Trails of gold

Published May 23, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Jaime Laya


The peoples of the Cordilleras treasure heirlooms of ancient jars, beads, and other valuable objects from faraway lands. How these cherished objects reached the highlands of Northern Luzon was the subject of a webinar organized by the Philippine Map Collectors Society.  

Dr. Michael Armand Canilao, National Museum archaeologist and National Security consultant, presented the results of his pioneering research into the trade networks that for centuries before Magellan arrived linked Igorot miners—the Ibaloi, Tingguian, Kankanaey—middlemen, and traders who crossed the seas to exchange their wares for gold nuggets and gold grains mined and panned up in the blue distance. The highlanders also needed salt and other lowland products that they likewise bought for gold.

From places like Mankayan and present-day Lepanto, miners brought their finds to bulking stations, consolidators, or wholesalers if you like, who then brought them down or sold them to middlemen who brought the gold by trail and river, to coastal towns where buyers local and foreign awaited. In payment the miners got the valued imports and needs like salt and other lowland products. The highlanders also liked mother-of-pearl as fiesta personal adornment.

THE HUNT FOR GOLD Bulking stations that link seaports where foreign traders docked and Cordillera mining areas.

Canilao’s research sought to locate the long-forgotten and already vanished sites and structures of bulking stations and to trace the ancient networks that linked mines. Starting points were in the oral traditions of Cordillera informants and in travel memoirs, maps, and reports of 16th and 17th century Spanish conquistadors and later military expeditions bent on colonizing the resisting Cordillerans by missionaries (Catholic and later, Protestant) intent on conversion, government authorities, and scientists,. 

Then followed esoteric tools that cause headaches to seniors like me: predictive modeling, remote sensing through high resolution multispectral satellite imagery, drones. Excavations at probable sites were done to confirm the findings.

The documentary research brought Canilao to our libraries, archives, and museums, as well as to those of Spain. Blair and Robertson’s The Philippine Islands was a starting point but much material is in our National Archives and at Madrid’s Museo Naval and Museo Militar and the Archivo de Indias in Seville. Topographic maps showing mountains and rivers were particularly useful in helping locate the general location of sites mentioned in written and oral reports.  

Probably hoping to be the Hernando Cortez and Francisco Pizarro of the Islas del Poniente, the Spanish dispatched military contingents to the Ilocos and Cordilleras. Juan de Salcedo (Miguel Lopez de Legaspi’s nephew) traveled north in 1572 to the Ilocos. His report graphically described locations. From a place called Atuley, he proceeded up the mountains and found a village nestled on a very steep rock hotly defended by natives. He found a way up a narrow pass and eventually concluded a peace treaty.

Just the same, Salcedo succeeded in “exacting” gold from the lowland towns. He had quite a haul: 21 kilos of gold from Calanutian and Sinait, 40 kilos in Narvacan, 26.6 kilos in Balaoan and Purao, and smaller amounts in other towns.

Soon after, in 1624, Captain Alonso Martin Quirante led a military expedition and found a large and prosperous community thriving around a lake inhabited by Ibalois. It was called Benguet, now Trinidad Valley. More reports were found, mostly of the 1800s as Spanish presence grew.  

From all these Canilao concluded that there were established networks that linked small-scale miners, bulking stations, lookouts from where arriving ships could be spotted, middlemen, and the final sellers and buyers. Much of the linkage was through rivers and established trails, keeping in mind that the mines were about 1,300 meters above sea level and some 50 to 90 kilometers of rough trails from the seaside towns of San Fernando, La Union, and Candon and Vigan in Ilocos Sur, where trading ships docked. 

Canilao’s work traced five networks centering on bulking stations and lookout points:  (a) Tayum/Bucao that connected to Vigan, Magsingal, and Narvacan; (b) Angaqui/Tila that linked mines at Minlaoi to Candon and Dumaquaque; (c) Apaya and Danac that linked Lepanto to Tagudin and Purau; (d) Gasweling that was between mines at Apayao, Cabcaben, and Catampan the coastal towns of Aludaid, Baratao, and Bauang; and (e) Tonglo that linked the Balatok area mines to Aringay and Agoo in present-day La Union. 

Notes: (a) This article is based on the presentation of Dr. Michael Armand Canilao at a webinar of the Philippine Map Collectors Society, Inc. (PHIMCOS); and (b) The bulking station at Angaqui/Tila is near the Tirad Pass where Gen. Gregorio del Pilar made a last stand during the Philippine-American War.

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