Most of what gets written about Palawan concerns its incredible biodiversity and wealth of natural attractions. This is understandable, as it is undoubtedly the premier destination in The Philippines in terms of the natural world. Yet aside from its forest and reefs, it also boasts hundreds of years of written history, having been settled by the Spaniards in the seventeenth century. For the traveller in search of its colonial past, the best place to head to is not the provincial capital of Puerto Princessa, as this town is just a nineteenth-century upstart. The original Spanish settlement on Palawan- known then as Paragua, meaning ‘umbrella’- was at Taytay, about two hundred kilometres to the north.
A book on the ‘East Indies’ from 1781 offered the following description of the island, which I have decided to quote at length because it provides an evocative introduction to the early history of the island:
The island of Paragua is third in bigness among the Philippines. The compass of it is about two-hundred and fifty leagues, the length one-hundred; but the breadth not above twelve in some places, and fourteen in others. The middle of it lies between nine and ten degrees of latitude; its furthest cape, called Tagusau, towards the south-west, is fifty leagues distant from Borneo, in which there are many low islands that almost join two great ones. The inhabitants of the coasts of these islands, and of Tagusau, are subject to the Mohammedean king of Borneo, but up the country are Indians unconquered, barbarous, subject to no king, and therefore all their care is not to be subdued by the Borneans or the Spaniards; half of the lands of this island are in their possession. The Spaniards have it in about twelve hundred tributary Indians, blacks, like those of Africa, who range from place to place without any certain abode. They are faithful to the Spaniards, who keep a garrison there of two hundred men, part Spaniards, and part Indians, with an alcayde, or governor, whose residence is at Taytay, on the opposite point to Borneo, or, as the Spaniards call it, Bornei, where there is a fort.
We were determined to see this historic structure, the Santa Isabel Fort, during our visit to Palawan, so we stopped off in Taytay on the way between El Nido to Port Barton. We were so taken by the historic settlement that we ended up staying for a couple of days. We got off the Roro bus at the terminal on the edge of town and got a tricycle to Casa Rosa, one of the two main lodgings in town, for sixty pesos for three people. We walked uphill to the reception area (Casa Rosa is set partway up a hill overlooking Taytay Harbor) and were impressed by the beautifully landscaped complex, which consisted of ochre-colored bungalows set in a garden of shade trees, flowering shrubs and orchids potted in empty coconuts. The reception area was a large open space featuring a novel Christmas tree made from dead leaves. Most remarkable, however, was its stunning view of Taytay Bay, featuring numerous islands amidst the sunlit waters. And in the foreground, right along the shore, was the Fort of Santa Isabel, a satisfyingly sturdy-looking structure of dark stone, with a powerful bastion in each of the four corners.
Impressed by the position of the hotel, we had a look at the rooms and found that they had a little bit of style as well, with a poster-bed in the corner of the room, wrapped in a billowing mosquito net. The view from the window took in a large slice of blue sea. There was also a hammock on the balcony, which gave me visions of lying there and reading the copy of Picnic at Hanging Rock I had picked up in El Nido. We decided to take the room. Unfortunately, later on we learned that the room was infested by bedbugs and by the time the sun rose the following morning, we were covered in red welts. It was a shame, because it really was a beautiful place to stay; hopefully they will soon learn how to fumigate the mattresses.
After we checked in, we walked down to Fort Santa Isabelle, where the garrison of 200 Spaniards and ‘Indians’ had once staked Spain’s colonial claim on Palawan. Set on the edge of a magnificent waterway, the Malampaya Sound, with the coastline of Palawan stretching away on both sides, it was a wonderful sight. We walked through the park to the main portal of the fort, which featured beautiful stone-carving over the entrance. In the various panels, there were carved religious figures wearing monastic robes, symbolizing the link between empire and religion in the colonial Philippines. From here we paid the 30 peso entrance fee, and ascended the staircase into the interior of the fort, noticing the ferns and weeds sprouting between the brickwork. The stone had obviously been quarried beneath or near the sea, as many of the blocks were patterned with the shells of sea-life.
At the top of the staircase was the interior of the fortress, now transformed into a peaceful garden. The space was covered with a luxuriant crop of lawn grass, with a few small tress planted here and there, paper lanterns hanging off their branches. In each corner was a bastion, each one named after a Spanish saint: their names were San Toribio, Santa Isabel, San Juan and San Manuel. Some of them had garitas, or sentry-boxes, mounted in the corners. Also situated around the edge of the fort were a number of cannons, pointing out to sea. The threat of attack was not merely fictitious or speculative, as the fort had been subject to a 21-day siege from Moro (Muslim) pirates during 1739. During the attack the defenders had boiled water with the fat from slaughtered cows and water-buffalos and poured it down the sides of the fort when the pirates tried to climb inside, scalding the attackers and also making the walls slippery.
A final interesting feature of the fort was the stone-walled chapel of the fortress, once a ruin but now re-roofed with fibreglass. The most interesting feature of this structure was the altar, which was created entirely from driftwood. A marked contrast to the formal, stylized shapes of the traditional altar, the driftwood emphasized the maritime heritage of Taytayanos and the pivotal role of the sea in this remote Palawan community. Not wanting to leave the fort quickly, we lay down on the lawn besides the church and read a few pages of a novel aloud, soaking in the atmosphere of the unusual fortification, the best-preserved ancient fort of the Philippines.