Beginnings of Naval, Biliran Island (A Revisionist Account)

By Rolando O. Borrinaga, Alberto M. Bago, Bienvenido H. Granali, Jose Gahum, and Antonio A. Abilar

Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary: Patron Saint of Naval

Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary: Patron Saint of Naval

The history of Naval on Biliran Island goes much deeper into the past than the “from Bagasumbol to Naval” theme that our folklore, folksongs, the 1961 Naval Centennial Celebration, and the first printed history written by the 1966 Naval Municipal Historical Committee would make us believe to have started around the 1850s.

In this revisionist paper we present theories on our town’s geologic origin, push back its recorded history by 250 years, and clarify certain controversial issues related to Naval’s founding in the 1850s.

For the natural history of Naval, a “delta-formation theory” has been proposed to explain its geologic origin. A geologic survey of Leyte published in 1954 also described the “coastal alluvial plains in Naval (as) the largest in (Biliran) island,” an exception from that of the surrounding regions of the island which are characterized by broken hills and mountains.

For the recorded history involving the present territorial jurisdiction of the town of Naval (see map), there was already an unnamed village here in 1600, the one described as the nearby base of the Spanish, native and other workers in the first known Spanish shipyard in the Philippines on Isla de Panamao (the present Biliran Island), and which had been visited by Jesuit missionaries based in Carigara starting in 1601. We postulate that the site of this village was located in the present Sitio Ilawod (a sitio is a cluster of few houses, ilawod refers to the seaward portion) of Barangay Caraycaray, along the southern bank and near the mouth of the Caraycaray River; that the first hospital in the Visayas region was established here in this village by the Jesuits in 1601; and the the shipyard was initially located at the nearby Sabang beach across Inagawan.

On 10 September 1712 the pueblo which had become known as Biliran filed a formal petition for becoming a separate pueblo and parish. This pueblo of Biliran included the settlements in the different areas and islets of Biliran Island, excluding Maripipi Island.7 We also postulate that the poblacion of Biliran pueblo was situated in the present Sitio Ilawod, on the same site that we had just postulated as the village base of the workers in the Spanish shipyard on Panamao in 1600, or 112 years earlier.

To support our claim for Sitio Ilawod as the poblacion of Biliran pueblo, we argue that the lantawan or watch tower on this site was erected long before 1712, as the previous requirement for this pueblo’s formation. We surveyed on 3 February 1990 the remaining traces of coral stone blocks of this watch tower (called trinchera sa Moros, the local reference to this fort against the historical Moro raiders). We found them at ground level overlooking the Caraycaray River in a neglected state. Flooding had apparently caused this relic to gradually sink into the swamp through the years. It was barely two meters above the water level at low tide and had been overgrown with weeds and nipa palms.

In May 1735 a government document published in Manila directed the natives residing in Biliran to have “peopled” jurisdiction within five years. This implies that it had attained the required number of tributes, namely 500. That document probably constituted the conditional government recognition of the people’s petition to be recognized as a pueblo back in 1712. The condition was probably met in due time, there being no subsequent document or folk information to indicate a demotion in status of the pueblo of Biliran.9 The diminution of Biliran pueblo’s population between 1712 and 1735 could be attributed to the effects of the Moro raids and the government-promoted migration to more central areas of Leyte and Samar to keep the people “under the bells” of the church.

On 10 October 1765 a government document published in Manila appointed a certain Don Gaspar Ignacio de Guevara as “cura” (parish priest) of San Juan Nepomuceno in Biliran pueblo.11 A secular priest who hailed from Samar, he turned out to be deluded and heretical.



Padre Gaspar (as Guevara is known to folklore of the present-day Biliran town) created a new poblacion by transferring it away from its original site in Sitio Ilawod to a hilltop in what is presently known as Barangay Hugpa. He called this new site Albacea (testamentary executor). Here he set up a sanctuary, enthroned himself in the “chair of Peter” with the royal throne in Biliran Island, and styled himself as the “first of the priests of the world.”

From his sanctuary, Padre Gaspar spread his doctrines, granted indulgences, spread news of miracles in the Leyte-Samar region, recruited and sent out disciples to incite revolts, conferred sacred orders, gave out offices, legislated, threatened those who opposed him and, together with an “alcalde mayor” of Biliran whom he appointed, fought against the Franciscan friars in Samar and the Augustinians in Leyte. He ordained sub-deacons, and attracted a great number of followers, especially among the women. He was also cordially treated and sheltered by the Alcalde Mayor (governor) of Samar (which included Leyte until 1777), who also worked with him.

Padre Gaspar was captured by Moro raiders and was drowned to death near Tagasipol Islet shortly before 1775, about 10 years after his appointment as cura of Biliran. He was succeeded by a Father Lorenzo Rivera.

The Old Site

As a result of the transfer of the poblacion to the new hilltop location (Albacea), the old site (in Sitio Ilawod) became known as Binongtuan (i.e., “towned,” the past tense of bungto, the Waray word for town in verb form).

According to local folklore, either during Padre Gaspar’s tenure as cura or at the time of his death, a maldicion (curse) was pronounced over the people in Biliran pueblo’s old poblacion (in Sitio Ilawod): that no male-born child of this place should ever become a priest; that whosoever should defy this curse risked insanity, death or failure as a person.

