East Visayan History

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Eastern gateways to the archipelago, the islands of Leyte and Samar were natural harbors for ancient seafarers.  On March 16, 1521 the explorer Ferdinand Magellan anchored what

remained of his fleet on Homonhon, a small  island on the southeastern tip of Samar.  Two weeks later, on Good Friday, a kasikasi (blood compact) between Magellan and Rajah Kolambu, emissary of the King of Limasawa, an island off the coast of southern Leyte, sealed an implicit political pact between Spain and the Philippines.  The first Mass on Philippine soil was celebrated two days later, on Easter Sunday.

Inspired by Magellan's exploits, the Spanish Crown sent several other expeditions to the East.   In 1583 Spanish voyagers under the command of Ruy Lopez de Villalobos reached Abuyog, east of Leyte.  The Villalobos expedition christened the littoral between Samar and Leyte, then called Tendaya, Las Yslas Felipinas.  The name would later apply to the entire country.  In 1564 Miguel Lopez de Legazpi crossed Panaon Strait, the same waterway that Magellan earlier had taken, on his course toward Abuyog and Limasawa.

While the people of Leyte and Samar were the first to receive the Spaniards, they were also among the first to repel them.  The incident in Mactan, where Magellan's attempt to show off Spanish military might ended in his death, tolled like a warning bell throughout the islands.  In Limasawa the warriors who welcomed Legazpi were far from the hospitable rajahs of Magellan's time.  Although Legazpi was able to befriend the island's chieftain and high priest, who both allowed themselves to be converted to the new faith, no sooner had the Spaniards left than the chieftains returned to their pagan practices and organized a religious revolt in Leyte.

In 1596 Filipino rebels Sumoroy, Juan Ponce and Pedro Camuug led an uprising against Governor Diego Fajardo's order requiring the conscription of polistas (laborers who were compelled to build ships for the galleon trade) from the Visayas for the shipyards of Cavite.  This rebellion spread as far away as northern Mindanao and went on until 1650, when a government expedition composed of Spaniards and Filipino mercenaries captured the leaders of the movement in the mountains of Samar, after which the revolt was easily suppressed.

Eventually the Spanish regime ended, only to give way to the American occupation of the Philippines.  Like all Filipinos, the Visayans had a new enemy to face.  Rebels, led by General Vicente Lukban, attacked the American garrison in the town of Balangiga in eastern Samar during the Filipino-American War.  They killed all but one of the American soldiers.  Western historians were quick to record the incident as the "Balangiga Massacre."  In truth, it was an admirable show of courage by the Filipinos, who fought with bolos against the American rifles and .45-caliber pistols, to thwart the Americans' "pacification" campaign, a movement to take control of the islands.

During World War II the region gained international fame as a major battle zone in the Pacific theater.  At the very same gateway that the Spanish conquistadores had taken to penetrate the East four centuries earlier, the forces under General Douglas MacArthur smashed the Japanese Army.

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Holding the enemy at bay in Leyte was a risky strategy, MacArthur would later admit in his memoirs.  The island stood in the center of the Japanese network of airfields and military bases covering the entire archipelago and was almost impregnable.  But a "successful landing in Leyte would presage the eventual occupation of the Philippines. . . ."  On October 20, 1944 MacArthur took the gamble.  After the troops secured a beachhead, MacArthur waded on to a muddy beach in Palo and dramatically announced his "return" to the Filipino people.  Three days later, with battles still raging for the region, civil government under Commonwealth President Sergio Osmeņa was restored in Tacloban, and Leyte's capital became the seat of the Commonwealth until February 1945.


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