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History of Dapitan in Zamboanga del Norte and its Historical Sites

View of Dapitan
View of Dapitan (Colorized by Kiko del Rosario, Philippine Picture Post Cards: 1900-1920 by Jonathan Best. The Bookmark, Inc., 1994.)

Dapitan in Zamboanga del Norte was originally inhabited by the Subanon, but migrants from Bohol played a significant role in its history. In 1563, a Portuguese force with allies from Ternate, feigning to be traders, attacked Bohol. They destroyed the village built on the shallow waters of Panglao Strait. The Boholanos who had survived the attack migrated to the northern coast of Zamboanga, led by Datu Pagbuaya, the brother of Dailisan who served as Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s pilot when he explored the Visayan seas. Another story has it that Pagbuaya left Bohol because of a family dispute. Whatever the truth may be, when the Jesuits arrived in Dapitan, they first met the Boholanos who had settled on the land.

In Mindanao, Pagbuaya established a new settlement called Dapitan, said to be derived from “dapit,” a Visayan word meaning “the place on the other side.” The name was allegedly chosen because a line of demarcation was agreed upon between the native Subanon and the migrant Boholanos to establish peace between the two peoples. Fortunately, Dapitan was divided from the mainland by rivers so the demarcation was quite clear. Dapitan, a river delta, was a virtual island. In fact, the Spaniards perceived it as such.

In 1607, Father Pascual de Acuña, SJ arrived as a chaplain of the Spanish armada and preached in Dapitan. He baptized more than 200 people and administered the sacraments to the Boholanos. Until 1631, there were apparently no resident Jesuit pastors in Dapitan, but it was served by visiting priests from Cebu, among them Fathers Fabrico Sarsili, SJ and Francisco Otazo, SJ, and Bishop Arce, who acted as administrator of the archdiocese of Manila and concurrently bishop of Cebu. He officially turned over the spiritual care of Dapitan to the Jesuits between 1628 and 1629.

In 1631, the vice-provincial for the Pintados, Father Pedro Gutierrez, SJ established Dapitan as a residencia or a central house for Zamboanga and finally assigned resident priests there. In 1639, the Jesuits, through the help of Pagbuaya’s descendants, most notably Pedro Manuel Manoc, the ancestor of the Cabilin clan, built the first church in Dapitan, which was most likely made of stone. Much later, Manoc’s daughter Maria Oray, would establish the first beaterio in Dapitan after the beaterios in Manila refused to accept the widow because she was an Indio woman. She and her beatas lived a life of prayer, penance, and seclusion in Dapitan.

Dapitan remained a Jesuit center until 1768, when they were expelled from the Philippines. Administration of Dapitan was then turned over to the Recollects. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1870, the Recollects returned the administration of Dapitan back to the Jesuits. The Jesuits had returned to Dapitan after an aborted mission to Sindangan, which was then closed because of an epidemic. The Jesuit community was composed of Father Martin Luengo as superior, Fathers Peregria Goméz and Antonio Obach, and Brothers José Canalda and Vicente Roviralta.

From 1892 to 1896, Dapitan entered national history, when Rizal was exiled there. From July 1892 to March 1893, he was placed under house arrest in the casa real (royal house). But he was able to acquire property in Talisay, where he transferred residence and built a model community. In Talisay, Rizal built a school and a clinic, a model farm and a water system with the help of Brother Juan Costa in 1893. Costa, who was originally assigned to Balingasag, was transferred to Dapitan to help Rizal. Costa’s transfer was part of an effort by Rizal’s Jesuit mentors to bring him back to the Catholic faith.

That same year, Father Francisco Paula de Sanchez, one of Rizal’s teachers at the Ateneo Municipál in 1876, visited him in Dapitan. Father Sanchez and Rizal worked on a relief map of Mindanao in the town plaza.

The Dapitan Heritage Zone includes both built and open spaces, thus protecting the historic configuration of the zone’s streets and plaza. Some sites in the heritage zone had earlier been declared as National Cultural Treasure, like the Relief Map of Mindanao, and the town plaza, which was declared earlier as National Historical Landmark. The declaration as Heritage Zone adds another layer of government protection and also conserves the context of these declared sites.

Others sites in the heritage zone have historical markers, like the site where Rizal first landed when he arrived in Dapitan, the site where he left for Manila in 1896, and the casa real. In the 1920s, the casa real in Dapitan, the residence of the local gobernadorcillo was demolished to build a dormitory for the medical personnel of the Rizal Memorial Hospital. A historical marker marks the spot.

Church of Santiago
Church of Santiago (Photo by Carmelo Bayarcal)

Also previously marked is the Church of Santiago, which was completed in 1904 but already under construction in the 1890s. The church, which has two bell towers, is a mix of a neoclassical style structure with Gothic style windows. In this church, Rizal attended Mass. He was said to have preferred staying at the back of the church, while Father Obach SJ, one of the last Jesuits to be assigned to Dapitan, preached and denounced heretics and filibusteros (subversives).

In addition to these already recognized sites, the designation Heritage Zone has recognized the importance of Ilihan Hill, a promontory beside the church where the Boholanos had built a fortification. It was subsequently taken over by the Spaniards who by 1738 had built a fort on the hill.

Traces of the fort, now in ruins, can be found. The hill is accessed through a flight of cement steps. At its peak, it opens to a panorama of the city. The colonial fortification at Ilihan is unusual because it is not a bastioned fort, the most common type built during the Spanish era, but a fortification that maximizes the defensive capacity of Ilihan. Small separate structures are built on the slope and the top of the hill. These walls and blockhouses are connected by a winding path.

Aniano Adasa Residence, now Department of Tourism office
Aniano Adasa Residence, now Department of Tourism office, 2014 (Jeffy Tomarong)

The declaration also covers the City Hall, which has been restored, and ancestral houses like the Adasa Residence and Corazon de Dapitan. The Adasa Residence is a two-story, all-wood structure, typical of frontier architecture in Mindanao. A wrap-around balcony on the second floor, an external staircase leading to the second floor, and spaces for shops on the first give the house its distinct quality. Corazon de Dapitan, meanwhile, was built like a bahay na bato (stone house), with a lower floor of stone and an upper floor of wood.

The Dapitan Parochial School, formerly the escuela de niños y niñas, built in 1895, is a one-story neoclassical-style school. It is one of the few existing school buildings from the Spanish era.

Casa Redonda, rebuilt according to the plans of the original octagonal hut by Jose Rizal

Casa Redonda, rebuilt according to the plans of the original octagonal hut by Jose Rizal (Photo by Carmelo Bayarcal)

Although it is some distance away from Dapitan and separated by a river, Talisay is also included in the Heritage Zone. Rizal lived there after his house arrest in the casa real, and established a model farm, clinic and school in the barangay. Among the structures rebuilt in Talisay are the Casa Redonda, an octagonal bahay kubo (nipa hut), which Rizal used as a clinic, the school, and Rizal’s residence. Also identified is El Retiro, a rock facing the sea, where Rizal would sit when he needed to be alone. The remains of the water system built by Rizal and Brother Juan Costa, SJ are still in Talisay.

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