Before the coming of the Spaniards, the island was called “Buglas” by its nomadic inhabitants--small, dark-skinned people with kinky hair called the Ati, a Negrito tribe./1/ The toponymy “Buglas” (also “Bugras”), a Hiligaynon word which means “snatched off,” was based on the legendary tale that the land was formed after an earthquake had cut it off from its neighbouring island of Panay, then more than twice as big as it is today.
In time, another tribe, the Mundos (possibly a group of Mangyans) settled in the lowlands, driving the Atis inland, into the highlands of Buglas. During the years 100 until approximately 1400 C.E., succeeding waves of Malay migrations, mostly from Borneo, arrived and established roots along its southwestern shores. Thus, by the time the Spaniards set anchor on the island, it had already been settled by the Atis, the Mangyans, and the Malays.
By then, raiding and trading were common practices among the small chiefdoms not only in Buglas but as well in the rest of the Philippine archipelago. Those from Buglas and elsewhere in the Visayas were referred to as Pi-she-ya or “painted ones” due to their practice of tattooing their bodies. The Spaniards called them Pintados.
The first recorded European contacts in the island of Buglas came through the expedition in April 1565 sent by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. The account goes that when Legazpi, along with Fr. Andres Urdaneta and six other Augustinian priests arrived in the Philippines on 13 February 1565, they were accompanied by a Boholano chieftain named Catunao to the island of Cebu. Legazpi was, however, not able to dock in Cebu due to the resistance of the natives there. He, therefore, ordered his fleet to go to Samar, then Limasawa, and then back to Bohol where he befriended Datu Sikatuna. From there, Legazpi ordered a series of expeditions to nearby islands.
The expeditions were meant to look for new lands and to search for food and other provisions. Already, the Spaniards were informed about the Atis that inhabited the hinterlands of Buglas. The chief frigate pilot wrote that the island was said to be full of black inhabitants. Indeed, in no time the Spaniards saw one along the seacoast. “He ran away so fast a horse could not have caught up with him,” the pilot observed./2/
The Ati highlanders had by then extensive contacts with the lowlanders. They were also found to have been using iron weapons and tools, harvesting medicinal plants and other forest products, which they used to trade with those in the lowlands. Spanish authors, however, concluded that the Atis or “Negros” were the original inhabitants of the islands, driven into the interior by the usurping non-Negro invaders.
As far as the lowlanders were concerned, the initial contact between them and Legazpi’s men were generally peaceful and accommodating, but the succeeding interactions with the Spanish soldiers surveying the island grew increasingly hostile until Legazpi’s diplomacy won over several local chieftains. Henceforth, Spanish settlements started to thrive./3/
Among the early settlements founded in what was thereafter called “Negros” was Inabagan (now called Binalbagan), located at the southwestern part of the island. The Inabagans were reputed to be closely related to the people from Panay, sharing many similarities in practices and traditions. In fact, it was claimed that the descendants of the ten Bornean Datus headed by Datu Puti initially settled in Panay, and that some of them later migrated from there to Inabagan.
Legaspi’s friendships with the local chieftains of Negros, however, were said to infuriate the Moros, Muslim pirates from the southern parts of the archipelago, as these made incursions into the island more difficult. After another Moro raid in the village of Inabagan, Fr. Diego de Herrera, O.S.A., the first father provincial of the Augustinian Order in the country, reported in his letter of 25 July 1570 to King Philip II of Spain that Inabagan was suffering repeated attacks by the Moros and that the people there were completely defenseless./4/
In 1571, Legazpi divided Negros into encomiendas, a labour system granting the encomienderos a monopoly on the labour of groups of indigenous peoples, to be held in perpetuity by the grant holder and their descendants. Although the encomienda did not include the grant of land, in practice the encomienderos gained control of lands inhabited by these people.
Diego Lope de Povedano who drew the map of Negros the following year was assigned an encomienda in Inabagan along with Andres de Villalobos, Mateo Sanchez, and Pedro Isardo. Cristobal Nuñez Paroja, one of the seventeen soldiers of Legaspi, was granted an encomienda in Carobcob (part of modern-day Silay). There were in total about fifteen encomiendas in the whole island of Negros in 1571.
However, because of the relative under-development of Negros, these encomienderos resided in either Cebu or Iloilo in Panay so that tribute from the island went either to Cebu or to Panay, depending on their proximity. Thus, eastern Negros gave tribute to Cebu and western Negros to Panay, i.e., Negros was administered simultaneously from Panay and from Cebu.
This interesting historical fact, together with the chain of rugged mountains separating the two parts of Negros, were to give rise to Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental developing their own distinctive languages and sub-cultures./5/
Nonetheless, Fr. Diego de Herrara’s letter to the King of Spain reporting on the Moros’ constant raids in Inabagan and other encomiendas in Negros must have contributed to the revitalized interest in the area. Inabagan was soon conferred the status of a pueblo (communal village) thus making it the first ever township in Negros.
