Sifting Through Perceptions: A Fresh Look
at Baao's Beginnings
An excerpt from "Baao Vignettes"
by P.B.Robosa

Authors’s note: So that a new Municipal official seal could be submitted to the National Government, it became a matter for the local government to establish and clarify once and for all the town’s foundation date .I was one of those invited to provide some explanation to the question and in the process finally appreciated the extent or lack thereof of our knowledge of our past. In looking at our past, we are provided an opportunity to appraise our origins and along the way look into ourselves. Having done so, we can understand our actions and reactions to the changes and struggles we continue to face.

In the early months of 1889, Lt. Jose Taviel de Andrade of the Civil Guards went on inspection tour of the towns of Southern Luzon. A talented artist, his inspections produced illustrations of the towns he visited and one among these was that of the town center of 19th century Baao. His illustrations from Baao bore three vignettes; a squatting man with a child, a bell tower and a scene of the town “poblacion” showing a cross at the center of a group of palisaded houses.
A modern commentary of this illustration presumes that the cross was intended to commemorate the town's still unverified founding by St. Peter Baptist in the twilight of the 16th century. Carefully read, the commentary echoes the opening passages on the work on the history of Baao by the Franciscan scholar Fr. Felix de Huertas who implies that the circumstances regarding the foundation of the town is unconfirmed. This statement has gained much acceptance with writers but is in direct contradiction to the Catholic Church’s pronouncement that the Franciscan saint did indeed found the town in 1590.
Although, to modern historians, the town’s foundation date marks only the start of the town’s recorded history, the 1590 foundation date is, nevertheless, significant as the formation of the town as a religious and political unit during the Spanish regime. Be that as it may, between Huertas and the Catholic Church, whom do we believe? Is their a way to verify which of these claims is correct?
Published in 1865 and widely available, Huertas’ Estado Geografico, Topografico, Estandistico, Historico-Religioso de la Provincia de San Gregorio Magno, has become a popular reference source for the historical records of Philippine towns. Aside from being based on the Franciscan records Huertas had available to him, his concise chronological presentation of his data makes his book a handy source especially for amateur historians.
Baao’s own Luis Dato in his attempt to provide clarification to the unrecorded origin of Baao readily quotes Huertas even as he pointed out that Huertas’ claims contradict data by that of another Franciscan author, Eusebio Gomez-Platero. While Huertas cites the tradition that Baao was founded in the time of Peter Baptist, he discards this information and puts forward a latter date that agrees with his records and his strict definition of a “foundation”. Because of Gomez-Platero’s biographies on Franciscan priests serving in Bicol towns, we are lead to doubt Huertas’ records when the village had priests administering to it years before the village Huertas’ claims became an independent religious unit. Thus later, Dato unable to be sure of Huertas’ and Gomez- Platero’s claims left the question of the town's origins to “the assiduity of future local historians.”
Up until recently, except for the Catholic Church's uncompromising statement on the foundation of Baao as recorded in their directory, there was no authoritative source available to be found of the “foundation” of the town. In Dato’s time, this lack of definitive source led him to write in resignation that Baao’s origins “are shrouded in myths and legends”. Although his statement holds true when we speak of pre-Hispanic Baao, other documents that have come to light today if that if we are to speak of the formation of the town at the time of Spanish conquest, this statement quite mistaken and needs correction.
What are then the available data, at present, of the origins of the town? Except for Huertas’ difficulty in agreeing with the established assertion of the Church, there is really no significant opposition to the 1590 date. The problems Huertas encounter are due to two reasons: First, although the tradition of St. Peter Baptist's founding Baao is firmly established by his sources, the documents to which he decides to give credence rather than tradition, mentions Baao only in 1656, sixty-six years later than the traditional date of 1590. Second, he is honest about his uncertainty of the meaning of the term “foundation” as to whether this happened during the conversion of the people or, during the time the town formed its own civil or religious unit.
Because of existing documents that were once unavailable to him, we may now be able to smooth out some of his difficulties. Regarding documents mentioning Baao at the earliest time, Huertas’ sources are antedated by documents found in Blair and Robertson's The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. The books reprints the original and translations of the documents "The Status of Encomiendas, 1591" and Bao or Baao was already mentioned as an encomienda with more 700 inhabitants a year after the 1590 traditional foundation. This invalidates by 66 years Huertas’ claim the town was first mentioned in documents.
Regarding Huertas’ qualification for the foundation of the town as to whether foundation was to mean during the conversion of the inhabitants or, by Baao’s formation into a separate religious and political unit, the following excerpt below appears to give us the answer:

