Ilocos in the Spanish Empire

The group of islands now known as the “Philippines” have long been trading with its neighbors. These neighbors included the Chinese and the peoples of South East Asia.

The Spanish – who colonized the islands beginning in the 16th century – saw their Philippine possession as a gateway to commerce with Asia. This commerce was primarily with China. Eventually the Spanish would create an exchange system utilizing galleons which linked the Philippines and Asia, Mexico and the Americas, Spain and Europe. This was known as the Galleon Trade.

Vigan was one of the main ports of Ilocos in Northern Luzon. As an outpost of the vast Spanish empire, Vigan’s urban fabric would display features that reflected Hispanic imperial concerns. One such feature was the grid system (or cuadricula) for the lay-out of streets. The checkered board pattern can be seen in Vigan and all over the Spanish empire. It was characteristic of what was dubbed “La Ciudad Letrada”, the coming together of urbanism, literacy, and archives.

This exhibit situates Vigan and Vigan Houses at the intersection of many forces. These forces include the environmental: sea, mountains, river, forests as well as

weather. There are also economic factors like trade, livelihood, and craft production. Finally, there are socio-cultural factors like beliefs, customs, urbanization and the creation of status.

Naragsak nga isasangbay kadakayo amin! Welcome!

Ground Floors of Vigan Houses

The ground floors of Vigan houses aside from providing access were used mainly for storage. Here were kept harvested grain and other crops, trade goods and unused items. Here too were kept carts as well as processional floats brought out during holidays to carry holy images. Some ground floor spaces were used for stores making the Vigan residence a kind of shophouse as seen throughout South East Asia.

Vigan and the Lands of Northern Luzon

Vigan’s prominence has a lot to do with its geographical setting: it sits on an island situated right on the converging zones of sea, coast, river, and mountains.

The Abra River descends from the uplands of the Cordillera. These uplands are rich with forests and minerals. These riches have long been traded between mountain communities and the settlements of the Ilocos plains.

Vigan was best situated to benefit from this upland-lowland trade. The main town emerged inland so it would be safer from pirates. Dunes also protected from relentless waves.

The Abra river and its distributaries were deep enough for flat bottomed navigation. The rivers also brought abundant water for agriculture and personal use.

Added to all of these was the fact that the predominantly north-south flow of the winds made for easy movement along the coast, making access to seaside towns convenient.

Vigan Houses from the Landscape

Vigan houses arise from the context provided by their landscape.

From the mountains come timber, bamboo, and stone blocks to make posts, floors, and walls.

From the plains comes clay for bricks. Crops like cotton are grown to be woven into curtains and blankets.

The swamps provide thatch for roofs. The sea harbors corals and shells for lime mortar and windowpanes.

Meanwhile, the river facilitates trade. Trade enriches home owners and keeps the houses of Vigan alive! Houses, especially large ones, are constructed from wealth. Wealth in Vigan came from activities like agriculture as well as exchanging the products of the plains with that of the mountains and the seas

Houses are also constructed from ideas and beliefs: doors may face an auspicious direction while staircases would contain the lucky number of steps

Crisologo Street Emerges

Vigan’s transformation as a religious and political center during the Spanish period attracted the Chinese who migrated to the city because of the economic opportunities. They came to be locally referred to as Sangley meaning “business”. In the 17th century, most of the Chinese settlers were champanero or traders who rode sampan’ the flat bottom wooden coastal vessels originating in Fujian. They also took up professions such as carpentry and tile making.

To facilitate assimilation, the Sangleys intermarried with native women and converted to Catholicism. Thus was born the mestizo de Sangley or mixed Chinese, llocano community in Vigan.

The Spanish kept close surveillance over the Chinese and their mestizo progeny who were confined to a separate section of the town. This eventually led to the division of Vigan. On one hand there was the Barrio de Mestizos or EI Mestizo in the eastern side along the Abra river, where the mestizos de Sangley lived. On the other hand there was the Barrio de Naturales on the western side, where the natives lived.

The entrepreneurial mestizos soon controlled the local economy and built their shophouses to serve both business and familial needs. It is possible that the Sangleys erected their houses near the river for easier access to riverine trade. What is now Calle Crisologo – a road that leads directly to the plaza and the church, emerged as one of the main streets of the mercantile district which came to be known as Kasanglayan or Kamestizoan.

Calle Crisologo was called Calle Washington and Escolta during the American Period.

Blessings of the Sea

The sea provides the translucent shells which areused for the panes of the grid-pattern window panels. These panels are seen on traditional houses in Vigan and other parts of the Philippines. It is not known how shell panels originated but examples have been found in Macao and Goa. Grid patterned windows and doors using paper instead of shell are common in China, Japan, and Korea. Who propagated the skills to make these unique windows?