In order to intensify the evangelization of the Visayanos, the Augustinians established a convent in Inabagan in 1575, and appointed Fr. Jeronimo Marin, O.S.A. as the prior and first parish priest. This was turned over to the secular priests in 1600 until the Recollect mission was founded in 1622. That was made on the occasion of the visit to Negros of Augustinian-Recollect Fr. Francisco de San Nicolas, a native of Cadiz, Spain, for “matters pertinent to the service of the Church”.
Fr. Jeronimo Marin, O.S.A. and Fr. Francisco Bustos, O.S.A. founded the town of Ilog in 1584. Then came the towns of Hinigaran, Bago, Marayo (Pontevedra), Mamalan (Himamaylan), and Candaguit (a sitio in San Enrique). When Negros Island became a Corregimiento or military district in 1734, the town of Ilog was its first capital. Then, in 1795, the seat of government was transferred to Himamaylan, and in 1849 to Bacolod, already an established township since 1756.
In 1848, concerned over the dearth of native clergymen, Bishop Romualdo Jimeno, then Bishop of Cebu, petitioned the office of the Governor General in Manila to provide more curacies in Negros Island. Thus, in June of the same year, the development of additional curacies was entrusted to the Augustinian Recollect Friars-- Fathers Andres Cobos, Agustin Olmedillas, and Tomas Mezquita, among others. Fr. Ramon Cabas took charge of the curacies of Kabankalan (then Barrio of Ilog as Kabangkalan was only made into a town in 1903), Siaton, and Amblan (present-day Amlan). The curacy of Bacong (founded 1801) was entrusted to Fr. Joaquin Soriano in 1849, whilst Fr. Fernando Cuenca took over Minuluan (present-day Talisay City) in 1850.
As the Recollect Fathers took-over the administration of the island, they noted that it was not being sufficiently developed. The natives planted a little palay, corn, camote, and other crops in quantities to satisfy their daily needs but not enough to produce surpluses. Extensive agriculture that was later to come to Negros in the form of sugar cane plantations was non-existent. They did not arrive until the second half of the 19th century.
In May 1849, Don Manuel Morquecho Valdivieso assumed the administrative and judicial functions from the interim provincial governor Don Juan Doroteo who was concurrently gobernadorcillo of Jimamaylan (Himamaylan). Don Morquecho then started his campaign of modernising Negros by requiring the inhabitants to adopt surnames, opening the northern road from Bacolod to Minuluan, and conducting censuses from Tuggauan (also Tukgawan, now Enrique B. Magalona) to Calatrava. It was Don Morquecho who initiated the transfer of the capital of Negros from Himamaylan to Bacolod. Moreover, Negros was raised to the category of a politico-military province in 1856, with Governor Emilio Saravia as its first politico-military governor.
Soon, the flat, fertile, and unexploited lands of Negros attracted the attention of sugar cane planters in Panay. Thus, the second half of the 19th century was a period of rapid economic and population expansion, with great influx of migrants coming from neighbouring areas including Iloilo, Antique, Capiz, and Cebu. These migrants settled in districts sparsely inhabited, resulting in the establishment of new townships. In 1860 alone, the municipalities of Saravia (also called Tukgawan and present day Enrique Magalona), Valladolid, San Carlos, Calatrava and Escalante were set up.
On the other hand, the stagnation, isolation, and neglect of the Oriental coast prompted thirteen priests from different towns to petition in 1876 that the island of Negros be divided into two parts. Hence, on 25 October 1889, a royal decree established Negros Oriental as a separate political unit, and on 1st January 1890, Governor General Valeriano Weyler officially established Negros Oriental as a separate province, with Dumaguete as its capital. This included the separation of Siquijor from Bohol, to be included in the province of Negros Oriental.
Footnotes: /1/ It is believed that the Atis are related to the Aeta of Luzon, the Baltak of Palawan, the Agta of the Sierra Madres, and the Mamanwa of Mindanao; /2/ Buut Og Gahum, History of Negros, Dr. Earl Jude Paul Cleope, Siliman University; /3/Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society, William Henry Scott, 1994, Ateneo de Univerity Press; /4/The Moros continued their intermittent raids in western Negros until 1857 when Governor Emilio Saravia stopped and gave chase to seven large Moro vessels. The eastern part of the island, however, were to unceasingly suffer from these raids until well into the second half of the century; /5/To date, Negros remains the only Philippine island divided into two provinces belonging to two different administrative regions, with Negros Oriental part of Region VII along with Cebu, and Negros Occidental part of Region VI along with Panay.
Source: Unpublished Research Report on Negros mythography submitted by Serafin Plotria, Jr, a Hiligaynon writer and a researcher on cultural and historical subjects.