Endangered Agutaya fortress-church

A bastion, part of the fortress-church complex of Agutaya. Like the one in Cuyo, it was built by the Augustinian Recollects.

A bastion, part of the fortress-church complex of Agutaya. Like the one in Cuyo, it was built by the Augustinian Recollects.

The Cuyo Loop
Agutaya is in blue
In October of 2006, I visited the remote islands of Cuyo and Culion in Palawan for a photography assignment and passed Negros and Iloilo in transit. This is my account of that journey.

To put into context the many Spanish colonial era fortifications that can still be seen around the coasts of Luzon and the Visayas, I’ve written a more detailed 3-part post at simbahan.net. A summarized version can also be found in this blog.

This is the 15th of a series I have been looking forward to see for myself the fortress-church of Agutaya ever since I learned about it while I was in Cuyo. In no time, I’ve set out to go to this place even if the trip was rather scary. Come to think of it, these very remote islands harbor architectural gems that is historically and culturally significant. A monument to the struggles and determination to defend these people from the scourge of slave raiders and pirates. As I was already in the area, why not visit it than wait for another schedule that I really don’t know when?

Relief of Augustinian Recollect seal with the text beside it as "DE 1748"

Relief of Augustinian Recollect seal with the completion date beside it as "DE 1748"

Like the fortress-church of Cuyo, the Baluarte de San Juan Bautista, as what the one here in Agutaya is called, were constructed by the Augustinian Recollects who were given the task to spiritually administer these islands. The edifice was first built in 1683 but it wasn’t known if it was already a fort made of stone. What is known is that in the 18th century, with the help of the townspeople and their encomendero, Antonio de Rojas who delineated the plans, it was remodelled and was completed in 1748. This date can be found on one of the walls beside a seal of the religious order (photo below). During World War II, it was the town’s emergency and evacuation center.

A badly deteriorated portion that leads to where the belfry used to stand

A badly deteriorated portion that leads to where the belfry used to stand

The morning after I arrived at this island, I walked up to the fortress-church. It is smaller than the one in Cuyo. Modest and plain, one can easily mistake it as nothing but a fort. The belfry that once stood is already gone except for a small wooden frame, badly worn by the elements, where a lone bell hangs that, from a distance, is not discernible.

Inside the Agutaya fortress-church complex

Inside the Agutaya fortress-church complex

One bastion, where stone steps lead to the bell is badly degraded with portions having crumbled already. It is disheartening. After more than 200 years, a once proud structure that sheltered and shielded the town from invaders is now in danger of disintegrating.

View of the coast from one of the bastions.

View of the coast from one of the bastions.

A garita or sentry box overlooking the beach

A garita or sentry box overlooking the beach

There are two openings: a side entrance to the church, facing the town and the other, at the perpendicular side. Upon entering the latter, a quadrangle greets the visitor. At the left side is the church and opposite is the kumbento, or parochial house.

Stairs inside the kumbento lead to the promontory where one can have a commanding view of the sea. On a clear day, outlying islands can be seen as well as any approaching vessel. At one corner, a garita, or sentry box can be found.

Looking at the sea, I can’t help but wonder how it would have been when the Muslim slave raiders were sighted, their prahus scattered at the waters. It is estimated that an average raiding party consists of 40-50 of these light but fast vessels that have a total of 2,500 – 3,000 armed men. Those numbers are intimidating! How might have the sentries reacted? How was the town evacuated and sheltered inside the walls? Did the townspeople also formed their own defending forces?

Catholic images embelished with shells.

Catholic images embelished with shells.

Baptismal font made from the half shell of a giant clam (genus Tridacna)

Holy water font made from the half shell of a giant clam (genus Tridacna)

The church, again, like the one in Cuyo is narrow. Its walls more than a meter thick. Originally covered with brick tiles, or known as tejado, for its roofing, it is now capped with galvanized iron sheets. Inside, is a choirloft but the decorations are sparse. Not much images except those found at the altar with its still original wooden retablo.

What directly caught my attention were the presence of half shells of giant clams of the genus Tridacna that were used as holy water fonts. The images here are also decorated using shells found at the coasts and are utilized as pedestals for the icon as well as formed into florettes.

The fortress-church of Agutaya, while modest, is an achievement. The island isn’t really that rich and resources can be sparse at times but the people were able to build this massive structure. It is the first building that greets the visitor to the island and upon leaving, the last that bades farewell. Unfortunately, its state is bad and I just hope that it will be restored and maintained well for future generations.

Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications. He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces. I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.

14 Comments

  1. Liezeil
    September 21, 2008 @ 15:31

    Thanks for this article, Estan.

    You’re right, it’s really disheartening to see our fortress-church in a sad state. The church-fortress played a major role in the history of our town and our people during the Muslim raids, and during the World War II. It also reminds us of the fortitude, character, and massive sacrifice of our predecessors while building the church. It’s a product of their tears, blood, and lives. We’ve been told that they had to suffer at least 50 “latigos” everytime they would stop working or would refuse to render forced labor. But even then, they remained faithful believers.

