Taal, Batangas in the 19th Century, as Described by a Spanish Historian
This article is part of a series that attempts to bring to modern day readers descriptive images of the towns of Batangas in the late nineteenth century as seen through the eyes of the former government official and historian Manuel Sastron. This time, we focus on the heritage town of Taal, and revisit what the conditions there were in a bygone era.
Sastron documented his observations in a book entitled “Batangas y su Provincia1” (Batangas and Its Province), published in Malabon in 1895. Presumably, most of the information he wrote in the book was gathered in the immediate years before the book’s publication.
Sastron began by saying that the town of Taal was located roughly 27 kilometers from the capital town of Batangas. Measured on Google Earth, as the crow flies, the actual distance is roughly 20 kilometers.
He went on to say that Taal was bordered by Lemery, San Luis and Bauan, Lake Bombon (Taal Lake) and Balayan Bay. Since the town of Alitagtag separated from Bauan in 1908, Taal no longer shares a common border with the latter municipality.
Sastron wrote that Taal could be reached from Batangas Town by road. Alternatively, the town along with Bauan could also be reached from Taal by way of “banca” (outrigger boats) traveling around the Calumpang Pensinsula.
Meanwhile, the Pansipit River2, which separated Taal from Lemery, offered travelers from Taal easy access across Lake Bombon to Cuenca, Lipa and Talisay. This was the same route, Sastron recalled, taken by Juan de Salcedo in the expedition3 he undertook in 1570 with Martin de Goite to explore the island of Luzon.
Sastron wrote that Taal was an important heritage town, at the time in its third location and admittedly its best of the three. He recalled that Taal’s original location was a place called Balangon, which was destroyed by Moros in the sixteenth century. The town moved to a location along the shores of Bombon Lake4; but it needed to move away from the lake after what Sastron called “the formidable eruption” of 1754.
Sastron marveled at how picturesque Taal looked like when first seen approaching from the sea. There were many well-designed houses built with sturdy materials and kept in good condition. These stood close to one another without being crowded, with streets that descended to the sea and bordered by “the exuberant vegetation of the area.” It was all “worthy of admiration,” according to Sastron.
Through the town center ran three main roads. There were 26 side roads and streets that were fairly distanced from one another. The first of the main roads had four bridges that were in relatively poor condition and needed the attention of the bureau of public works.
Apart from Pansipit, Taal had no other major rivers; although there were a few streams according to Sastron. While the town had its own port, it was not a good refuge for boats, particularly during the southwest monsoon season. The port, like the one in Balayan, was kept busy by the frequent arrival and departure of boats laden with the town’s imports and exports.
Most of Taal’s agricultural lands were dependent on rainfall, Sastron wrote. There were irrigated lands only in the barrios of Siyran (spelled Seiran in the present day), Cawit and Pansipit5 along the banks of the river of the same name. The town produced crops similar to those in other pueblos: sugarcane, rice, corn, cotton and onions. Coffee and cacao were also harvested in smaller quantities.
Taal’s parish chuch, wrote Sastron, was a work of extraordinary masonry and, thus, solidly built. Nowhere else in his travels around the country, he said, had he seen a “temple” of such grandiose; and work on its interiors had been continued by successive parish priests. The convent, which was an adjunct of the church, was also solidly built and well-maintained.
Standing out in the public square, wrote Sastron, was the court house. It was solidly built, he noted, with funds generously donated by the town’s prominent families and mostly from the fish catches of the Pansipit Fishery. What a pity, he observed, that it looked somewhat neglected inside.
So too was the public school system, lamented Sastron. In his first visit to the town’s public school, he was sorry to see that it was attended by only eleven students. Education was one branch of public administration that he hoped would be given better attention by the provincial government.
Speaking about the people of Taal, Sastron wrote that he found them extraordinarily industrious and that they seemed to live by the maxim “time is money.” He observed that they were noble and worthy of praise in their eagerness to “acquire goods of fortune” by assiduous, constant and honest work.
He also wrote that despite these characteristics, the people of Taal were protective of their own interests and that they did not allow anybody who was not born in the town “to practice agriculture, industry or trade,” otherwise he would face resistance from the locals. The Chinese, who were able to put up establishments elsewhere in the province, could not do so in Taal because the locals made it difficult for them.
The production of sugar was Taal’s main industry, although it was produced mostly in crude mills. Many of the townsfolk were also skilled artisans, particularly the carpenters who usually took subcontracts for the creation of woodwork.
The town’s traders imported rice from the provinces north of Batangas and even as far south as Capiz and Antique. They also brought in European goods from the warehouses of Manila. In return, they also exported sugar, the town’s primary produce.
While Taal did not have a livestock industry, there was in the town a considerable amount of beasts of burden, up to 10,000 heads of cattle, water buffalo and horses. Consequently, the theft of animals was high. There was on record a total of 140 such cases.
Notes and references:1 “Pequeños Estudios, Batangas y Su Provincia,” by Manuel Sastron, published 1895.
2 The Pansipit River was all that remained of a channel that once was navigated by ocean-going vessels, reduced and diverted as it was by tephra or volcanic material after the cataclysmic 1754 Taal Volcano eruption. Wikipedia.
3 The expedition was undertaken upon the orders of the conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi.
4Taal’s second relocation was to what is present-day San Nicolas.
5 In the present day, Pansipit is part of the municipality of Agoncillo.