King - His majesty has another encomienda also) Nabua by name, numbering one thousand and eighteen whole tributes, or four thousand and seventy-two persons. The villages of this encomienda are near together. They used to have four ministers, for they visit the two following encomiendas. There are in Nabua two Franciscan friars.
Bula: Dona Maria de Ron - The village of Bula belongs to Dña. Maria de Ron. It is four leagues from Nabua. It has two hundred and six whole tributes, or eight hundred and twenty four persons. It is visited from Nabua.
Bao: Minor son of Sebastian Perez - These fathers of Nabua visit also the encomienda of the minor son of the late Sebastian Perez, called Bao. It has one hundred and seventy tributes, or seven hundred and four persons. Like Nabua, the capital, it used to have four friars, but now has not more than two. These encomiendas are not well administered but five religious would be sufficient for it.
Buy: Sebastian Garcia - likewise these fathers of Nabua visited and instructed the encomienda of Buy, which belongs to Sebastian Garcia; but they can do so no longer. It is two leagues from Nabua, and can receive instruction from no other place. It has three hundred and twelve tributes, or one thousand two hundred and forty-eight persons, who will receive instruction, when Nabua the capital, has the said five ministers.
The document, aside from negating Huertas’ sources, also render somewhat erroneous the statement that Baao's "conversion" cannot be considered as a “foundation”. How can the conversion of the people and village of Bao qualify as the time of foundation of Baao? Using even Huertas’ own criteria, a convincing argument can be made to reconcile both events.
An “encomienda” in the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the Philippines is a royal charge to a person (in Baao’s case a Spaniard named Sebastian Perez) to collect tributes from the inhabitants of a village. In exchange, the “encomendero” must provide protection, justice and instruction to the faith while he and his heirs maintain the encomienda. Thus, if Baao was converted and was an encomienda in 1590, a rudimentary civil and religious unit was formed with the intent to provide order, justice, instruction including catechism and rites of the Catholic faith. This would sufficiently satisfy Huertas’ own definition of a “foundation”, the formation of a political and religious unit under the Spanish crown.
The above passages in addition, by supporting Baao's foundation in 1590, also overturn what we now know as misconceptions of Baao's origins. For instance, because of Dato’s use of parts of Huertas in his frequently reprinted “Brief History of Baao”, when he commences with Baao as a “visita” of Bula, Baaoeños in general assume that Baao was originally a part of Bula like a modern barrio connected to a “Bula poblacion”. If we follow this line of thinking but pushing back time 66 years before, Baao, Bula and Buhi, were originally once “Barrios” of Nabua.
The Spanish dictionary defines "visita" as a religious term referring to a village with a chapel where services where periodically performed by a visiting priest. The priest so assigned makes scheduled visits to the place because of the difficulty posed due to the lack of roads and conveyance between these inland villages. Unlike modern “Barrios” which are originally “Sitios” which are found within the boundaries of and later to be carved out from existing municipalities, Nabua, Bula, Bao, and Buy were all originally separate encomiendas with no clear boundaries and separated by great distances.
Politically, since there was no defined boundaries of the encomiendas or visita, being a visita would not mean affiliation or continuity with another, as do modern barrios to town centers but affiliated simply religiously, by being "visited" from one place due perhaps to proximity or convenience. Let us repeat this line from the Account of Encomiendas to clarify this arrangement:
