Diego Silang: the turncoat hero

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Friday, August 22, 2014


NATIONAL Hero’s Day is fast approaching, and I thought it would be appropriate to write about a Philippine hero that most people know little to nothing about. Everyone knows that Rizal was a great reformist writer, and that Andres Bonifacio was the brave founder of the Katipunan, and that Emilio Aguinaldo was our first president – but no one really knows Diego Silang, and most people just remember him as the “guy in the history textbooks with the funny hat.”

While it is true that most history books portray Diego Silang with his trademark salakot, there’s much more to him than that. What most people know is that Diego Silang revolted against the Spanish, and that he was betrayed and assassinated, after which his rebellion was carried on by his wife, Gabriela Silang. What most people don’t know about is how he carried out his war against Spain.

You see, in the 18th century, the Philippines was invaded by the British, and Manila had fallen after a siege so embarrassing for the Filipino-Spanish defenders that it could even be considered comedic. The Ilokanos believed that the British would head north to conquer them as well, and a man named Diego Silang stepped up to defend his province… in the name of Catholicism and the King of Spain.

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In the early days of his struggle, Diego Silang was clearly not anti-Spanish. In the beginning, there were only two things he wanted – the rule of a provincial council instead of the alcalde mayor, and the abolishment of the polo forced labor system. He did not want a free and independent Philippines. As far as he was concerned, Spain was still rightful ruler over the country. He just wanted less pain and suffering for his people. Also, he considered the British to be Protestant dogs, and was deeply Catholic like most Northern Filipinos at the time.

Silang rallied the people under the banner of Holy Mother Church and the name of the King of Spain and decided to fight the British, whom he claimed were on their way up to Ilocos to take away the people’s religion and therefore their souls. Silang’s initial plan was to remove the unpopular Spanish alcalde mayor Antonio Zabala and replace him with Vicar General Tomas Millan. After that, Spanish authorities would be asked to grant Silang troops to defend the province against the British, while simultaneously evacuating all the Spanish and Spanish mestizos out of the province.

What actually happened, however, was different. As soon as alcalde mayor Zabala and Bishop Bernardo Ustariz were forced to resign, the people decided to make Silang their leader instead. When the friars heard about this, they decided to organize an army loyal to Spain and attack Silang’s seat of power in Vigan, but were intercepted by Silang’s army and destroyed. Silang was now effectively a bandit king, who ruled Vigan and all the surrounding cities – but ironically, he had not yet rejected the sovereignty of Spain. No, that came later.

The recently deposed Spanish Governor General, Simon de Anda, had recently fled Manila – actually, the coward fled with every white soldier he had and left the Filipinos to defend the city themselves, before the British even fired a shot. Now he was leader of the Spanish resistance, while an Englishman named Dawsonne Drake was Governor of Manila. Anda now wanted to retake Luzon in the name of Spain, and he had received notice that Silang had taken Vigan. Furious about having to deal with Filipino rebels as well as the British, he issued a letter to Silang outlawing his actions and demanding an explanation for his actions. If Silang failed to respond, he would be branded as a traitor to Spain.

This must’ve ticked Silang off, because when he received the letter, he decided he didn’t respect de Anda, and aligned himself with the British. Silang wrote the following letter to the British Governor of Manila, Dawsonne Drake:

“I therefore entreat your Lordship will please to order that this Province may be put in a state of defense and that a sufficient number of Arms may be sent with Persons proper to manage them, that by this means the Peace and Quietness we so much wish for, may be preserved under the Government of George the Third and from this instant I own myself to be his vassal…”

He sent this offer of vassalage to Drake together with a goodie basket with 12 loaves of sugar, 12 baskets of rice cakes, and 200 balls of chocolate. In return, Drake sent 20 European infantry and 30 Indian Sepoys to Silang to help him in his battle against the Spanish, and granted him the title of Governor of Ilocos.

Silang’s alliance with the British worried the Spanish, and they decided to have Silang assassinated. The assassin, a Spanish mestizo, was aided by one of Silang’s trusted friends who had turned traitor. And between two and four o’clock in the afternoon of May 28, 1763, Silang was shot in the back by a musket. He died in his wife’s arms.

Now it makes you think, doesn’t it – if this vehemently pro-British Filipino was not assassinated, would he have allowed the British to take over the country or would he have turned against them to fight for a free and united Philippines?

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on August 22, 2014.

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