Previously we wrote about Balla and Palaso, and as Palaso now comes center stage in Chapter 32 of Yang Shen, Attack on Tsingpoo, we have expanded his background. The principal sources for detail on 19th century Bontoc are the ethnography by Albert Jenks, (1904) The Bontoc Igorot, and a travelogue by Cornelis Willcox, (1912) The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon, from Ifugao to Kalinga. Here is our description of Palaso.
There were one hundred and five Manilamen in the first contingent from Vincente Macanaya, the most striking among them being a tattooed Igorot – a headhunter named Palaso, from Bontoc in Northern Luzon. An intricate filigree of dark blue stain covered the light brown of Palaso’s broad chest, back and arms, shrouding his muscular torso with a shadowy mosaic of scales resembling snakeskin. His hair was gathered into a small, round basket weave hat tied with cord to the back of his head, a large gold ring dangled from each long earlobe, and boar tusk armlets encircled each upper arm. A small brass pipe with a long stem was tucked under his hat, and at his waist hung a vicious-looking black battle-ax with a sharp, sloping blade of tempered iron hafted to a short wooden handle. Fletcher could only think of Queegueg returned from the deep.
The tattoo is called a chaklag. According to Jenks “the chak-lag’ is the most important tattoo of the Igorot, since it marks its wearer as a taker of at least one human head. It therefore stands for a successful issue in the most crucial test of the fitness of a person to contribute to the strength of the group…nine-tenths of the men wear the chak-lag.” Jenks also says of the battle ax that it “has a slender point opposed to the bit or cutting edge of the blade. This point is often thrust in the earth and the upturned blade used as a stationary knife, on which the Igorot cuts meats and other substances by drawing them lengthwise along the sharp edge.
Here is what Palaso tells Fletcher about himself at an evening campfire where all the Manilamen are gathered together drinking warm Chinese beer.
I am Bontoc, from the high mountains of Luzon, Spanish call Cordillera. Before Balla teach me Ilocano and give me name Palsaso, I am Posang. My house in Bontoc pueblo beside Chico River. Father grow rice on wide, green steps from foot of mountain all way up mountainside. Stay in father’s house until maybe two years old, then go to sleep in fawi with other boys. Sister go to olag to sleep with other girls. Always go back to father’s house to eat meal, work on father’s rice terraces.
For many years help father plant and harvest rice terraces, and grow sweet-potato in garden plot. Father say when marry, he give me four sementeras – large rice terrace plots that grow enough rice for a year.
One day girl Sala snatch pipe from under hat, run to olag, take me inside and lie with me. Sala very nice, but other girls in olag also nice to me. And in other olag also have girl, maybe three, four at one time. Then Sala come to me and say have baby. After that I am with only Sala.
Before Bontoc can marry, must show brave, must take head. Harvest time near, so men stay close to protect sementeras, can catch man in dark. Early one night, climb mountain to Banawe, climb very high, very steep, come to mountain pass, hear men, go around through forest. Walk in stream, no make track. Come to sementera in jungle, wait quietly. One man come close, I kill him with spear, cut off head, brush tracks, walk back up stream long way, jump out on rocks, go back over pass and back down to Bontoc. Tie head to post of fawi, make big celebration, kill hog and cook for Sala father and other old men, beat gangsa gong for dance. Next day take head to river for wash, then bring back and bury under wall of fawi. Banawe never know who take head, only maybe can guess.
Kill first wild carabao for marriage feast. Carabao vicious, so we who hunt them are many, kill with spears. Sala father build house, marry in house, celebrate many day, much feasting.
Me, Posang, take many head – have skull of tattooed Igorot, and Spanish soldado. Because take many head, my rice grow, forest game plentiful and my snare always full, catch many fish, never sick and wife have many baby. Have many anito for slave in next life.”
Then Spanish bring many soldiers to stay in Bontoc pueblo, Ilocano and Tagalog soldiers. Spanish say must pay tax, many bundles of palay – rice cut on terraces but not threshed. I no pay so much, tell Spanish soldier have small land. Then Ilocano soldier make trouble, tell Spanish Posang have much rice land. Soldiers come for Posang, put in jail, take down mountain to prison at Cervantes. Crazy man there name Balla.
Palaso was 22 years old when the Spanish arrived at Bontoc pueblo in 1855.
“The site [of Bontoc in Northern Luzon] is an attractive, a circular dish-shaped valley, about a mile and a half in diameter, bisected by the Rio Chico de Cagayan, with mountains forming a scarp all around. Bontok stands on the left bank [of the Rio Chico], and Samoki on the right; [they are] separated only by a river easily fordable in the dry season [Willcox, The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon]. A video (with Ilocano comment) of a collection of photographs from Jenks book showing what Bontoc mountain province looked like in 1904 can be seen on YouTube.