Silang, Gabriela (1731–1763)

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Silang, Gabriela (1731–1763)

Leader of a revolt in the Ilocos region of the Philippines in 1763 aimed at establishing a government to replace the Spanish colonial government. Name variations: Josefa Gabriela Silang. Born Maria Josefa Gabriela Silang on March 19, 1731, in the village of Caniogan, town of Santa, Ilocos Sur, in the Spanish-colonized Philippines; executed by hanging on September 20, 1763, in the town of Vigan, Ilocos Sur; parents unknown except that her father was an Ilocano peasant and her mother was an Itneg, two ethno-linguistic groups in the Ilocos region of the northern Philippines; obtained the equivalent of elementary schooling in the convent school of her town; married a rich widower around 1751 (died); married Diego Silang (leader of the Ilocano or Ilokano revolution), around 1757 (assassinated May 28, 1763); no children.

Separated from her pagan mother in early childhood, and reared as a Christian by the town's parish priest; first marriage arranged by her father (c. 1751); after she was widowed, married Diego Silang (c. 1757); British seized Philippines from the Spanish (1762); after Diego's assassination, assumed leadership of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule until her defeat (1763).

In a public square in Makati, metropolitan Manila, stands a monument of Gabriela Silang on horseback. Her story, celebrated in poetry and song, has inspired other women of the Philippines to leadership in revolutionary movements, including "Santa" in the province of Leyte in 1862, and the image of a widow as leader found its modern counterpart in the career of Corazon Aquino , elected the country's first woman president in 1986. In the modern Philippines, there is also an umbrella organization, involved in women's rights and other political causes ranging from the ouster of foreign military bases to opposition to nuclear power plants, named in honor of the 18th-century Gabriela.

Gabriela Silang's passion for justice drove her to continue the armed struggle begun by her husband. She infused the struggle with the brilliance and serenity of a woman warrior.

—Lilia Quindoza Santiago, Filipino poet

Despite all this, in a society influenced by Christian values resulting from more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, women in Philippine society have long been considered secondary to men. Even Gabriela, living at a time when society constricted her development into a fully rounded person, was overshadowed by her husband. Her achievement in becoming a revolutionary leader is therefore all the more worthy of the praise she has been accorded.

At the time of Gabriela Silang's birth in the town of Santa in the Ilocos region, the Philippines had been under Spanish colonial rule for almost 200 years. Santa was a suburb of Vigan, the principal maritime town of northern Philippines, and both were strategic colonial outposts at the mouth of the Abra River. In turn, the river was the gateway to the Cordilleras, the mountain ranges inhabited by the Itnegs (also called Tinguians) and other pagan tribes of northern Philippines. Between the upland agricultural communities and the lowland towns and cities there was considerable exchange of goods, and the coastal maritime towns in particular were the hubs of commerce with the outside world, where Chinese merchants brought in porcelain, silk and other luxuries to exchange for products brought by the Spanish from Mexico and Spain. Even before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Vigan had been visited by Chinese, Indian and Arab traders. Gold dust, hand-woven cotton cloth, beeswax, resin, rice wine, and rice cakes were among the goods shipped from there to Manila, the major Spanish metropolis and capital in the Philippines. When natural disasters such as flooding and typhoons prevented commerce with the capital, Vigan was at times the rival of Manila, its prosperity visible in the concentration of big old stone houses with tiled roofs owned by settlers of foreign extraction.

The marriage of Gabriela's parents also suggests that there was more to the interaction between upland and lowland communities than the exchange of goods. Little is actually known about Gabriela's early life, except that her father was Christian and her mother remained pagan, and that Gabriela stayed in her mother's village at some time in her youth, when she developed a liking for the tribespeople. The cross-cultural marriage of her parents could also suggest that the Christianized citizens of Philippine towns in the 18th century did not emulate the Spanish pretensions of racial superiority towards other pagan ethnic groups, but we might also surmise that cultural differences played a part in the parents' separation. Gabriela lived in two worlds, staying in her mother's village and later staying with her father, who had ambitions for his daughter: she would marry a rich man.

She acquired the equivalent of an elementary school education in the church convent, where Father Tomas Millan, the town's parish priest, considered her an adopted daughter. Legend has it that when she once saw a poor woman in the churchyard, she handed over a priceless pendant as an act of charity, indicating the values of charity and philanthropy developed under the church's influence.

At age 20, Gabriela was betrothed by her father to a rich widower. He died shortly after their marriage, and Gabriela became a wealthy young widow, attracting many suitors, including Diego Silang, an educated man of means in Vigan who became her second husband. The coupled remained childless, but lived happily for five years. In this period, Diego became the trusted messenger of Father Millan, Gabriela's foster father, delivering confidential reports and bringing back letters from Manila. He made

contacts and friendships, and had many conversations with a Spanish lawyer, Santiago Orendain. Their friendship would later become crucial in Diego's negotiations with the British, when events beyond the Philippines began to affect their lives.

During the Seven Years' War then being waged in Europe, colonies of the various European powers were drawn at times into the fray. Spain, because it was allied with France, was subject to attack by the British, and in 1762 British warships sailed from their ports in India to oust the Spaniards from their colonial outpost at Manila. The government in Manila, caught by surprise, immediately handed over the city to the invaders, and the archbishop of Manila was made governor-general. Elsewhere in the Philippine archipelago, however, the Spaniards continued to resist, and further pacification proved less easy. To soften Spanish resistance, the British began to promise reforms to the colonized natives, sowing seeds of revolt throughout the Philippine territory. After the conquest of Manila, the Silangs were among those who viewed the arrival of the British as an opportunity to gain independence for their people.

