basi revolt 1807

Who could have imagined that native sugarcane wine would become a trigger for a Ilocos-wide revolt, which bicentennial we are commemorating this month? And why is it that all we have got to show for it, after 200 years, are 14 paintings that only few ordinary Filipinos have seen?

Northern Dispatch
Vol. VII, No. 34, September 30-October 6, 2007

Who could have imagined that native sugarcane wine would become a trigger for a Ilocos-wide revolt, which bicentennial we are commemorating this month? And why is it that all we have got to show for it, after 200 years, are 14 paintings that only few ordinary Filipinos have seen?

Why Spain banned basi

The production of native sugarcane wine, or basi, was already a distinct industry in the Ilocos region even in pre-Spanish times. However, it continued to flourish under the Spanish regime, until the authorities began to impose pressures on the natives’ drinking habits.

The reason for this is that Vigan – then known as Ciudad Fernandina, capital of Ilocos Province and founded by illustrious conquistador Juan Salcedo – had meanwhile become an important stop in the galleon trade.

Spain wanted to profit by selling more of its wines to the Ilocos natives. But the basi factories of Ilocos must have been so prosperous in their own right towards the end of the 18th century, that the colonial authorities considered them a growing threat to Spain’s wine trade.

Thus, in 1786, the Spanish regime declared a wine monopoly. The Ilocanos were banned from fermenting and drinking home-made basi. Instead, they were compelled to buy their wine from government stores. (This was in addition to the tobacco monopoly, imposed five years earlier in 1781, which also hit the Ilocano farmers hard.)

After 20 years of resentment against these economic impositions, the Ilocanos had no choice but to fight back.

Revolt breaks out

On Sept. 16, 1807, under the leadership of Pedro Ambaristo, the people of Piddig, Ilocos Norte (rose in revolt against the wine monopoly. They entered Sarrat, Laoag and Batac successively, recruited more rebels, and made the liberated towns their base of operations. The rebels then advanced southward, entering Badoc and Sto. Domingo, ultimately intending to capture the capital Vigan (407 kms north of Manila).

The Spanish alcalde mayor in Vigan sent a 36-man Spanish Army force with a cannon and two platoons of Guardia Civil to attack the rebel force advancing southward in Badoc. The rebels repulsed them and captured the cannon. Town after town fell to the rebels, who recruited more forces along the way to Vigan.

Two weeks later, however, the alcalde mayor led another force of regular Spanish troops. On Sept. 28, 1807, they attacked and defeated the rebel force at what is now Barangay (village) Gongogong on the south banks of the Bantaoay River in San Ildefonso town (411 kms north of Manila).

Thus ended what is now recorded in history books as the 1807 Basi Revolt.

Sparse legacies

Today, 200 years later, written accounts of the revolt are so sparse and half-forgotten, that the episode usually occupies only a few paragraphs in our history books.

There is a distinct possibility that documents from Spanish-period archives, once researchers find them, will provide us with more details of that dramatic event in our history. But it will take more years before these details seep down to ordinary Filipinos through textbooks and mass media.

Thus, it is a sad statement about the value we place on major historical events that in these past week, only a few short items appeared in the national dailies about the 200th anniversary of the Basi Revolt.

One news item reported that the town council of San Ildefonso, Ilocos Sur – the scene of the last battle – passed a resolution declaring September 16 as a non-working holiday in the municipality, and naming an old road in Brgy. Gongogong as Ambaristo Street in honor of the executed revolt leader.

Significantly, basi remains as the town’s main product and is in fact its entry to the government’s “One Town, One Product” program.

Villanueva’s 14 paintings

At this point, however, the most precious remaining legacy of the 1807 Basi Revolt are 14 oil paintings, done by Esteban Pichay Villanueva (1797-1878) in what is called the “na├»ve art” style.

The paintings, which measure 91.44 cm x 91.44 cm each, are on public display at the Burgos Museum – actually the ancestral house of martyred priest Fr. Jose Burgos in Vigan City and which now serves as the Vigan branch of the National Museum.

The paintings, depicting scenes from the famous revolt, were made in 1821 by Esteban Pichay Villanueva, 14 years after the bloody event. Villanueva was a farmer and unschooled painter, who, according to art teacher Roberto Feleo, used watercolor brushes to paint oils.

The 14 panels successively show the massing of rebel forces, the counter-attack by Spanish forces, the use of the Vigan church as sanctuary, the final bloody battle of Bantaoay, and the executions by hanging and beheading.

It is said that rich Ilocano businessmen – who were as adversely affected by the revolt as their Spanish masters – commissioned the 24-year-old Villanueva to paint the gory revolt scenes so as to dissuade the Ilocos peasantry from further entertaining thoughts of revolt.

“The 14 paintings were supposed to represent the 14 Stations of the Cross,” said Emma Villanueva, a businesswoman and a direct fifth-generation descendant of the painter. She added that her ancestor Esteban painted not for money, but as a hobby.

The 14 paintings were all but forgotten, Emma said, until a member of the Villanueva clan discovered them in the early 1950’s in one of the family bodegas (warehouses) in Vigan. After a number of transfers, the provincial government had the paintings housed in the Vigan branch of the National Library.

Who owns the paintings?

Emma explained that there is a gray area between three entities – the Villanueva clan, the National Museum, and the Ayala Museum – about who is in control of the paintings. She reiterated her clan’s position that the paintings were clearly owned by the Villanuevas when these were taken away and finally landed at the Burgos Museum.

Emma said her clan is open to the idea of granting public status to the paintings because these are the legacy of the entire Filipino people, but insisted that the Villanueva clan’s property claims be acknowledged first.

Emma expressed concern that the paintings be kept well-maintained for the sake of future generations. She noted that in the past, there were amateurish attempts to retouch the paintings, which modified some details including costumes.

When Nordis staffers visited the Burgos Museum two weeks ago, we did not notice any humidity and temperature controls. In some spots of the paintings, some deterioration is noticeable. Nordis encountered strict rules when we asked permission to take photos of the paintings.

It is to the credit of other history buffs that printed reproductions are currently on exhibit at the Museum of the Filipino People in Manila. Negotiations are also afoot to put all 14 panels on display in the said Manila museum up to mid-December.

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