Looking Back

3 PH volcanoes erupting on the same day in 1641

/ 04:08 AM January 15, 2020

Taal Volcano may be small, but it can be terrible. Its most destructive eruption occurred in 1754 and lasted seven months. I have written about this eruption in a previous column, quoting eyewitnesses who described it as a taste of hell on earth. Last weekend, Taal gave us ash fall, some earthquakes, and a flood of photographs on Instagram and Facebook that made you marvel at the beauty of nature.

Eruption photos provide the same awe and fear we get looking at lifelike pictures of snakes and sharks. For those glued to AM radio on Monday, the lack of visuals was compensated by the excitement of commentators who repeatedly used the adjective “alboroto,” to describe the ongoing volcanic activity.


Alboroto was used mindlessly by the ignorant who didn’t take the trouble to check its meaning — “rampage.” An 18th-century account of volcanic activity in the Philippines deployed the word “rebentaron” (burst), reminding us of the origin of “rebentador,” often mispronounced as “labentador” for the triangle-shaped traditional New Year firecracker.

While thinking of English or Filipino words to best express volcanic activity, I looked up one of the rare 17th-century imprints in the Lopez Museum and Library; its vivid and kilometric title reads: “Suceso raro de tres volcanes, dos de fuego y uno de agua, que reventaron a 4 de Enero de este año de 1641 a un mismo tiempo en diferentes partes de islas Filipinas, con grande estruendo por los aires como de artilleria y mosquetaria. Averiguado por orden y comision del Señor Don Fray Pedro Arce, Obispo de Cebu y Gobernador del Arzobispado de Manila. En la Compania de Jesus, Manila Año MDCXXXXI por Raymundo Magisa.”


[A rare account of three volcanos, two of fire and one of water, that erupted on January 4 of this year 1641, at the same time in different parts of the Philippine Islands, with a great roar in the air like that of artillery and musket blasts. Informed by order and commission of Fray Pedro Arce, Bishop of Cebu and Governor of the Archbishopric of Manila. In the (printing press) of the Society of Jesus, Manila in the year 1641 by Raymundo Magisa.]

Bibliographers describe this work of six leaves of paper as a “book” when it should rightly be a “booklet,” a “leaflet” or a “pamphlet.” Despite its religious imprint, the brief contents are quite engaging: Returning to Manila after undertaking repair works in historic Fort Pilar in Zamboanga, men in a Spanish navy boat instinctively sprang into combat readiness after hearing explosions emanating from an island near Sulu. They mistook the sounds from a rumbling volcano for artillery and musket fire. Darkness covered the sky, such that at one in the afternoon it was like night, and in some places there was zero visibility. Candles and torches lighted up the churches where people congregated, all weeping, praying and imploring God’s mercy because they mistook the natural phenomena for the biblical Day of Judgement. Blackness reigned for a day, and at the first sign of light, from the moon, people realized that a great quantity of fine ash had commenced to descend on them.

Pedro Arce, bishop of Cebu, ordered this account to be validated and published, leaving us with documentation on the day when three volcanoes erupted around the same time — in Sulu, in some place called “Isla de Sanguil” and in Ilocos. Aside from the eruption, there were reports of strong winds, a hurricane, frightening noises heard many leagues around, and rain. Earthquakes were depicted in human terms — such as the ground opening up like a mouth that vomited rocks, great seashells and ash, destroying everything in its path.

This calamity was interpreted in many ways: as the work of the devil, as God’s punishment on a sinful people, as the end of the world. Today, we have a more scientific appreciation of the Taal eruption, with news of it resulting in a precautionary holiday for schools and government in Manila, and “epal” actions from some politicians stealing the limelight from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and Phivolcs. We make everything in our image and likeness, injecting political color into neutral natural phenomena. A radio commentator, for instance, expressed his wish that Sen. Leila de Lima be released from prison and then dropped into the crater of the active volcano, and the crater blocked. I wish it were him instead, or some other politician.

[Comments are welcome at [email protected]]

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TAGS: 1641 volcanic eruptions, Amberth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, Philippine history, Taal Volcano
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