However, while the concrete effects of defying such maldicion has been told through the generations, folklore is not clear about its premise. Why was the curse pronounced? Was it because of the defiance and resistance of the villagers of the old poblacion (in Sitio Ilawod) against Padre Gaspar’s manipulations, particularly the removal and transfer of the pueblo’s altar to Albacea? Or was it their apparent refusal to ransom Padre Gaspar from his Moro captors, which act led to his undignified death? Both speculations could be inferred from available documentary sources.

Whatever may be the cause of the maldicion, the remaining villagers or their leaders in the old poblacion (in Sitio Ilawod) who did not follow Padre Gaspar became known as Bagasumbol or “obstacle to enemies,” who waged territorial border disputes against their “deserters” and “usurpers” in the new poblacion in Albacea.

With Padre Gaspar’s transfer of the poblacion, the geographical area that is now known as Naval was reduced to the status of a visita of Biliran pueblo. However, many residents of this visita also moved to a more elevated location two kilometers northeast of the old poblacion (in Sitio Ilawod). They named their new settlement Caraycaray.

The reasons for this move were probably to secure themselves from sneak Moro attacks along the Caraycaray River,21 and to avoid the curse on the old poblacion (in Sitio Ilawod), which had also been renamed as Bagasumbol. However, the most probable physical reason was to avoid the effects of the more frequent river floods, the most direct results of the decades of forest denudation (starting with the rampant log-cutting during the galleon-making years) and the attendant threat in a swampy village of attacks by man-eating crocodiles.


The Naval of folklore and folksongs and of the late 19th century owes its beginnings to Father Juan Inocentes Manco Garcia, who was the assistant parish priest and later parish priest of Biliran pueblo from around 1848 to 1861.23 By then the pueblo of Biliran had been reduced to the western half of the island, with the creation of Caibiran as a separate pueblo in 1828.24 And the place that would become Naval (the area around the old poblacion in Sitio Ilawod) was already called Bagasumbol.

According to folklore, Padre Inocentes (as Father Garcia was known) would make trips to Almeria, the northernmost outpost of his assignment, from his parish base in Biliran poblacion. Passing by the site of the present poblacion of Naval, he would pause in his journey to admire the beautiful sweeping plains of the area. Struck by the flatness and fertility of the land, he invited his relatives and friends from Dimiao, Bohol, and Danao, Cebu, to come and settle in this place.

The new migrants settled on an area near Tubod (spring), some two hundred meters north of the present town plaza of Naval, and about three kilometers northwest of the village of Bagasumbol (in Sitio Ilawod), the poblacion-turned-visita of Biliran pueblo.27 They were followed by other migrants from Panay and Negros.

Padre Juan Inocentes Manco Garcia: Founder of Naval

Padre Juan Inocentes Manco Garcia: Founder of Naval

In the early years, Padre Inocentes divided the land among the members of three regional migrant groups: the Cebuanos, the Boholanos, and the Hilonggos.28 He also initiated the efforts to build the first church and convento of the new settlement and to dig irrigation canals for the ricefields of Bagasumbol.

The name Bagasumbol, which sounded war-like, was changed to the more peaceful name, Naval, in 1859.

On 26 May 1860 Naval was separated from Biliran, but operated as a separate parish only as of 26 September 1860.31 On 31 July 1861, Msgr. Romualdo Ximeno, Bishop of Cebu, officially declared Naval an independent parish.32 In August 1861 Father Santos de Santa Juana took up formal residence as the first parish priest of Naval, and served the town for 21 years until 1882.

On 23 September 1869, Naval was (officially) recognized as an independent pueblo.

Padre Inocentes was known to have named the new pueblo Naval, in honor of its adopted patroness, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, whose miraculous intercession assured the Spanish victory over the Dutch Navy during the historic “La Guerra Naval de Manila” in 1646.35 The senior author of this paper, however, is of the opinion that Padre Inocentes may have also entertained the idea of commemorating the successful defense of Bagasumbol, which he led as the assistant parish priest of Biliran, against three waves of Moro attacks on this settlement. This was supposed to have occurred in the 1830s,37 but more probably between 184838 and 1858, the latter being the benchmark year for the cessation of the Moro attacks in the Visayas.

The Town of Biliran

The present-day town of Biliran (as has been mentioned) came into being sometime between 1765 and 1775 when Don Gaspar Ignacio de Guevara transferred the poblacion to a new location on the hilltop, which he called Albacea. The natives referred to Albacea as Manogsok.40 The latter name denotes the act of planting crops using a sharpened stick to dig holes in the soil, into which the seeds of grain (rice, corn, etc.) are dropped.

For the new settlement in Manogsok, the people constructed a church, a tribunal (government house), and a watch tower. They also raised domesticated animals and cultivated more land. Then a fire occurred and the whole village was reduced to ashes. What was left was the lantawan (watch tower), which was built far down on a hill overlooking the sea.

Thus rendered homeless, some households wandered from place to place. Others founded another settlement. They chose a location near Albacea, on a piece of land belonging to a certain person named Ilag (i.e., hostile). The new settlement was called Can-Ilag (of Ilag, or owned by Ilag). They renamed their former settlement as Nasunogan – the site razed by fire.

On 22 February 1782, Biliran’s parish of San Juan Nepomuceno received official superior approval from the Bishop of Cebu, about 17 years after Don Gaspar Ignacio de Guevara, its first curate, was officially appointed by the Spanish colonial government in 1765.

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