A BRIEF HISTORY OF BULAN TOWN

By: Antonio G. Gilana

The town of Bulan has a colorful and dramatic history which dates back to the pre-Hispanic period.

HOW BULAN GOT ITS NAME: THE LEGEND

The name “Bulan” went through several transformations.

In the local Bulaneno dialect, it has several meanings. It may mean the month of the year, or the moon, or a luminary. According to a local historian, the great Valerio Zuñiga, the last meaning, taken in its intrinsic sense, is the more accepted term, due to the historical fact narrated by the “mga gurangan”, the old inhabitants of the town. They said that one night, a Spanish scouting expedition coming from the old seaport of Ticao sailing northward and at the level of the seacoast of Otabi, saw a big and beautiful luminary, the moon, from the right side of their ship. Some of the natives who accompanied the Spanish explorers as guides and crew members, showed happiness and excitement when they saw the moon which had caused their happiness. In memory of this happening, the Spaniards named the place, “Bulan” when they landed.

Another version goes that one moonlit night, two fishermen ashore were apportioning their catch when the Spaniards who landed in the place approached them for information about the place. Thinking that they were being asked about the full moon rising in the east, they answered, “Bulan”.

Historical records however show that our place was first identified as “Bililan”, then later on as “Builan”, ad then more later, “Bulan”.

PRE-SPANISH PERIOD

Archeological  evidences point out that long before the coming of the Spaniards, the coasts of Sorsogon were already thriving with communities and settlers dating back to as early as 4,000 B.C., when the Indonesians reached Southern Luzon. The archeological findings excavated in San Juan, Magsaysay and Gate, which were evaluated to belong to the Ming and Sung dynasty support the theories of historical researchers that the southernmost tip of Luzon, mentioned by Beyer and other historians, probably including Bulan, showed signs of civilization as far as 960 A.D. Golden crowns, believed of exist from 91 B.C. to 79 A.D., were also excavated in Bulan.

SPANISH PERIOD: Early Periods

Historical records disclose that in 1569, an expedition led by Captain Luis Enriquez de Guzman and Fray Alonzo Jimenez, an Augustinian Friar, reached Sorsogon soil and found a small settlement of natives engaged in fishing and farming. This settlement was believed to be Otavi. It was in Otavi where Fr. Jimenez, together with Fr. Juan Orta, celebrated the first Mass in Luzon.

On May 16,1572, Capitan-General Miguel Lopez de Legazpi divided what is now Sorsogon province into various encomiendas, and he allotted “Bililan”(Bulan) as a royal encomienda, which together with “Uban”(Juban) has a population of 280 or 70 whole tributes.

In 1583, the Franciscans began their evangelical work in Sorsogon. Subsequently in 1646, the Franciscans formed Gate as a visita of Bulusan. In January 1690, “Builan” was constituted as a pueblo civil and Gate was chosen as the town site. Fray Diego de Yepes assumedadministration of the town and at the same time its parish priest. He left Bulan sometime in 1696.

The growth of Bulan as a town, however, would be arrested as it began to suffer from the pressures of intense Moro raids in Sorsogonwhich lasted up to the middle of the 19th century. In 1746, a very devastating Moro attack destroyed Gate, which was 12 kilometers distant from the coast. Bulan was plundered and razed to the ground. Scores of natives were killed and injured. Women and children were taken as captives. Those who were able to survive escaped the town, fleeing to the hills and hinterlands, totally abandoning the town. For the next 55 years Bulan was erased from the maps.

REBUILDING THE TOWN: Later Periods

Towards the latter part of 1799, a Spanish mestizo from Casiguran, Don Agustin Camposano, came to Bulan to initiate the re-establishment of the town. On January 1, 1801, the town was refounded along the banks  of the “Mariboc River”, in what is now between Sitio Pawa and Barangay San Rafael. Builan, now spelled as “Bulan”, became a duly recognized pueblo under the Province of Albay, with Don Juan Vicente as the first “Capitan” or “Gobernadorcillo” and Father Manuel Bernardo as the first parish priest. The fortress of the old town, now referred to as “Banuang Daan” stands as a mute testimony to the dramatic rise of Bulan as a community.