“likewise these fathers of Nabua visited and instructed the encomienda of Buy, which belongs to Sebastian Garcia; but they can do so no longer. It is two leagues from Nabua, and can receive instruction from no other place.”
Thus, being an encomienda, Buhi like Baao, from the beginning was not part of any place but was an independent village on its own. Also from this example, it appears that the “visita” stage was simply part of a process that each village might undergo or might lose depending on the conditions and availability of clergy that would be able to administer to the village. Take the cases of Buhi and Bula; Buhi a decade earlier was administered from Nabua but in 1591 was not, Baao became independent of Nabua when it became a “visita” of Bula even if the latter was still also a visita of Nabua. It was not 100 years later that Bula became independent of Nabua.
But what is most remarkable when we study these passages is that it gives us a hint to what it was like during Baao's conversion. Note that while the other encomiendas in the list were being "visited" by friars from Nabua, Bao is mentioned, to have recently had its own friars. We know from records that Nabua,. Bula and Buhi were founded a decade or more earlier than Baao and should have reached a degree of stability at this time, Baao was reportedly not visited by friars but "used to have four but now has no more than two". What happened in Baao prior to 1591 that required the services of four friars and still required two a year later? Was the 1591 account simply reporting the aftermath of a mass conversion of the people of Baao in 1590?
It is likely that Baao as a separate civil or religious unit may have regressed or was neglected in the years following its conversion like Buhi in 1591 though converted 20 years before. These lapses may have accounted for the loss of records of the town in Huertas' sources. The 1591 document is a clear picture of the formation of Baao, a year after its conversion and a record of the establishment of Spanish government and religion. From that point, Baao entered the gates of recorded history and the Baaoeños ceased practicing their native culture and religion.
How true then is the tradition that Baao was founded by Saint Peter Baptist? Huertas mentions the tradition that “the town was founded in the time of our Holy Custodian Fr. Pedro Bautista" which covered the period in 1590 to 1591 when St. Peter Baptist was elected custodian of the Franciscan Missionaries in the Philippines. Beloved by the Franciscans, St. Peter Baptist is the subject of many stories and legends. But according the Saint’s biographers (Gomez-Platero's Catalogo Biografico and Sta. Inez's Cronicas) in 1590 he traveled to the Bicol region and founded several villages with Bao among them. He stayed in the region until 1591 when he returned to Manila to assume guardianship of the Manila convent. He finally sailed for Japan in 1593 as envoy to the court of Taicosama, dying there later in 1597 as a martyr.
None of his biographers though, specifically mentions details of him founding Baao and most were writing many years later after the supposed event. It is important to note though that all the same, his biographers agree to the dates regarding his travels particularly the years 1590 and 1591 when he was in Bicol. Accordingly, it would indeed be plausible that he passed by Baao or if he did not, caused his brother Franciscans to convert the Baaoeños in 1590. If these events are true as the Church believes and claims them to be, indeed St. Peter Baptist had a hand in the conversion of the Baaoeños and in so doing founded the present day Municipality of Baao which today accepts 1590 as its foundation year.
We might not know for sure if the Cross that was in the center of Baao in 1889 did indeed honor St. Peter Baptist, but he was much endeared to his brother Franciscans, it would be uncharacteristic for them to let the opportunity slip for creating another legend for a great man.

