“Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit 'yan sa amin.”
- Former President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (07.24.2017) -
I have been wanting to see the bells since its return in 2018. More than the history that I read and the movie that I saw, the bells symbolize how the sheer political will of a nation’s leader brought back a heritage artifact that redeemed a small town’s pride and honor. That town is Balangiga in Eastern Samar and this is their story and place in our history.
Balangiga is a town of more than 14,000 people on the southern coast of Eastern Samar. It is a typical rural “in-between” spot in the country that most people would pass through during travels. It may not have the usual “touristy sites” for a lot of travelers but this small town played a huge role in Philippine history that, to this day, remains subject to different interpretations. And, it all started with the tolling of the Balangiga Bells.
Balanginga Town Plaza: The Story Unfolds
Like any other Philippine town, the town plaza sits at the heart of Balangiga. The plaza serves as a venue for local events and activities. It has been a silent witness to the town’s joys and pains from the recent to its distant past.
Beyond its daily buzz, the Balangiga Town Plaza is home to a monument that tells the story that placed the sleepy town in the annals of Philippine history. On the morning of September 28, 1901, villagers made a surprise attack on the Company C of the 9th US Infantry Regiment. The ringing of the bells marked the start of tge attack against the American troops. The attack caused 44 deaths, 22 wounded, and 4 missing in action on the American regiment. The Americans retaliated with General Smith ordering to shoot any Filipino aged 10 years and above and turn Samar into a “howling wilderness”. The church bells of Balangiga were later seized as war trophies.
The Balangiga Monument depicts the scene of the attack by the Filipinos on that fateful day. On the side of the monument is a list of names of the Americans and Filipinos who were present during the attack engraved on the wall. Another monument featuring Valeriano Abanador, the police chief during that time and who led the attack, stands adjacent to the monument. The historical marker of the event was also installed on Abanador’s monument. The Balangiga Encounter/Massacre is commemorated every year in Eastern Samar and is considered as the “worst defeat of US Army soldiers since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876”.
Balangiga Church: In Memoriam
At the center of the Balangiga Encounter is the Spanish-period Balangiga Church. The church is also known as the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir as it was dedicated to the Roman martyr in 1854. The church played a significant role in the attack as the tolling of its bells signaled the start of the attack by the irregular Filipino forces against the Americans.
The Church of San Lorenzo de Martir stands out as an imposing structure against the rustic vibe of the town. The church facade is like a fortress that exudes strength and built. The wave design on the top stands out and it was my first time to notice such design on a Spanish-period church. The belfry stands adjacent to the church and dominates the skyline of the town.
Unlike most Spanish-period churches in the country, the interior of the church has a modern touch. Solid rock walls were replaced with concrete pillars and grilled side walls giving the church a more airy and refreshing feel. The simple altar is complements the whole ambiance of the church.
The side of the church, behind the church’s belfry, is a memorial for those who died during the Balangiga Encounter. A small plot where small white crosses were installed to remember those who died on that fateful day. A common grave where human bone fragments are interred and displayed was also installed. These bones were unearthed on the churchyard and is believed to be the bones of unnamed individuals who died on that day.
Balangiga Bells: The Long Way Home
The Balangiga Church had 3 bells that were minted in different years. The oldest bell was casted in 1853 and bears the Franciscan Coat of Arms. The second bell was casted in 1889 while the smallest bell was casted in 1895. The tolling of the smallest bell that signaled the start of the attack and all three bells were later on, in retaliation by the Americans, were confiscated as war trophies.
On the hands of the Americans, one of the church bells was in South Korea and the other two were in Wyoming. The bells were finally repatriated to the Philippines in December 11, 2018. Finally in December 15 of that same year, the bells were finally installed in Balangiga and was rung at dawn the next day to signal the start of the Simbang Gabi. It took decades of lobbying and a Duterte presidency to finally bring back the bells to its rightful place bringing back the pride and glory of the town of Balangiga.
POST TRAVEL NOTES
I have been wanting to see the Balangiga Bells since its return to Philippine soil. It is a legacy that it was during the time of the PRRD’s administration that it was repatriated as we took a stand to return what is rightfully ours. The bells are more than just a century-old artifact. It is a symbol of the bravery of Balangiga townsfolk as they fought for their freedom against the Americans. It embodies the pride and glory of a town that took a stand against oppression.
The town of Balangiga is not the usual tourist destination that draws visitors because of its natural beauty or attractions. In fact, it is the opposite. It is a simple town that exudes the rustic and provincial ambiance. But beyond the attractions that we often look for, Balangiga offers a narrative that evokes a sense of pride and courage as a Filipino. As you hear the bells of Balangiga tolling, always remember the story by Filipinos for Filipinos.
Getting there: To get to the town of Balangiga, you can take a plane to Tacloban City from any major hub in the Philippines. You can then take a jeep or a trike from the airport to Van-vans Downtown Tacloban Teminal where you can take a van to Guiuan. You can ask the driver to drop you off at Balangiga. Travel time from Tacloban to Balangiga is around 3 hours.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.