Manilamen and Mandarins – Filipinos in 1860s China, Part 4: Balla Crazy Gumarang and Palaso Arrow Salangsang

Balla Crazy Gumarang and Palaso Arrow Salangsang

Balla Crazy Gumarang was a common criminal, a tulisan – a brigand – or had been in the eyes of the Spanish gaolers at the Mantamang penal colony, called Cervantes by the Spaniards, in Ilocos Sur. Balla was born on the west coast of Luzon in 1828, at Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur, north of Vigan at the mouth of the Santa Maria river.

“My village woke to bell in tower of church, Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.”

“When I small, they send me to run errands for parish priest, Augustinian Cordano, walk along beside friar, up and down broad stone steps, from plaza to church and around village, visit sick people.”

Mast & Sail in Europe and Asia, H. Warington Smyth (1906)
Mast & Sail in Europe and Asia, H. Warington Smyth (1906)

Balla’s father was away for six months or so each year sailing a large two-masted outrigger prahu on trading expeditions around the South China Sea. In Manila he loaded Chinese porcelain and textiles – silk, linen and finished cottons – to carry south to Panay and Zamboanga. He sold the imports in the provinces and loaded rice, sugar, and tobacco for the Sulus, picked up edible bird’s nests, shark fins, bêche de mer, and mother-of-pearl, then stood north for Hong Kong, Singapore, or south for the Moluccas, smuggling the cargo past the Dutch authorities to avoid import duties.

Historic Naval Ships Association (by permission: private use)
Historic Naval Ships Association
(by permission: private use)

By the time Balla came of age and joined in the coasting trade, they sailed a large double-periagua with a huge crab-claw sail and storage for six tons of cargo, enough to return enormous profits. They set out with the southern monsoon three times before Balla and his father were captured by Moro pirates in the Sulu Sea and sold as slaves in Jolo.

“Pirates take me to Zamboanga, make galley-slave for Sultan of Mindanao. Row for one year, only then can escape overboard. I go back to Jolo but never could find father.”

Balla returned impoverished to Santa Maria and fell in with drifters desperate like himself who took to plundering the homes of rich mestizos up the Santa Maria river, north into Narvacan, and south into San Esteban. Not only the rich prayed to God to destroy these tulisans – the brigands roamed the countryside stealing animals and crops and so frightened the natives that they retreated into hamlets and let outlying land go fallow. The resulting fall in tax revenue saw Spanish soldiery indifferent about chasing bandits become tenacious trackers – Balla and most of his gang were hunted down within a year. Tulisans were occasionally shot, sometimes garroted, and often flogged through the towns they had ravaged – Balla was sentenced to hard labor in the penal colony at nearby Cervantes, still called Mantamang by the Ilocanos.

The prisoners lived in nipa huts, wore blue and white striped cotton camisa and pantalones – shirts and trousers – and ate boiled rice and camotes – sweet potatos – they grew themselves. The detachment of forty soldiers presiding over the colony did not like work any more than the prisoners, so hard labor was rather more like casual labor. Balla, however, attempted escape too many times and was one of the few always in shackles when taken out on work details. When the Bontoc headhunter Posang was imprisoned and shunned by the other inmates, much as Balla was shunned, Balla made friends with Posang, taught him Ilocano, gave him the Ilocano name Palaso Salangsang, and opened his insular mind to the world beyond the mountains.

“Balla is Ilocano, so I know many ways of Itneg. Men talk one way on coast, another way in mountains.”

The headhunters of the rugged Cordillera traded with the lowland natives, and Balla had been up the Abra river into Itneg country as far as Lagangilang.

“Igorot from Bontoc not so different from Itneg, it seem to me. They are neighbors in mountains. Their tribes share old ways. They both hunt heads, grow rice on terrace, work iron in forge to make weapons, use strange kind of shield and battle-axe.”

After two years, Balla and Palaso were released within a few weeks of each other and, when Balla went down to Vigan and out to sea on a Chinese junk, he took Palaso with him.

“I was only little brigand, a tulisan pulpul, simple highwayman and robber. I was never dugong-aso, never a blood-thirsty dog of a killer. For long time now, no brigand. Become sailor.”

“Now I am artilleryman, a kanyon! Ginoó Balla Kanyon, Mr. Crazy Cannon.” A “cannon” he called himself.

During training at Kuang-fu-lin the Manilamen are introduced to draft horses that pull the Foreign Rifles’ artillery, and Palaso tells the story of how horses used to fly.

Falconer led his Shire out of the corral and among the Manilamen, showing them where to stand so they could run their hands down the horse’s neck. The men edged under the Shire’s head and felt the strength of his shoulders.

“How does anyone get aboard?” Espada said. “I’d need a gangplank.”

“Look at the size of those feet,” Kapit said. “Big horse feet – malakí ang kuko ng kabáyo! They’re huge as hatchcovers.”

“Where does the horse end?” Balla said, shading his eyes with a hand. “I don’t see the stern.”

“Down here,” Palaso said. “See, that’s where the wings were attached.”

“What are you talking about?” Vincente said, laughing. “What wings?”