The sea provides coral for building materials as well as for making lime for paints and for wall covering.

Of course, the sea is the highway of trading ships. It also provides fish for food and for barter.

What else does the sea bring?

Apog or Lime

There are about 10 families in Baragay Sived, Santo Domingo, Ilocos Sur that are still engaged in traditional lime making. To produce lime, old dried corals along the sea shore of Puro, Magsingal are hand harvested and cut into fairly uniform chunks. A pit is dug to form a chamber-kiln. Lime is then baked in a slow burning wood pile that converts the corals into ashy slaked lime [calcium oxide]. Seashells and mollusks can also serve as sources of lime.

Apog has many uses. It is mixed with water and an aggregate, such as sand, to use as traditional palitada [plaster] that serves as protective covering for Vigan houses. Apog is also an ingredient for the ancient Asian tradition of nganga [betel chewing], along with areca nut and betel leaf. Nganga ritualistic and medicinal has psychoactive properties and is common particularly in the uplands. Locals also say apog works wonders for tooth aches!

Capiz and wood windows

Large capiz and wood windows are among the distinct features of Philippine Spanish era architecture and are very prominent markers of Vigan’s and the Ilocos provinces’ ancestral houses. Smaller versions of the same are also made for houses in later periods.

It is said that until just a few decades ago, the capiz shells, which are called “kulintipay” in Iloko, were sourced locally, along the estuaries of some coastal towns. Wood used for the window frames could come from as far as Cagayan. Only sufficiently matured and dried hard wood could be used for the main frames and slats so that the windows could withstand the vibration and pressure of constant opening and closing. Although durably fastened together through slides and canals, the wooden slats were removable to facilitate changing of worn-out kulintipay.

Maintaining the capiz and wood windows of both ancestral houses and those of newer ones requires carpenters who specialize in such repair. These artisans have kept much of the technology used by their forebearers in producing these windows, although they now use machine cutters and planers as well as capiz from wholesalers in Manila. Local kulintipay is already rare. Since wood from hardware stores does not meet the carpenters’ standards, only time-tested timber (mostly narra, molave and yakal) from demolished old houses is used.

Panagsana [salt making]

There are numerous salt making communities in the coastal province of Ilocos Sur. This basic household commodity is also an important trade item in the

uplands where salt is used for flavoring and preserving meat as well as for the traditional embalming process. Salt coming from Ilocos and Pangasinan was traded with Cagayan and Isabela via the biray.

From February up to the onset of the rainy season, the coastal area of Pug-os, Cabugao is busy with salt production. Salt making is not only a livelihood activity, but is also a means for strengthening kinship ties and building community solidarity. Every family member participates in the production process.

The men and women help each other out in the different stages of salt making: sand collection, seawater filtration, and cooking. But in addition to these, males are likewise tasked to fabricate the karraang [furnace] out of soil and rice husk, upon which the silyasi [vat] is fitted to serve as cooking vessel for the brine. The children also help gather sand. The salt crystallized by heating filtered saline water is the fruit of hard work extracted after lengthy firing, eight hours on the average.


Oral accounts note that local artisans constructed birays along the estuary of the Mestizo River in Caoayan, as well as in Narvacan and in the province of

Cagayan. In Ilocos Sur, the boats docked in ports such as that of in the estuarine community of Pandan (Caoayan), and in the coastal communities of Sulvec (Narvacan) and Salomague (Cabugao) up to the 1950s.

The sizes of the biray varied, but those operated for trading were about 20 to 30 meters long. The widest portion of the boat measured about 5 meters. The boat’s timon [rudder] was also made of wood and had broad blades. The sail, which was made of thick abel and was also referred to as manta, lona, was white, off-white, or brown in color. With several pieces of the fabric sewn together to make the sail, the manta, lona was designed to facilitate navigation, utilizing or countering the wind as necessary.

The boat tripulante [crew] was composed of a captain and several rowers who also worked as stevedores. The rowers were on both the starboard and port sides of the sea craft. The regular, sized trade biray could accommodate about 30 people, including the crew and trader, passengers, aside from the trade items loaded into it.

During the dry season when the sea was calm, the biray sailed and transported an assortment of agricultural products to and from different places along western Luzon, from as far south as Zambales and Pangasinan, up to Cagayan at the northern end of the island. The most important trade item was rice, whether husked or unhusked.

From the province of Ilocos Sur, traders carried salt, damili earthenware, the stoneware burnay, raw maguey fibers to be made into rope, raw cane sugar, garlic and onions, and other items that could stand days of travel. The main target of the traders from Ilocos Sur, on the other hand, was the other provinces’ abundant rice grains – both for consumption and for the next rice planting’s bin-i [seeds]. They also brought home bundles of nipa palm leaves from Cagayan for house roofing. Aside from procuring goods to satisfy their own household needs, the traders got more products from their trips for exchanges with the farmers, fishers, potters, and salt-makers. The bigger biray from Cagayan also transported logs that were intended as construction material. It is said that even the Chinese hardware keepers of Vigan depended on the biray to bring them the lumber that they sold in their shops. Some biray travelled between the Ilocos coast and Manila.

