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Finding gold in Bantayan

First Posted 12:03:00 09/13/2007

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If I had even just 5 percent or P35 million of the P700 million that Erap Estrada was convicted yesterday of plundering from the nation, I will immediately spend P30 million to buy and repair the only remaining tile-roofed trading house in Bantayan---one of three houses built by the legendary Manuel ?Capitan Tawi? Rubio at the height of his wealth in the 1850s. I will use the remaining P5 million to carry out a systematic archaeological study of this island as well as of the entire island of Cebu.

This particular Rubio house I am referring to was bequeathed by Capitan Tawi to his daughter Maria. It sits, still resplendent, at the corner of Isidro Escario and Pres. Osmeńa streets fronting the town church and plaza and is noted as probably the only ?balay nga bato? that still retains its original roof tiles (?tejas? in Spanish, ?tisa? in Cebuano) not only in Bantayan but anywhere else outside Cebu City. Until portions of the rear section of the roof began giving way this year, it remained relatively untouched all these years.

No one lives there now even as rain drips into the hardwood floors of the second story. And the current owners by inheritance, are putting it up for sale at a whooping 25 million pesos, five million more than its price two or three years ago! Such is the tragedy of the Rubio wealth, now long dispersed and concentrated in a few heirs, that this house and the one beside it---also built by Capitan Tawi---have become testament to the ebbs and flows of familial memory and sentimentality, gradually falling away in silence or giving way to modernity.

I had come to Bantayan Island last Friday until Sunday upon the invitation of Vince Escario, tourism officer and heritage consultant of Bantayan town. He had been asking me to make an assessment of a possible pre-Hispanic archaeological site in barangay Bantigue since last year while I was on a research fellowship in Singapore. I never had time to respond to the request until now. Bantigue was first looted by antique collectors in the early 1970s. And after an apparent lull in the illicit trade in antiques, there has been renewed activity of late, although perhaps not as massive and destructive as that which characterized the rapacious craze of the 1970s that left almost all pre-Hispanic settlement sites all over Cebu in utter destruction.

A visit to sitio Sayao, near where a small creek drains under a causeway into the sea, brought me to a few villagers in Tamburong who had eagerly shown Vince and I unfinished shell bracelets and tiny gear-like gold jewelry pieces that looked like they were originally strung in the tens and hundreds as necklaces. We were also shown a number of net sinkers and beads---all made of fired clay---that had been ingeniously strung together by one young man to be sold to buyers later at the town center. Another one had neatly strung together bits and pieces of worked gold, clearly a product of pre-Hispanic artisanship akin to some in the gold collection of the Bangko Sentral Museum in Manila, because he was starting what he called his ?collection?.

It seems that, if the villagers are to be believed, there is an almost passive wait for these artifacts as well as Chinese porcelain dishes, Vietnamese jarlets and celadonwares every time a particularly strong downpour coupled with tidal action erodes sections of the shoreline that probably stretches nearly a kilometer. I had no time to see the shores for myself as it was getting dark but a visit to some of the ?buyers? and ?collectors? in the town center the following day revealed more porcelain dishes, gold trinkets and jewelry pieces as well as the usual odd story of gold bars sold in pawnshops in Cebu City.

That this pre-Hispanic wealth is in Bantayan is not surprising as the island was already mentioned even in the time of the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi as thriving in settlement marked by abundance so much so that they had to come to this place to get provisions since old Cebu could barely support them. What remains to be done is to systematically retrieve this wealth of evidence.

I may never have Erap?s plundered millions, but with the support of the Cebu Provincial Government, through the Committee on Sites, Relics and Structures, one day very soon I hope to return with a team of archaeologists. The time has come to really get to know and see more of what Bantayan was even before the Spanish conquest, when finding gold was probably as passive as waiting for the rains to subside.

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