On May 15, 1801, Otavi was the first barrio recognized by the Municipal Government of Bulan. Later on Gate, San Juan (Daan) and Buenavista (in Irosin) were recognized as barrios.

Fifteen years later, sometime in 1815, a killer typhoon struck Bulan, killing many of its inhabitants, destroying crops and properties. This forced many residents to move westward, to a safer place, to avoid the imminent danger of the floods of the River Mariboc.

On November 11, 1849 the Claveria Decree was issued in which new surnames for the inhabitants were adopted to facilitate identification. In 1850, this decree was implemented in Bulan. The families of Bulan were given new family names, most of which starts with letter “G’.

In 1866, the municipal officials of Bulan decided to transfer the town to its present site. A cofradia, formed by Fr. Francisco Roque, was headed by Don Marcial Gillego, the Capitan-municipal and an architect. This cofradia (religious confraternity composed of prominent citizens) was given the task of management in the planning and construction of the new town.

In 1883, a cholera epidemic, the worst catastrophe to hit Bulan killed 810 persons or 22 percent of the population in a 3-month period. Many prominent citizens also died during that time.

Since its founding, and despite some unhappy events in the life of its people, the town continually and steadily began its rise to prosperity. It surpassed other towns in terms of economic activities, and rivaled with the premiere seaport town of Sorsogon. It was now an important and crowded seaport engaging in commercial trade with seacoast towns of Samar and the islands of Ticao and Masbate, the neighboring towns in Sorsogon and the city of Manila. By the time Sorsogon province became independent from Albay, in 1894, Bulan’s population rose to 11,000. The big Spanish firm engaged in copra and abaca export, the Gutierrez Hermanos, from Manila, established a town branch. Many Chinese traders resided in Bulan.

BULAN DURING THE PHILIPPINE REVOLUTION:

While Bulan was spared the bloody turmoil of the 1896 Revolution, the Spanish Provincial Government undertook measures to preempt revolutionary activities in the towns, and placed under surveillance all persons suspected of bearing sympathy to the revolutionary cause. Arrests and imprisonments took place. In October 1896, Don Teodoro Z. De Castro was arrested and incarcerated in Bilibid, because he was found in possession of letters written by anti-Spanish natives in Manila. Don Zacarias Asuncion and other residents suffered the same fate, for having no cedulas personales and for singing anti-Spanish songs. It should be noted here, that on January 4, 1897, one of the sons of Bulan, Father Severino Diaz, a priest at the Nueva Caceres Cathedral, was shot in Bagumbayan together with 14 other martyrs. They are now referred to as the “Martyrs of Bikol”.

In November, 1898, Bulan was visited by three ranking revolutionary leaders, General Ignacio Pawa, General Vicente Lukban, and Colonel Pedro Aguinaldo. They declared Bulan under the New Philippine Republic. Elections were also held that year.

AMERICAN PERIOD:

On January 21, 1900 at the height of the Philippine-American War, the Americans landed in Bulan. The American soldiers were under the command of Captain Charles Mclane and Lieutenant B.P. Dishky, of the A and B Company of the First Battalion. There was no resistance from the town. In fact, through the efforts and initiatives of the principales of Bulan headed by Don Rufino Gerona, the pacification campaign in Sorsogon gained ground. It was Don Rufino and company who caused the surrender of Col. Emeterio Funes, a provincial revolutionary leader.

Not to be forgotten during this period between the First Philippine Republic and the American Occupation is the name of lawyer Don Julian Gerona, an illustrious son of Bulan who figured prominently in national affairs. He was a friend of Rizal, Mabini and other revolutionary leaders. He also later on became the first Secretary to the First Philippine Assembly of 1907, albeit, for five months, but even then his name will be etched in the annals of  Philippine history.

Under the Americans, the community of Bulan flourished. Education, trade and commerce, politics and religion were given ample freedom to prosper. The people started organizing labor unions, political parties and community movements. The setting up of women’s clubs as the Club de la Mujer, and the Jota de Leche and scouting movements were encouraged.

