Looking Back

Sources for ‘fire’ in Philippine history

Paris may be half the world away from Manila, a distance amplified by a six-hour time difference, yet from my laptop I watched Notre Dame [Our Lady’s] Cathedral burn in real time. Flames consumed the roof, but the better part of the structure that has stood there for 800 years was spared, just as it had escaped centuries of wear and tear from war, invasion and countless pilgrims and tourists.

Fortunately, arson and terrorism have been ruled out, but it is ironic that the fire came about during the ongoing conservation work on the church. Facebook is flooded with images of people photobombing Notre Dame — proof that even if it were destroyed completely, it will always remain in memory through history, poetry, music and literature.


Watching black smoke billowing from Notre Dame made me wish my favorite gargoyles would survive; these may not scare my millennial nieces today, but for over eight centuries they spawned other depictions in art, comics, film, etc., and became the stock of many people’s nightmares. Then there is Quasimodo, the fictional hunchback created by Victor Hugo, who coexists with many people’s reminiscences of Notre Dame.

As the cathedral burned, I dug into accounts of the destruction of the Manila Cathedral during the Battle of Manila in 1945 for a Holy Week column. With not much to go on, I also looked up stories of tragic fires in recent memory, like the 1996 Ozone Disco fire that killed over 160 partying youths, including the younger brother of family friends.


By daybreak I was going over the index to the 55-volume compilation of historical documents known to historians simply as “Blair and Robertson,” finding enough material for a number of research or term papers I can inflict on students. First are references to Filipino methods for making fire, mostly coaxing fire from flint and tinder. Then, references to Filipinos hardening their weapons by fire or using it in agriculture, when they burned mountainsides before planting or when they burned crops.

One could stray from generalities and focus on fire listed under different ethnolinguistic groups or geographic areas. Some folklore is mixed into history, too, like the
belief that fires kept the departed at bay, or accounts of a fire-breathing witch.

Fire was seen on the Straits of Magellan, and crews of ships and galleons used fire as signals. Fire was good for celebratory fireworks and bonfires, but bad when it destroyed property in Manila (then confined to the walls of Intramuros) and elsewhere: the Parian (Chinese ghetto), Binondo, Cavite,
Cebu, Ilocos, Panay and the Moluccas. Most houses then were built from flimsy and flammable material, so tiles were recommended over thatch or cogon for roofing
material, except that during earthquakes, these crashed down and could kill. So, in time, roofs were made from galvanized iron sheets.

Houses were burned by natives in revolt, Chinese insurgents, Moros, pirates, the Dutch and other foreign enemies. Others were burned by the Spanish on punitive expeditions, the most famous case being that of Rajah Soliman’s house; its wooden palisade guarding the entrance to the Pasig River from Manila Bay used to stand where Fort Santiago is today.

Soliman or Sulayman is sometimes referred to as “Rajamora” or “Rahang Mura” to distinguish his youth from his old uncles Lakandula and Rajah Matanda. Soliman had two children — a son known as the “New Prince” (Raxa el Vago or Rajang Bago) and a daughter who was baptized Maria Laran; if you are to believe the legend, her name was Dayangdayang (Princess) Pasay, and she owned present-day Pasay and Parañaque.

Soliman’s house was large and contained “money, copper, iron, porcelain, blankets, wax, cotton and wooden vats full of brandy… The Indians said that the furniture alone lost in Soliman’s house was worth more than five thousand ducats.”

Scavengers made off with much iron and copper left on the ground after the fire. The Spaniards also mentioned a storeroom near Soliman’s house that contained cannons, both finished and in the making.


From all the references I read during the Notre Dame fire, one can write a book or dissertation on fire and how it helped and hindered the progress of Philippine history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Battle of Manila, Looking Back, Manila Cathedral, Notre Dame Cathedral, Rajah Soliman, Rajah Sulayman, tragic fires
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