Casa Real de Bucay
1st Capital of Abra

The Province of Abra and the town of Bucay, its first capital, are the products of a vision of prosperity and political development and stability for the Abra river basin, a strategic vision that could not be fostered effectively by the province of Ilocos Sur of which it was a part. Two forces contributed to the materialization of this vision. One was the faith and drive of the catholic ministers, the Augustinian missionaries and the priests of the secular clergy of the XVI to the XIX Centuries. And the other was the power of the Spanish state as wielded by two men of vision: Governor General Narciso Claveria from Manila and Abra’s first Provincial Governor Ramon Tajonera.

The development of towns in what is now the province of Abra followed a general pattern that began with the establishment of missions complete with a church, a convent, a school and a cemetery, occasionally also the building of the Tribunal or municipal hall and the roads to reach the settlement. Once these missions with their infrastructure reached critical mass in terms of population and social organization and weight, the civil government, at the request of either the priests or the villagers, often both, would recreate them as the political entities we call towns, pueblos in Spanish.

Bucay did not escape that pattern. It developed as the mission in Labon and through government fiat became the town of Bucay with a significant change of site, since Bucay began as a rancheria near Labon. It is reasonable to say that Bucay was created from zero and that the social entity that was Labon shifted its center to Bucay when it was made into the capital of the new province of Abra.

The reasons for making of Bucay the capital of the new province are outlined elsewhere in this paper. But it is important to emphasize that Bucay was made to function, at least as much as a provincial capital, as the base from which to launch the enterprise of spreading the faith and expand the government spheres, they could not but go hand in hand, to the northern Cordillera and of assimilating the peoples therein into the main stream of XIX-century Philippines. This writer sustains that this function was the main reason why Bucay became the Capital of Abra. Why else make that decision when there were more organized towns and at last one, Bangued, much larger and with more resources than Bucay?

Redefining Fuerte General Martinez, later known simply as Casa Real, as a political and military base of operations; adherence to the old norms for planning and building towns in the cuadricula or grid system adapted to the lay of the land; and an understanding of the needs and conveniences of the new town, guided Governor Tajonera in the tasks of designing an open town plan for his cabecera and executing it.

The town planned by Tajonera included an outstanding feature that survives intact until our days, and that is the clear demarcation of institutional and residential areas, and of productive agricultural lots. He designed spaces for agricultural lands in their natural place: near the rivers and in the lower areas, leaving the modest heights of Bucay as residential and institutional areas. I have always wondered why most of the so called "development" to the south of Manila since the sixties has chosen the low lands to subdivide and build, lands that were very often planted to rice, when there are higher grounds just a few kilometers to the west that are not suitable for rice fields and could be the site of handsome, not to mention cooler, villages. It is as if one did not need food anymore once he had a house…! After studying Bucay now, I wonder why this simple common sense approach was possible in XIX-century Abra and not applied in XX-century Metro Manila after more than a hundred years of theoretical advances in urban planning.

Governor Tajonera was a man of imagination and of ambitious vision but could not operate in a vacuum. He was governor over a vast territory immensely rich in natural resources and potential agricultural development but at the same time had scant economical or political resources at his command to engage in the aggressive development that he wanted for the province. In the heavily centralized Government system of the times, he had, for most anything, to depend on and negotiate with the Government in Manila where the Governor General had in turn to depend on the bureaucrats in his staff and keep a keen eye on the Residencia at the end of his term.

The dependence on a heavy central government bureaucracy together with the scarcity of resources in the central government in Manila and, worse still, the reluctance of the bureaucracy to spend them that one constantly reads in between the lines of the official documents of the time, did not allow Tajonera to enact his vision. Think of his plans for the building of the Casa Real and provincial jail, the development of the wood and tobacco industries, the improvement of roads, and the establishment of a regulated river traffic system. Add the difficulties in things as simple as repairing the destruction wrecked regularly by floods and typhoons. And one sees the reason for the failure to develop Bucay, and the province, into the vibrant area of progress that was envisioned.

Although this is the area where I lack more documentary basis, I can say with confidence that Tajonera was most successful in the field he knew best. A 10-year veteran of Spanish Peninsular wars, he led successfully three difficult military expeditions from Bucay across the Cordillera to Rio Chico and the Cagayan Valley. The aims of these expeditions were to map the area –he produced its first topographic maps- and to pave the way to open a road from Ilocos to Cagayan Valley in support of commerce and the assimilation of the Cordillera mountain peoples. This was the relevance of Bucay as capital of Abra, being the stepping stone to facilitate these endeavors.

However deficient in appointments Fuerte General Martinez and the Casa Real it housed were, there is no denying that both provided at least the adequate physical plant Tajonera needed to plan and execute the policies of forming a new province and a new town as capital, of attempts to develop the economy of the territory under his command, of keeping it safe and progressive, and of contributing substantially to the assimilation of the Northern Cordillera peoples into the main stream of the country. The complex of fort-cum-Casa Real of Bucay was for the first seventeen years of the province existence the symbol of the power that maintained the political, economic and social fabric of Abra. The arch, only relic left of the imposing compound, is the visually-impacting albeit melancholic icon that conformed the identity of Bucay down to our days.

The discouragement at the effects of the tight-fisted policies of the Manila Government on the facilities of the civil and military administration of the province damaged by the regular vagaries of tropical weather and –who knows- a provincial governor with less vision and drive than Tajonera made Bucay lose its status as capital. Its emblematic Casa Real in the fort was left to decay. And the 1898 revolution with the subsequent American occupation where even the province Abra was devolved to the government of Ilocos Sur probably did the rest.

Bucay today is a beautiful sleepy town (see photo album) with a population that lives under basically the same town design as set by Governor Tajonera (Plate 20) but seems to have lost the memory or meaning of its past and the strong will to surge ahead, like the waters of the mighty Abra River in the rainy season. Yet, the town has a powerful metaphor of what it was in the magnificent arch of its Casa Real. Its restoration and the rehabilitation of the present wasteland within the ghost perimeter of the old fort stockade are musts to turn the town into a vibrant community that is aware and proud of its past and therefore confident of its future. It only needs some planning, some resources and some political will. And I hope that the research I am conducting and the facilities for its dissemination afforded by initiatives like SPCC will provide the needed stimuli to achieve this vision. 

José R. Perdigón
San Juan, July 2007