WORLD WAR II:

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1942, Bulan offered no resistance to the Japanese invaders who held camp in various parts of the town. Bulan though, at the outset, contributed many men to the war zones of Bataan and Corregidor. Many of them died there, and those who survived these battlefields and the Death March came back, organized guerilla groups and fought sporadic battles with the Japanese. There were also incidents of death at the hands of the Japanese Imperial army, especially that of the thirteen men, mostly Chinese, who were executed in Taromata sometime in 1942, and that of the kindly Dr. Emilio S. Sierra, the Sanidad-municipal, who was suspected a guerilla sympathizer. It was also a sad period in local history that, because of the guerilla rivalries between the Escudero and Lapuz groups, many lives were lost. Most of the Bulan guerillas were members of the Lapuz faction. With the coming of the American Liberation Forces, the town of Bulan was burned by the Japanese forces who retreated to Magallanes. There were many atrocities committed during this time. The air-raid shelters and war tunnels at Imelda, Sta. Remedios, Layuan, San Francisco and other places remain as grim reminders of that dark period in Bulan’s history.

RECONSTRUCTION AFTER THE WAR:

The process of reconstruction and rebuilding of the town took place after the Liberation. The people of Bulan took to the task, as with other communities in the Philippines, in an effort to regain what was lost during the war. Politics was lively, as with socio-economic activities and religion. Schools flourished, barrios were organized and constituted, cItizens’ organizations grew, population increased. By 1960, there were 54,180 persons recorded, up from 13,431 in 1903. By 1972, there were already 63 barangays in Bulan, compared to eleven in 1900.

MARTIAL LAW YEARS:

The Seventies proved to be another chapter in the history of Bulan. It was a period of uneasy predicaments. During these times, many young students from Bulan became involved in activism espousing socialist and radical change, one of whom, Liliosa R. Hilao, would later become a victim of torture, and died in a Manila military camp. It was brought about by excesses in politics and government, and a desperate look at the deterioration of the quality of life in many levels of the Philippine society. At first, the people of Bulan welcomed the declaration of Martial Law and its promise of a New Society. But as the turn of events deteriorated, people became fearful for their lives. From 1973 to 1975, the far-flung barangays, especially the isolated ones, notably San Ramon, San Isidro, Gabod, Marinab, and the northern barangays became bloody battlefields and scenes of ambuscades among the opposing government military forces and NPA rebels. There were reports of atrocities by both sides, and many barrio residents fled their homes to escape being caught in the crossfire. There was rapid decline of population in barrios. Prominent names of Bulan citizens who joined the activist and underground movements of the 1970’s were Antonio Ariado, Ms. Nanette Vytiaco, Efenito Guan, Miel Laurenaria and many others.

EDSA PERIOD AND LATER YEARS:

In the 1986 EDSA Revolt, one name from Bulan that stood out in the national scene was Colonel Gringo Honasan, who later on became a rebel military officer and  a Senator of the Philippine Republic. The events of 1986 brought new changes in local political leadership and in the aspects of Bulan’s community life.

THE BULAN BICENTENNIAL:

In 2001, the people of Bulan celebrated the town’s 200th anniversary or the Bulan Bicentennial, since being refounded along the banks of the Mariboc River. The year was lined up with beautiful activities to celebrate the town’s heritage and its focus to the future.

Through the years, Bulan was able to withstand the tests of time, thanks to the resiliency and grace of her people. Bulan today stands proud for her history and yet humble with the lessons of time. She is now at the forefront of rapid socio-economic and political changes confronting many communities of the Philippine Society and in a few years, she will perhaps be Sorsogon’s foremost town. The people of Bulan, a product of the complicated interplay of time, events, race and culture, exudes a character both complex and simple. It is this character that makes a Bulaneno religious and irreverent; stubborn, courageous and proud yet warm and accommodating. He can bend with the wind but remain strong as not to break. This character has carried him through both fortunate and difficult times. The People of Bulan have been shaped by the events of history and themselves shaped history.

From here, on to the next centennial and millennium, Bulanenos will proudly move on, as a community, with great pride and dignity.