Biray-based trade had brought prosperity to Vigan residents. This prosperity allowed them to build and maintain large houses.

With more motorized vehicles and much, improved road networks, the biray gradually lost its relevance.

Fruits of the Forests

Thick groves of trees and palms covered plains, marshes, and mountains. These groves provided Vigan houses with renewable supplies of timber and thatch as well as bamboo for poles, floors, walls, and furniture even baskets and mats. There was also rattan for binding and for weaving.

Forests would help cool the environment as well as conserving water and holding soil in place.

Trees were also tapped for resin much prized by foreign traders as it was used for incense. Honey was another forest product that was consumed for sweetness or as wIne.

What else came from forests?


The Wealth of Mountains

Mountains were mined for stone. This formed the foundation of Vigan homes hence the term made popular by 20th century scholars: Bahay na bato.

Deep in mountain hearts were minerals like gold that made human eyes gleam with desire.

What are the other products of mountains?

Vigan Damili

Damili making is a terra-cotta craft which is considered indigenous to a number of communities in Vigan. Traditionally, damili craftsmen produced only cooking pots (banga), water vessels (karamba), firewood and charcoal-fed cooking stoves (dalikan, pagugingan), water and animal-feeding basins (bakka, paso), plant pots (masetera), and pipes used as well rings (lusob).

Though roof tiles, called tehas [Sp. tejas], and clay bricks, called nadrilyo [Sp. ladrillo], appear to have been made locally for masonry during the Spanish period, manufacture of the so-called Vigan tiles only started in the 1970s. It is said that a businessman introduced the product for large-scale production. Traditional damili products lose out to competition from factory-made wares.

The main component is the Bantog clay, which is mainly sourced in the Ayusan Sur-Paoa communities. This material’s depletion has raised some concern among potters. The brisk depletion of Bantog clay may be attributed to the continued large-scale production of Vigan tiles. Within the last decade, the sale and conversion of clay quarry sites into residential areas also contributes to the problem.

Damili work begins with the hauling of the raw materials. Men are mostly responsible for the clay extraction and hauling. Women usually help in collecting fine sand and mosdy take charge of getting the redder earth for the dye.

Clay preparation for all types of earthenware involves the breaking of the clay into smaller chunks, mixing together and moistening of raw materials, kneading, stocking and keeping the clay moist, and molding. After the finishing touches, all damili products are air dried for two to six days. Dried leaves, mosdy of bamboo, cattle dung, coconut husks and more are collected to serve as fuel for the open-and-lower-temperature-fired damili. Firing of damili lasts for a whole afternoon, although it is only in the beginning that these are kept aflame. For most of the time, only the embers inside the pile continue to heat the wares. Even without thermometers, the craftspeople know the right firing to keep the correct temperature.

San Vicente Wood Carving

The San Vicente wood carvers have been practicing their trade for generations. Some of the earliest creations reclining chairs, long chairs and gallenera – were bartered with cigar pipes, pieces of land or other valued items. Wood carving was a viable means of livelihood when the products were exchanged with ones that could economically support the family.

For the carvers, sagat (molave, Vitex sp.) is the wood of choice because it does not shrink once mature and properly dried. Narra (Pterocarpus sp.) and bittaug (Callophyllus sp.) are also desired because these are good quality hardwood. It is best when the wood is left for a longer time to dry to avoid deformation and cracks. A manual wood saw, planer, chisels and sandpaper were the only tools that the first carvers had. There were no machines that could make work easier. Until now, men prepare, carve and polish the wood while women weave the rattan portions of the fixtures. Men and women work together to assemble the furniture.

“Panagbat–bato” — San Esteban Stonecraft

Piedra hina (Chinese granite stone) makes up the pavement of the ground floor of ancestral house. While this material is available from the limestone-rich hills of the Ilocos, those that were first used were brought in from China through the galleons and other big trade boats. The blocks were used to keep the boats balanced so as to withstand the waves. Stones were bartered with trade goods from the Ilocos as the oats reac ed the harbors of the Philippine archipelago.

Barangay San Pablo in San Esteban has always been known as a source of different types and sizes of stone mortars (alsong and al-o), grinders and animal feed bowls. For most of the present agbatbato (stone craftspeople), the craft has been passed down from generation to generation.

Although there may now be a lesser need for traditional stone implements, stone craft has diversified into other products to meet the changing desires of the market. These include stone floor tiles and assorted landscaping decoration. The raw material is sourced from limestone quarry sites of the nearby hills of San Esteban. Thereafter, the limestone are cut, hand-chisled, and formed into the stone tiles of varying sizes.

