassins have a friendly conversation. But then Miguel Vicos suddenly shoots into the back of Silang who dies in the arms of his wife. The Spanish troops reconquer the town of Vigan shortly after the deed.

By the way - the Spaniards set up later in honor of the murderer a brick monument in the place of Bantay. On its top there was an illustration of a dog, which should symbolize the faithfulness of the Miguel Vicos to the Spanish royal house. The plaque had the following inscription:

“In honor of Miguel Vicos, a Spanish mestizo, for having shot and killed the seditious traitor Diego Silang in the year 1763, after having invoked the blessings of the Holy Virgin of his deed.”

A prime example how different historic appraisals can be. On intervention of an old revolutionary veteran the Vicos monument was exchanged in 1914. The new one honored Diego Silang. But some years later  in 1931  - it's difficult to find an understanding - there was again a memorial for the assassin Vicos. But now the responsible governor intervened and critized the unpatratiotic act. The memorial was removed again.  

6. The last fights of the Gabriela Silang

Gabriela Silang holds to the faith and principles of her killed husband. She recruits - now as general – new troops. But the arming of her troops is insufficient. Her troop have at their disposal only confiscated Spanish muskets, swords, knifes and axes, bamboo spears, blowpipes, bows and arrows. The Spanish army has also big guns.

The first attack of Gabriela Silang on Vigan fails. A second attack is planned. But the balance of power is unequal. Her 2000 fighters have to fight against approx. 6000 fighters on the Spanish side. A larger number of the Spanish troops are Filipinos recruited from other regions. Silangs troops do not succeed in breaking through the hostile lines. Gabriela Silang together with her last companions has to escape to the home area of her mother. The Spanish troops pick her up later.

She and round about hundred other companions are executed in September 1763. The execution follows a dramaturgy of deterrence. First her comrades-in-arm are brought in succession to the gallows in coastal places. She was hanged in the public as last delinquent in Vigan. Gabriela Silang served as general in the succession of her husband only for six months and she got only 32 years old.  

7. Appreciation

At the end of the 18th century patriotic feelings referring to the whole island archipelago are  still underdeveloped. People are primarily obliged to regions and ethnic groups. Silang fights "only" for the independence of Ilocos, he is also attacked by members of other Philippine ethnic groups, which follow the command of the Spanish rulers. Anyway the two Silangs are precursors of a national independence movement, which finds strength a century later. They point in the future direction and are celebrated today as national heroes. Many streets, places and schools in the Philippines were named after them.

The hero admiration cut preposterous papers sometimes. It is hardly understandable for instance, when the famous “Manila Hotel” is offering “Gabriela Silang - Bedrooms” for the tidy sum of 1000 - 1500 US$ per night (5). There are no reference points to the hotel plush in the life of the Gabriela Silang.

Gabriele Silang represents another woman type than the much quoted figure of Maria Clara. Maria Clara is a beautiful, introverted, rather passive house wife - Gabriela Silang is a politically engaged fighter. She is also called the "Jeanne d´ Arc of the Philippines”. The leading woman organization in the Philippines was very conscious of her, when it took the name of Gabriela.   GABRIELA  is now a parent organization with about 50,000 members which supports the rights and the emancipation of the women with some success.

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2007

(1) The Spaniards (also the early German ethnologist F. Jagor) called the Philippine natives as "Indios” up to the 19th century. They distinguished the "Indios bravos” – the wild, non-converted natives and the “Indios fideles”, the Christianized natives. The Silangs were surely more “Indios fideles”.  However, “Indios bravos” also means literally the courageous Indios. It was Jose Rizal, who valorized the term at the end of the 19th century. He co-founded in Paris an anticolonial organization of Filipinos and selected the name “Indios bravos”.

(2) Provincial Government of Ilocos Sur, GABRIELA SILANG - Joan of Arc of Ilocandia, in:


(3) Quoted from: DIEGO SILANG, Liberator of The Ilocos, http://www.santa.gov.ph/ilocossur/herodiego.html

(4) Diego Silang, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Silang

(5) http://www.manila-hotel.com.ph/rates.php