    We’re also trying to help preserve this cultural heritage, but probably our efforts are not yet too concerted enough to produce effective results. There is an ongoing contruction inside the fortress for the parish priest’s convent. The convent, during the time that you visited Agutaya, was actually located across the Municipal Hall, more than 100 meters away from the church. Hopefully, after the convent is finished, we can restore the deteriorated portions.

    I hope, your article can help us awaken the other Agutaynens too, to help us preserve our heritage.

    By the way, the pictures are great!

    Liezeil

  2. norahd
    September 22, 2008 @ 7:04

    Hi Estan! I have seen quite a number of historical structures in the country that MUST be preserved. Many times over, I asked myself who should REALLY be in charge of the preservation work. I know we have agencies like the NCCA or NHI, but I don’t quite understand their processes on matters such as this. One thing I know though, they have criteria to observe as to what structures should be preserved. Wheww.. very frustrating, we always drag our feet on important issues like this.

    Don’t ever ask yourself WHAT IS A FILIPINO – as it is, in the absence of real concern from the government and lack of interest among many of our kababayans – we are slowly but surely losing our heritage and history.

    Really sad..

    (PS: Agutaya is one place I have never been to in Palawan. I’ll visit the place one of these days.)

    Congratulations Estan… very nice article.. truly worth reading.

  3. The Islander
    September 22, 2008 @ 15:10

    worth reading. entertaining and informative.
    the white beach outside looks nice.
    dapat the local authorities should have maintained the structure by atleast reconstructing some of its parts without changing its original form. basin og makita nalang ang value if wala na.

  4. donG hO
    September 22, 2008 @ 16:15

    this place is worth promoting. ganda din pala talaga dyan. galing mong magdocument.

  5. estan
    September 25, 2008 @ 19:49

    Liezeil, thank you for your comment. I never imagined that this structure was a product of the polo system or forced labor. While many would say that this was the system implemented by the Spaniards, it was, infact, an exception than a rule. There have been studies that found many church records listing the payments given to laborers in either cash or kind. In other areas, the people volunteered to build it out of love for the faith and deep respect for a charismatic parish priest.

    Regarding the construction, I do hope that it will harmonize with the structure.

    Norahd, its really a sad fact that Filipinos doesn’t value much our heritage treasures. Even those declared by the NCCA/NHI as such have been desecrated by unknowing priests who, like politicians, would embark on a project to immortalize themselves in their church of assignment.

    the islander, o bai, grabe kanindot ang beach ngadto! its very unspoiled and you will have it all to yourself.

    dong, thanx pre 🙂

  6. Culion’s remodelled fortress-church | langyaw
    October 2, 2008 @ 11:04

    […] those in Taytay, Linapacan, Dumaran and Lucbuan (mostly ruined) and the fortress churches of Agutaya and Cuyo, construction was started in the last two decades of the 1600s. For Culion, it was […]

  7. End of the Cuyo Loop | langyaw
    October 2, 2008 @ 11:10

    […] main reason that I ventured into these remote areas in the first place. These structures in Cuyo, Agutaya and Culion defended these towns from the Muslim slave raiders for more than a century. While these […]

  8. noypi
    November 25, 2008 @ 10:55

    very interesting write-up and shots estan.
    i hope i’ll have the chance to visit that place
    as well as cuyo.

    thanks for sharing the need to preserve our cultural
    heritage. i hope it will be imparted as well to
    the younger generations of Filipinos now.

  9. estan
    November 27, 2008 @ 12:28

    noypi, the place is so out of the way but very interesting. you should visit it one day 🙂

  10. Farl
    February 27, 2009 @ 20:38

    I’ve been trying to catch up with your previous posts and among the places I most direly would like to see for myself are the 3 fortress churches in the remote Cuyo area. I actually buy seaweed from this region but most unfortunately time is what I don’t have. Add to that the imminent isolation, distance and risk in getting there which seemd too daunting a hindrance now that I am married and have a kid. Meantime, I’ll just satisfy myself with the pictures which as always give justice to these wonderful places.

  11. fnf
    October 15, 2009 @ 14:40

    hi estan,

    thanks for the time u spent in my native town…. the shots reminded me of my childhood. i’ve been away from the town for almost a decade… but am writing my paper about the place so far… maybe next summer i’l be there… hope to capture more shots of the place…

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    August 4, 2011 @ 5:38

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    January 19, 2012 @ 20:09

    […] is another example. High up a hill, it overlooked the coast. And so are the ones found in Cuyo, Agutaya and Culion in Palawan; Capul, Guiuan and Laoang in Samar; Boac in Marinduque. The belfry in Tabaco, […]

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