The River that Connects

The uplands and mountains bordering Ilocos are rich with products like timber and rattan as well as resin. Meanwhile, the farms of the plains have abundant crops and crafts. There is cotton for weaving and rice for eating. There is brick and furniture making.

What facilitates the exchange between upland and lowland is the Abra River. It is at the point where the great river meets the sea that Vigan stands. The City’s importance is partially the result of convergence.

Rivers have always been about linkages. They are channels for communication and transportation. They are channels for commerce. On their waters are borne goods as well as news, attitudes, and ideas. All of these are carried on rafts which also conveyed colonizers and conquistadores.

Rivers are sources of water. From rivers come fish and shrimp. From river bottoms and banks come stones and clay used for construction. How else do rivers contribute to human life?

Trade on Trails

Overland trails were the early trade routes that linked lowland Ilocos to the upland Cordillera and what is now the Abra area. The western side of the Cordillera leading to Ilocos with its gentler slopes were easy to descend. This fact facilitated the valuable exchange of commodities to and from Ilocos. Often, it was the uplanders bearing heavy loads of goods who came down on these hiking trails on foot or on horses. This required less effort than lowlanders ascending the mountains.

The contrasts of the topography and economies formed “complementary economies”. From the hinterland came gold and forest products such as honey and beeswax.  From the coastal area came basic necessities such as cotton, rice, salt, iron products, livestock. There were also the imported luxury goods such as beads and porcelain jars which were valuable for rituals among upland dwellers. Slaves were also traded.

Trade was lucrative. Despite its prohibition during the Spanish period, trade persisted. The Igorots and Tinguians bartered throughout the year and developed various land routes to circumvent tax officials.

Trade through these trodden trails forged ties, alliances, and intermarriages between the uplands and lowlands that are still evident today.

Gifts of Plains

The rugged topography of Ilocos with its coastal flatlands and its long dry season translates into limited agriculture. The fertile areas were restricted to the narrow plains and the fields irrigated by the rivers from the Cordillera.

Cotton which required less nutrients from the soil and was suited to local weather conditions grew well in Ilocos. Raw cotton was exported while woven products such as blankets were traded upland. Manta a heavy cloth, was sold to be used for sailboats. Cotton was likewise collected with the colonial imposition of tribute.

The Ilocanos also cultivated rice, indigo, and tobacco – all considered cash crops during the colonial period. Rice was traded within the region. From the leaves of the indigo plant, natural pigment was extracted to dye the cotton threads a beautiful blue color. Tobacco was dried in the ground floor of Vigan houses with the smell of the pungent leaves wafting throughout the rooms. Some called this the “pabanglo ti Vigan” or scent of Vigan.

What else did the plains bestow?

Moving Markets

Tabu-tabuan or tiangge or temporary markets have long been in existence. Until now, there are specific days in the towns of llocos when a temporary market pops-up: a tiangge of wet and dry goods or a cattle market.

In the pre-contact or pre-Hispanic period a typical temporary market encounter involves a market hastily set-up upon the docking of a merchant vessel. Groups from different places then converged upon the coast to barter.

Trade was carried out through overland trails, river rafts, and sea-crossing birays. Upland gold and forest products were bartered with lowland cotton and rice. There were as well as luxury goods like porcelain brought on sampans and junks from across the sea by Chinese and Japanese traders. Ilocanos acted as the middlemen.

During the Spanish period, this seasonal commerce in the area, triggered by ship arrivals, became highly regulated. Goods were taxed in harbors.

The transformation from temporary to permanent markets as seen in Vigan was related to the introduction of the river-based transport system. Riverine networks emerged as the optimal trade routes for moving products and people up and down the coast and into mountain interiors. As market interactions became more permanent, regular trips by the Cordillera peoples between upland mines and coasts became the norm.

Examples of trading centers that formed were Vigan and Narvacan which were close to where the Abra river flows out, as well as Candon, Tagudin, and Bangar which were close to where the Amburayan river flows out.

Sea, coast, plain, river and mountains were all connected in the complex trade network of Ilocos.

Vigan Houses and their Worlds

Vigan houses were constructed from the products that were transported on rivers or sourced from the sea and the land.

Timber, bamboo, thatch, stone, sand, shell, clay – all these were coaxed out of the landscape of Ilocos to be molded into the houses of Vigan.

Vigan houses were also the product of accumulated wealth that arose from trade. This trade was made vibrant by the confluence of geographical features: mountains, rivers, plains, seas and coast.

Finally, Vigan houses arose from the intersection of ideas, of beliefs and perspectives. These range from notions of proper social inter-action all the way to building traditions about auspiciousness and good luck.