Baao and Ockhams’s Razor

While in discussion with two of my colleagues at USI, one teaching Philosophy and the other History, the latter brought up the subject of place-names and said that almost all places now seem to have a local legend as to how a place-name came to be and added this was the fault of the Americans who taught us to read and write about this stories. Incredulously I checked my files and but found this not true as my Spanish sources also contain explanations of the origin of place names but comparing the Baao history of Luis Dato with that of the Spanish historian Felix Huertas which are two popular sources, I found something interesting about the two. While Dato actually used Huertas as his source, it was only he who wrote about of the possible origins of the name Baao giving us three theories the first two being widely accepted:

1. Baao comes from the shape of the early settlement which was shaped like the backside/carapace of the turtle which in local vernacular referred to as a "ba-oo".

2. The name Baao came directly from the aforementioned reptile which in large numbers inhabits the lake.

3. The name came about due to the penchant of the inhabitants of eating left over rice locally called "bahaw".

Huertas, however, writing much earlier using Franciscan records mentions none of these, although he does so with other places. In Huertas’ 1855 Estado, the pertinent line referring to the origin of the town reads, “ Antiguamente, estuvo situado a la orilla de la laguna del mismo nombre, en el sitio llamado layoan.”. Translated it reads: In ancient times, (the pueblo of Baao) was situated in the banks of the lake of the same name, in the site called layoan.
This puts forward some questions like, which came first, the name of the lake or the name of the settlement? Did the name Baao came from the name of the Lake Baao or vice versa.
Which is connected with theory number two, did the lake or consequently Baao came from
an alleged preponderance of turtles in the area?
A year ago, I went to see these places mentioned by Huertas, The Lake would really be shallow to be able to see Layoan otherwise the place would be under water and indeed the banks would accommodate an ancient settlement that would have been widely spread out to give room for living space. About two kilometer south is sitio Mawacag, the ancient burial site that yielded a cache of Chinese porcelain giving proof to the site as a pre-hispanic settlement. If the Lake was named after the turtle, the reptile is now difficult to find now largely replaced by field rats. The ancient binanuaan site a circular mound overgrown with brush and bamboo is east of Layoan and would be too small to contain a village but most likely the site of a town center, a chapel or a market place, but again the lake would really be shallow for the mound to be of any use for human activity but from afar would look like the backside of a turtle just like any island would look in flat water. I understood why the village kept moving east up to the present site, if Layoan was inundated, binanuaanan was not, if binanuaanan was flooded the present site was not and I understood how Dato could make sense of all of these and came up with a believable theory.
Then my friend, the Philosophy teacher introduced me to William of Ockham and his scientific precept called Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor is a fundamental principle of modern science and philosophy which said that one should not assume the existence of more things than are logically necessary and the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one. A theory, using this principle, can be stripped down of the unessential with a metaphorical “razor” to reveal what would be the most likely explanation.
Using it on the Baao place-name and starting with the bare essentials, Baao was first used in a census document in 1590 with the spelling of “Bao”. The first time the place was indicated in a map was in Murillo-Velarde’s 1733 map but the village was not identified but the lake which was marked as “Laguna de Bao”.
We should remember that Bao or Baao is the name of a place not a group of people thus we can safely discard Dato’s number three theory that Baao came from the behavior of its people of eating cold rice, which anyone could do anywhere.
Now, is the name referring to the lake or the village? Before the Spaniards came there was no Baao as village, the inhabitants dwelt on the banks of the lake, only when they were converted did the people gathered in one place within reach of the church and the tribute collectors. The early settlement of binanuaanan, the one resembling a turtles back would be used only years later after the “encomienda” or “visita” Bao was already mentioned in documents.
Although it is not enough that Huertas mentions it and Murillo-Velarde used it, they are believable sources that say Bao came from the name of the lake. Common sense and experience will tell us that the natural tendency of place names being created and catching on is the presence of a prominent landmark. Notably, in the case of Lake Bao, a lake that is uniquely shallow. Thus, the theory that in ancient times, the place where the people on the banks of Lake Bao inhabited and which became a village to be called Baao is the simplest explanation that would result to satisfy Ockham’s principle. We now would find ourselves then trying to answer the question, from whence did the name Bao come from? Was there a abundance of turtle in the lake? To be simple again, let us assume there was not, and say that the name came from the description of the shallow lake, which in local dialect is variously “ababow” and “mababow” or a description of the banks “ibabow” all would be closer in phonation to the spelling of “bao” than “ba-oo”, a closer one would be the Tagalog “bao” which is unlikely as the Bicol equivalent is “soro” or the Baaoeño “abab”.
The simplest explanation then for the source of the name of Baao is that in on the banks of a shallow lake {mababow) inhabited a group of people which the Spaniard unified into a village which they called “Bao” from the name of the lake. The name was carried whenever the people moved eastward to avoid the constant flooding and in four centuries the Municipality of Baao became better known than the lake from where it got its name.