Landlocked Abra province became a separate politico-military province in 1846, after being part of Ilocos and later Ilocos Sur when the province was divided into north and south in 1818. Headed by a military governor through out Spanish rule, the seat of government was established first at Bucay on the banks of the Rio Principe (a tributary of the Abra River), then to Bangued in 1863. It was during the American period when civil government was established in Abra on 19 August 1901. On February 1905, Abra was reannexed as a sub-province of Ilocos Sur. Twelve years later, it became a full province in March 1917 with Act # 2683. As province it was classified as part of Region I-Ilocos until Pres. Corazon C. Aquino signed Executive Order #220, 14 July 1987 designating Abra as part of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
Abra was populated by two ethnic groups the Tinguian and the Itneg, that is, those groups living on the banks of the Tineg (Abra) River. This mighty river meets Banaoang River before emptying to the sea, between Santa and Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
Augustinian friars, who were establishing missions in Ilocos, arrived at the Abra Valley in 1599 using the Abra River as waterway. But unlike in the Ilocos, they made little headway in converting the local inhabitants. Abra, thus, became a refuge for those lowlanders fleeing colonial rule. During the Silang Revolt of 1762-63, Gabriela Silang, the widow of Diego, sought the safety of Abra to continue her struggle against Spanish abuse. With her trusted lieutenants and troops, she carried on her husband’s struggle. But a stronger Spanish force overwhelmed her and she and her lieutenants were captured the brought to Vigan where they were executed.
Beginning in the 19th century, a more earnest and systematic evangelization and establishment of towns among the Christianized Tinguians (as the mountain people came to be known) was resumed. By 1828, petitions were sent by the Augustinians to the central government to allow mission towns to be created northeast of Pigdigan to serve as entry points for the evangelization of the Tinguians and Itneg. Later papers proposing the boundaries of a new province were drawn up and in 1846 (as we saw earlier) the politico-military province of Abra was formed with Ramon Tajonera y Marzal appointed military governor and concurrently tobacco and tax collector. The province was effectively established in 1848, when Tajonera reported that plans to layout the town had been completed.
Francisco Carreras was appointed to replace Tajonera and concurrently appointed collector of tobacco revenues as Abra engaged in the tobacco trade. Tobacco had been introduced as a controlled export cash crop by the government in northern Philippines. The government set up a company, Tabacalera, to buy the tobacco at a fixed and pre-determined price. This resulted in an economic change in Ilocos. Some planters and buyers became wealthy. Attracted by prospects of trade, Chinese entrepreneurs set up stores in the Ilocos. Control also indirectly encouraged a clandestine trade with the highland where tobacco was grown away from government scrutiny. Inhabitants of the lowland, attracted by the tobacco trade went to Abra, many eventually settled thus changing the demographics of this inland province.
The Spanish colonial churches at Bangued, Tayum, and Lagangilang and the remaining facade of the casa real at Bucay, Abra are architectural reminders of this era. The casa real at Bucay, built on a bluff some 30 meters above the Abra River, was fortified by a palisade with four rounded bastions and a gate. However, the only evidence we have of how the fortification looked is found in Tajonera’s 1848 report—the papers submitted to the central government informing Gov. Narciso Claveria of the creation of Abra as a separate province and the establishment of Bucay as capital.
The single, most informative study on the Bucay for is José R. Perdigón’s (MS 2006; web version 2007 [www.geocities.com/casarealdebucay]) “Casa Real de Bucay, 1st Capital of Abra.” Working with more than 500 documents at the National Archives in Manila and other documents gathered by former Ambassador Cariño (Cariño Papers) and housed in a family museum at Abra, Perdigón demonstrates the pivotal role of Tajonera, Bucay’s first governor, in planning and executing the plan for a new town.
The web version of Perdigón is useful for the photographs and illustrations in it. These illustrations include digital versions of maps in the Philippine National Archives and the Cariño papers and digital renderings of the maps and isometric reconstructions of the casa real.
The context for the establishment of Bucay as provincial capital of the new province of Abra was a plan for the final incorporation of the mountainous regions or the Gran Cordillera of Luzon under Spanish hegemony. In these regions were tribal communities not subject to Spanish polity nor converted to Christianity. The subjugation of the Cordillera of Luzon had a parallel in the campaign to bring Mindanao under Spanish hegemony. This began with Gov. Narciso Claveria’s campaign against the Sama Balangingi in 1846. Besides this political aim, the growth of the tobacco industry spurred the drive to open agricultural lands for its cultivation. The Abra highlands proved suitable for the crop.
Bucay represented a frontier, so prior to its establishment as a town, Fuerte de General Martinez had been built on a 30-meter bluff overlooking the Abra River. Perdigón points out that Fort General Martinez is mentioned in a document of 1837. The fort marked the boundary between the subjugated lands and those still outside effective control.
Assigned to Abra as first governor in 1846, Tajonera’s first act was to layout the town. He followed the traditional grid or cuadricula and used peg and cord to map out the streets and empty spaces of the new town. The south eastern section, where the Fuerte Martinez stood, was enclosed by a perimeter wall and gate. The Fuerte served as the casa real and the adjoining barracks’s lower floor was set aside for a jail. In the 1848 report of Tajonera, he places the church complex outside the fort’s perimeter. During Tajonera’s regime, he sent a number of petitions to build a new casa real or to repair the existing one as it had been damaged. Perdigón has discovered at least three instances when the casa real was damaged by typhoon because of petitions to repair it dated 1852, 1855, and 1856, are kept in the Philippine National Archives.
In 1863, the petition to transfer Abra’s capital to Bangued was approved. This marked the end of Bucay’s importance. The fort protecting the casa real deteriorated over time. By the 20th century only the stone gate and remains of what were the casa real, soldiers barracks and kitchen and possibly a sundial were all that was left. The earthquake of 1991 that hit Baguio damaged the fort’s gate, creating cracks on the arched entrance of the fort.