Soliman Versus the Paleface
by Nick Joaquin
At the tip of the tongue of land that was Maynila, Rajah Soliman had built a fort facing the mouth of the river and the sea. A palisade of logs (the trunks of coconut trees) was meant more to deflect gunfire than to enclose, since it was easy to pass between the logs, planted in the ground about a foot from each other. The fortification proper consisted of narrow mud walls mounted with a dozen pieces of artillery, mostly small-caliber cannon.
The town itself was a mass of nipa huts huddled around Soliman’s palace. There is no mention of a mosque. The palace was a big house with a lot of porcelain and blankets; a number of wooden tanks filled with water; and rich stores of copper, iron, wax, and cotton. Beside the palace was an arsenal. Nearby was a forge where cannon were made under the direction of a Portuguese armorer.
Maynila was considered a great city because it had a population of 4,000. Government was in the hands of two men. Apparently the previous king, Rajah Laya, had, because of old age, abdicated in favor of his nephew Soliman. But the young king kept his uncle on as adviser. So the old Laya held the position of elder statesman and was known as Rajah Matanda.
Maynila was not ignorant of white men; the Portuguese were already active in the Philippines. Still, the summer that brought the whites in large numbers to Manila Bay was epochal. With that summer, the history of Manila begins to have dates. We have entered the calendar of the West.
One day early in June, 1570, Soliman heard that a ship of the palefaces had entered the bay at sunset and anchored off Kawit. The palefaces were Kastila, not Portuguese. An evening conference with his uncle, Rajah Matanda, would have enlightened Soliman on the Kastila.
The old king would remember how, some forty years ago, there had been rumors of these palefaces coming to Cebu and converting the court to their religion. But when their leader was killed on Mactan, the palefaces had fled in terror.
Recently, word had come from Cebu that the Kastila had reappeared there. For sure they had returned to avenge the killing of their leader. But what were they doing so far away from Cebu?
Rajah Matanda would point to the really bad part of the news. The Kastila were said to be accompanied by scores of Bisaya warriors. Now that was the heart of the problem. A handful of white men could be disposed of quite easily. But not if the Bisaya fought on their side.
The Bisaya would fight to the death against anything Muslim (and in their eyes Maynila was Muslim) because ages and ages of being meat for the slave trade had taught the Bisaya who their mortal enemy was.
Rajaha Matanda would shake his head in anxiety, but young Soliman would beg to disagree. The problem was not the Bisaya. The enemy was the paleface. “Let us sleep on the matter.” Easy to imagine either the young rajah or the old one closing the conference with that remark.
Morning brings a letter from the white men. They are requesting “peace and friendship”. Soliman and Rajah Matanda pore over the missive. They come to a quick decision: no instant answer, let the white devils wait. So three days pass before a reply is sent to Kawit.
Meanwhile, Soliman coaches an envoy on how to take a high tone with the whites. Dispatched to Kawit, the envoy tells the foreigners that his master, a most magnificent lord, is willing to befriend them—but only if they swear to behave.
When the envoy rows back to Maynila, the alien fleet follows him and thus learns where Maynila is.
Soliman is notified the next morning that the Kastila have landed on the beach. He sends his uncle, the old rajah, to receive them but he himself waits until noon to make an appearance. The palefaces are impressed by his entrance. He warns them that he and his people are not painted savages who will tolerate abuse. Rather, they will repay with death any affront to their honor.
Then he is introduced to, and embraced by, the leader of the whiteskin expedition: a chap called Martin de Goiti.
Next day, Soliman is visited in his palace by Goiti, who agrees that no tribute is to be exacted from Maynila. The treaty of peace is sealed with a blood compact: Soliman and Goiti drinking a few drops of each others’ blood.
But Soliman has already made a decision and only awaits a good omen: rain. When the first rain of the season falls, he will wipe out the invaders.
Alas that he waited too long!
The rains were delayed that June. The white devils were nervous. Suddenly one morning Soliman heard gunfire. He ordered his own fort to commence a bombardment. A Spanish vessel was hit. War had begun.
Presently the white men were crossing the moat around the fort on bancas commandeered from fishermen. As they poured into town they set it ablaze. Under the cover of smoke, Soliman was able to lead his people out of fallen Maynila. As the battle ended, the first rain fell—too late to be of good omen!
Upriver fled Soliman and his people. In the forests upriver they hid until they heard that the white devils had sailed away. Then they came back to the delta to rebuild their town on the island of Maynila.
Such was the first defeat of the young King Soliman. Though he resumed the throne, he had lost face.
Subsequently he would learn that the Goiti expedition was but a feeler. The main body of Kastila troops was in Panay. And their real leader was someone called Don Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.
Why had the Kastila wandered north to Maynila?
They had found Cebu a famine spot and had moved to Panay, which also proved to be starved. But there they had heard of the great city of Maynila, where the living was said to be easy. So Martin de Goiti had been sent north to verify if Maynila was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. And the Goiti report on Maynila was favorable. So Legazpi decreed a transfer of the entire expedition from Panay to Maynila.
That was what Soliman’s spies would have reported to him. And what could the young rajah do but receive it with the shrug of kismet?
The June that would bring the monsson would also bring north once more the invasion forces of the whites.
- Martin de Goiti Meets Rajah Soliman, Fernando Amorsolo. (Filipino Heritage, vol. 4, p. 858)
- Fort Santiago, circa 1570
- Detail from Filipino Struggles Through the Years (Carlos V. Francisco, 1964)
Source: Manila, My Manila. Bookmark, 1999, pp. 19-22