CircaSassy / / CC BY

CircaSassy / / CC BY

Vincente interpreted Palaso’s story for the English sergeants. “The Itneg hill people in my country tell how man find something eat rice he plant high on mountainside. One night man go watch rice. Very late he hear great noise of many wing and see big black shadows come down from sky. Man creep up, see horse with great white wings. Man grab horse, cut off wings, lead home. Horse was mare, and after time mare make baby horse. Since then horses go everywhere in world. Horses never fly – they no have wings. But on back legs still can see place where wings one time grow.”

Another time during training, the Manilamen are shown artillery wagons, and Palaso takes an unexpected interest in the traveling forge.

U. S. Army Ordnance Manual

The forge was a caisson with a smithy on its rear section complete with sheet iron hearth, a calfskin bellows, an iron anvil, and a coal box. In the limber ammunition box at its front were stored supplies for farriers and smiths: horseshoes, nails, wrought iron and metal parts for carriage and harness, and tools.

Paco’s description of the forge piqued Palaso’s curiosity. A half-forgotten lifetime long before – in the mountains of northern Luzon, when he was still called Posang and ran through the dark forests killing and beheading his enemies – Palaso had worked iron at Baliwang, pounding out knives, spear points, and head axes. The forge was a small pit dug in the ground and the anvils and hammers were all stone, so an iron anvil and a smithy on the back of a horse-drawn wagon were intriguing.

Two days later, the entire camp is roused when Palaso finds his new calling.

The loud clang of hammer on anvil woke the camp one morning instead of a reveille bugle call.

“What the hell is that?” Fletcher grumbled as he rolled off his canvas cot. A sentry called to him from outside his tent flap.

“Colonel, sir, Sargeant Mackie asks if you might look over to the artillery wagons.” Some of the white soldiers shortened Macanaya to Mackie.

“Is that where that god-awful racket is coming from?”

“Yes, sir. One of the Manilamen looks to be havin’ a hystericky fit.”


At the wagons, a semicircle of men, including Vincente and Paco, were gathered around the traveling forge looking on with appreciation as Palaso Salangsang frisked about the anvil, beating on it with two hammers now, making it ring like chapel bells. The canvas cover was thrown back, the coal box set to one side, the fireplace open, and tools from the limber box were strewn about the wagon bed.

“Teeeen-hut!” Vincente shouted when he saw the colonel.

Palaso looked around crestfallen. Reluctantly he lay down his hammers and came to attention.

“Vincente,” Fletcher said, “put all this back in order and bring him to me.”

Later, at noon chow, Hannibal joined Fletcher at the officer’s mess table.

“Ah heah one of our little brown brothers went batty this morning.”

“You mean Manilamen,” Fletcher said evenly. “Better still, Filipinos.”

“Oh, yes. Little brown brothers of King Phillip.”

“Hannibal, sometimes I don’t know whether to shake your hand or slap you.”

“As you wish, Colonel. So, the Manilaman. What was the fracas?”

“We were delivered of an apprentice smith for our forge, sort of rang him in – like the new year. Palaso is now assigned to the forge, and his position as firer in Battery A is taken by Benicio. Iluminada is well enough now to take Benicio’s place as ventsman.”

“Palaso? The headhunter, with the tattoo all over his body? Was it him pounding the anvil – at 5:00am?”

“According to Vincente, Palaso said ‘my head was hot.’ Couldn’t help himself when he realized what the iron anvil was for, because he had only ever used stone hammer and anvil when he did ironwork.”

“Stone?” Hannibal said. “You mean to say we have hired us a stone-age blacksmith? This has got to be a good story. Pray tell.”

“Palaso explained through Vincente that many years ago in the mountains of Luzon he was – as best I can make out – an artificer of primitive iron weapons. Knives, spearheads, bolos and battle axes – like the axe he carries under his belt at the small of his back.”

“The kind they use to lop off each other’s heads.”

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

“Yes. And like the bolos they carry. They gave me a close look at them. The axe was roughly finished but with a very sharp cutting edge. The bolos are as fine as Sheffield flatware, curved, re-curved and wavy, and double-edged, astounding considering what tools they use. Look at Paco’s kris sometime. Palaso said that at the place where he went to learn there were four smithies, each under a nipa palm lean-to with charcoal hearths and large stone anvils on the open ground. A master artisan supervised apprentices – one worked a bellows, another tended the hearth, and the strikers pounded on the red-hot raw iron with stone hammers. A blade heated white-hot was tempered by plunging it into a bamboo tube of water, and then smoothed and whetted with a block of fine sandstone. The crude iron bars they bought from Chinese on the coast. The bellows were upright hollow logs with plungers that force air out from the bottom. The blades were finished with small metal hammers.”

“Well, I must agree that is quite amazin’,” Hannibal said, “but does that make him qualified to mend snapped chain and repair broken u-bolts? How’s he going to know what to do with that forge?”

“We’ll pay Evans, the English blacksmith at the Shanghai racetrack, to come out here for a few days and show Palaso how it’s done.”

“And a farrier? Palaso certainly cannot shoe horses, can he?”

“Falconer says he and Reese can stand in until we find a farrier.”

This entry was posted in Manilamen, Writer's Corner, Yang Shen, the God from the West, Book II, Yankee Mandarin and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.