The Early Colonial Period in Bulacan

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Bulacan, a province bordering Manila to the north, is one of the localities to be first incorporated into the Hispanic administration of the Philippines in the 1500s. This province is known for its exciting festivals or fiestas, such as the Carabao Festival where water buffalos or carabaos parade around town and are made to kneel in front of the church, and the Fertility Dance for hopeful childless couples. The bountiful harvest of the land manifests in its famous delicacies: sweet pastries, rice cakes, salted crabs, savoury chorizos, fish, and an array of meat dishes.  Its southwestern parts where wide, sluggish rivers waltz through broad plains and marshes saw the beginnings of formal settlement by early Filipinos.

Plaridel (previously called Quingua, pronounced “keeng-wah”) is among the oldest settled places in this province. In 2012 an archaeological excavation done in this locality near the banks of the Angat River uncovered secrets of Bulacan’s past. Records by Spanish scribes tell that people in this area had short hair and wore gold trinkets, and that the ancient villages each had around 400 people when Bulacan was first organized as a province in the 16th century.

Archaeologists were under time constraint as the excavation site was a housing project being developed for homeless families. They did however reach the level of around the 16th century when they saw tell-tale artifacts of the period, such as numerous sherds from porcelain wares known as “Zhangzhou Ware,” named after a port city of southern China where these ceramic vessels were shipped out to Southeast Asian kingdoms and peoples.

The first bucketfuls of earth uncovered plastics and modern materials from recent decades. Then careful digging showed up old nails and other artifacts characteristic of the more than 300 years of Hispanic colonial history. Suddenly, the whole team became excited when their trowels and brushes revealed an extraordinary find: a fragile and partially exposed human skeleton coming to light! As other excavation trenches were lowered to the same level, several other human bones were discovered, suggesting that this had been an old cemetery! Analysis of teeth from one of the deceased individuals indicates that the person died at around seven to twelve years old. Still young.

The first towns or pueblos were formed when the colonial government began a program of evangelizing natives and resettling Christian converts into settlements starting in the 16th century. This program was called reduccion. The new towns had a parish church, a town square or plaza, and other important facilities that could cater for the needs of inhabitants. Quingua was an example of these pueblos. The cemetery found by archaeologists can be the burial ground of the then newly-formed community of Quingua, which was founded close to the Angat River.

Ancient Bulacan relied on its inland waterways and coasts for transportation and livelihood. Movement from place to place could be efficiently done by water vessel than overland transport. Allies were easily summoned for contingencies in times of war through boats. Food was easily found at rivers and coasts, along with building materials and other necessities or luxuries as alcoholic beverages from the nipa palms growing on brackish swamps. The blessings from waterways were received as an all-in-one package together with the unpleasant elements from it: ferocious crocodiles that ambush the careless, and big floods that could wash away everything.

True enough, analysis of soil obtained from the excavation layers also revealed that Quingua was occasionally affected by flooding. While documents most often report only what is important to the writer, archaeology can show us that everyday events in the past can leave their mark through unexpected means. Were they fans of imported things or were they using their own products? What pots and household items were used in Quingua or old Plaridel can be disclosed by opening up the earth on which the old community once stood.

While urbanization from the metropolitan capital creeps northwards into Bulacan, Plaridel and the surrounding towns continue to maintain the tradition instilled by the first friars more than 300 years ago. Its forgotten stories are now being told by our trowels and brushes.

Text and photos by Jack G. L. Medrana

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