Looking Back

Taal Volcano in 1881

/ 05:06 AM January 17, 2020

One of the detailed 19th-century descriptions of Taal Volcano is to be found in the work of Alfred Marche, a French naturalist who did ethnographic research in the Philippines from 1879 to 1883. He published an account of his travels—first, in the magazine Tour du Monde in 1886, and, a year later, as a separate book, “Luçon et Palaouan, Six Années de Voyages aux Philippines (Luzon and Palawan, Six Years of Voyages in the Philippines).” This work has many engravings from photographs he took, including one of the crater of Taal Volcano which he visited on Jan. 6, 1881.

On his way to Taal from Manila, he passed by Laguna and noted that Makiling was active in July 1880, causing many earthquakes that terrified the people. Then as now, fake news of a Makiling eruption was rife, and as Marche recorded from conversations he had: “One dreamed about it; one saw it awakening, burying Manila beneath rivers of fire, and the newsmen announced ten times a day that the volcano cast flames, that lava flowed from its sides, etc., etc.; this time the Cassandras were wrong: the mountain did not breathe a word.”


Makiling’s activity was limited to producing the sulphurous thermal springs that people enjoy to this day in the town known as “Los Baños” (The Baths), a Spanish-period name that replaced its older and more descriptive name, “Mainit” (Hot). It is not well-known that one of the earliest saints to walk in the Philippines was the Franciscan San Pedro Bautista, who visited Mainit in 1590 and decided to build a hospital there to utilize the healing properties of the thermal springs. In 1602, the Franciscans established the Hospital de Aguas de Santas de Mainit (Hospital of the Holy Waters of Mainit). Marche recounted that people in Mainit dipped freshly slaughtered chickens into the hot water and pulled them out completely plucked of its feathers. A man decided to use this shortcut on a pig and fell into the scalding water: “They took him out almost dead. The skin of the poor wretch came off by bits and it was not long before he succumbed.”

Marche’s description of Taal is quite timely: “Even more than Makiling, Taal is the terror of the inhabitants of [Manila]. Also, like Makiling, this volcano which is not extinct, appears to be peaceful—relatively peaceful, since its activity is constant. For nothing in the world would we have left the banks of the Laguna de Bombon without our having paid a visit to the most dreaded of Philippine volcanoes.”


The parish priest of Talisay provided him with the following data: “On July 1, the volcano began to issue rockets of flames. On the 6th and 7th, it threw off stones which fell again on its sides or in the lake. On July 14, 17, 18, and 22 the stones fell two kilometers from the volcano; the days when the earthquakes were felt, the eruption was precisely weaker and one saw the glow of the flames only during the night; now it smokes as it ordinarily does. All the eruptions were preceded and accompanied by subterranean noises, the last took place on October 3, 1880.”

Five paragraphs describe the volcano in a way only scientists would enjoy. What I found more engaging was Marche’s account of the crater that he visited: “on foot…by running in a straight line, at an angle of 45 degrees, thanks to the friable ground where my heels penetrated sufficiently to prevent me from slipping and permitted me to jump from one crevice to the other without danger.“ On his second descent, he recorded: “a column rose from the center of the lake, a body of water and of sulphur which rose while boiling. It is the same noise, but exceedingly louder, as that of a pot of soup which boils too fast and is spilled into the ashes. Seeing this our men ran away. We ourselves remained in contemplation, but this spectacle unfortunately lasted only a few minutes. The column, in falling made the lake overflow, and smoke from the crater redoubled in intensity.”

Taal inspires a mix of fascination and fear. Marche lamented that people in Manila were unaware that in Taal, three days’ journey from the capital, lay “one of the most beautiful spectacles of nature in the Philippines.” Today, people worldwide can enjoy images of this terrifying beauty on social media and the internet.

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TAGS: Alfred Marche, Makiling, sulphurous thermal springs, Taal Volcano, Taal Volcano in 1881
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