As Diego was drawn into inciting rebellion, the spirit of charity and philanthropy sown in Gabriela's childhood found fruition in her close collaboration with her husband in the cause against oppression. In their country, the principales were the class of prosperous native elites who worked for the Spaniards as administrators and tax collectors, wielding tremendous political and economic power, able to exploit the people by collecting taxes over and above those decreed by the Spaniards. When the Silangs raised the slogan "wrest power from the principales and restore it to the people," they were setting out to overturn the social pyramid by attacking the class to which they themselves belonged. At first it was only the people of the towns who rallied behind the banner of the revolt, but the Silangs also hoped to broaden their power base by attracting a combined force of the inland Tinguian warriors and Ilocanos. Meanwhile, the Silangs had organized a force, armed with all sorts of weapons, that joined in a march and defeated the Spanish in a decisive battle at the town of Cabugao; soon afterward, the Spanish were ousted from Vigan. Under British protection, Diego Silang assumed the position of captain-general and local governor in Vigan. On December 14, 1762, he proclaimed the independence of the Ilocos region and established a government of the people.

Both the ousted Spanish functionaries and members of the elite were naturally aghast at the changes Diego had instituted, overturning practices that had allowed them to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor by practicing exactions and illegal usury. His actions also freed common men from the hated feudal practices of corvée, or unpaid labor, and the paying of tribute, requiring instead that the principales pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the government. In return, he promised to allow the elite to live normal lives provided that they did not openly defy the government, although the priests of some towns were put under house arrest at the convent in Bantay town.

The offended church functionaries and elites were soon allied in planning the Silangs' assassination. Two friends of Diego, Miguel Vicos and Pedro Becbec, were hired to carry out the plot. On May 28, 1763, on the pretext of showing a summary of the tax collection, they gained entry into the Silang house, past unsuspecting guards. According to the account of an Augustinian priest, Fray Vivar, Diego had just come out of a room when Vicos "took out his trabuco [blunderbuss], discharged all its contents, and Silang fell dead." The fallen body was stabbed several times before the assassins made their escape, while a group of the elites distracted the Silang forces by creating confusion in the town.

Gabriela, having escaped assassination, swore to avenge the death of her husband. Rallying troops under the leadership of Nicolas Cariño and other trusted aides of Diego, she withdrew to Pidigan, Abra, her mother's town, in search of support from Tinguian mountain warriors. Eventually, she was able to organize a force that made a dramatic surprise attack against Becbec and his followers in the town of Santa, putting her enemies to flight. Then she joined with Cariño's forces in the town of Cabugao, where a fortress for the revolutionary army was established.

The Spaniards soon had a force of 6,000 organized for a counterattack. In a battle employing firearms and bows and arrows, both sides fought with daring, but the Tinguian mountain warriors, unaccustomed to fighting in the plains, were scattered by the firefight, Cariño was hit by musketfire, and the revolutionary army had to retreat to the hills of Abra. On July 11, 1763, the Spaniards marched in victory back into Vigan.

Gabriela reorganized a Tinguian force of 2,000 men, combined with the remnants of Cariño's defeated force, and headed toward Vigan, but the military advance did not remain secret for long. Her former foster parent, Father Millan, now governor of Vigan, commanded 300 archers to attack the flanks of Gabriela's troops while his main force waited in the town square. In the suburb of Bantay, Gabriela's army set fire to the houses of the town's elites and principales before advancing on the walled town. Although the image of Gabriela entering Vigan on horseback at the head of her army is a romantically vivid and lasting image, the attack was in fact the perfect setup for an ambush. While enemy archers rained arrows on her army's flanks, her forces were hit from the front by cannon balls and musket fire, and the terrified Tinguian warriors retreated in panic. Scattered and demoralized, the survivors fled back to their camp in Abra.

Gabriela had no time to regroup her troops. On September 20, 1763, a Spanish force, led by Manuel Arza y Urrutia, pushed into the Abra hinterlands in search of her camp, offering rewards to other warrior tribes in the Cordilleras. After a prolonged pursuit through the mountains, Gabriela and 90 of her followers were captured. She was returned to Vigan, where she suffered humiliation and psychological torture, forced to witness the flogging of hundreds of her suspected followers and the hanging of 90 more, before she herself climbed the scaffold to her execution. Her period of leadership had been brief, but her martyrdom and courage made her a lasting example to women of the Philippines.


Ancheta, Herminia M., and Michaela Gonzales. Filipino Women in Nation Building. Quezon City: Phoenix, 1984, pp. 248–249.

De los Reyes, J.P. "A Heroine of Ilocandia," in Chronicle Magazine. Vol. 18, no. 26. September 28, 1963.

Pagador, Flaviano R. "Maria Josefa Gabriela Silang, the Great Ilocano Heroine," in Ilocos Review. Vol. 2, no. 2, 1970.

Routledge, David. Diego Silang and the Origins of Philippine Nationalism. Quezon City: Philippine Center for Advanced Studies, 1979.

Simbulan, Clemente. "Women Patriots of Yesterday," in Filipina. Vol. 1, no. 22. November 1944.

Zaide, Gregorio. Great Filipinos in History. Manila: Verde Bookstore, 1970, pp. 594–597.

Jaime B. Veneracion , chair of the Department of History, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines