Providentially eluding devastation and neglect, the 19th century Malabrigo Point Lighthouse of the Philippines was built by the Spanish, patrolled by a distinguished gunboat in navy history, shot by the Americans in World War
II, haunted by a drum-rolling ghost, witnessed mercenaries hunting for rebels, served as a backdrop for a legendary movie, undergone automation by the Japanese, recently been adopted by a non-government organization and frequently visited by tourists throughout several decades. Wow, what a history lesson this beacon could give.
With its grounds open to the public but the tower only given access to a selected few, we were privileged to climb Malabrigo Point Light’s 56-feet cylindrical brick tower on a beautiful weekend.
This 110-year-old Spanish colonial lighthouse stands proudly in the southernmost point of Batangas province. Malabrigo means “salty” to the locals, associated with the waters of the sea surrounding it. Built in 1896, it has a modern aluminum lantern and double gallery rising from a one-story keeper’s quarters. Also called by the names Faro de Punta Malabrigo and Cape Malabrigo, its buildings overlook the Verde Island Passage, and its operational light has three white flashes every 15 seconds. A famous steel-hulled, Naval gunboat, Villalobos I, patrolled Malabrigo Point in 1896 until 1902 before going to Yangtze River service.
Architect and architectural historian Manuel Lòpez del Castillo-Noche stated in his essay, “Lonely Sentinels of the Sea: The Spanish Colonial Lighthouses in the Philippines,” that starting 1857, the Spanish colonizers constructed roughly 70 lighthouses, 22 of them considered as major construction works, all over the Philippines.
Malabrigo Point’s tower, pavilion
and surrounding veranda were built
of masonry. Decorative metal grills surround the fence, balconies and windows. Corrugated iron sheets cover the roof. Noche profoundly shares, “Even with time and the elements acting against them, the beauty that the Spanish engineers erected on our soil cannot be erased. It is time that we, the inheritors of this history, should do what we can to ensure its survival for the next 100 years. For these lights not only lit the souls and imaginations of those who chanced upon them; they also guided a nation to progress.”
In February 2004, Olympic swimmer Akiko Thomson and the Friends of Malabrigo signed an agreement with the Philippine Coast Guard which has allowed them to develop and preserve the lighthouse. Thomson has become a Lieutenant Commander of the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary (PCGA) and her father, J. Marsh Thomson, a Captain of the 106th PCGA Squadron. The PCGA encourages people to volunteer for its environmental cleanups, social awareness programs and search and rescue operations.
Ecotourism and youth development projects are on Thomson’s agenda. Every third Saturday of April yearly, swimming and sailing competitions are held here for the youth in celebration of the fiesta, a festival or religious holiday usually on a saint’s day. Water-sealed toilet bowls were already installed, the services of a grass cutter has been provided to maintain the tidiness of the surroundings and the Medical-Dental Mission is held annually. Future activities are the expansion of the marine reserve coverage area, dolphin and whale watching, camping, mountain-trekking, tree-planting, and leadership training. A cooperative for fishermen and farmers is also being formed.
We were welcomed at the site by head lighthouse keeper Fernando De Mesa on a Sunday morning. De Mesa started as a keeper in 1977. “I am the fifth in my family’s long line of keepers. This job is generally handed down from one generation to another. The two other present lighthouse keepers are also children of former keepers; Wilfredo Francisco has been here for 11 years and Maximiano Evangelista, Jr. has been serving since 1998. Sadly, my only child is a girl and she cannot carry the torch for me when I’m gone because Filipino culture dictates that only men are fit to be lighthouse keepers.”
In February 1994 solar-power was installed replacing the generator. At present, almost all lighthouses in the Philippines are solar-powered. Because the historic bronze cupolas and inch-thick Fresnel lens had to be removed during retrofitting, the original lantern and lens were replaced by halogen light.
De Mesa is rich with 29 years of varied experiences — some of them scary — in the lighthouse. “I have had one experience with a ghost — during the time when the original lens assembly floated in mercury to reduce friction. There was someone up there who made the mercury drum roll, emitting a
very loud and creepy noise. It’s also scary here during typhoons. The waves crash loudly and the wind becomes
so fierce that parts of the roof often
For De Mesa, though, his scariest experience in the lighthouse has something to do with a private army and rebels. “CAFGU, the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit or the civilian militia group, stormed here once in the 1990s. They accused me of hiding 70 New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in the rooms of the lighthouse. The NPA is a communist-based revolutionary group that also claims to fight for national democracy.
“The groups had an earlier shooting encounter at a nearby bridge in the town proper where the militia quickly overpowered the rebels who eventually
fled. At about 3:30 in the morning when I went out to use the outhouse, when
I almost jumped out of my pants upon seeing many men carrying weapons
near the sineguelas and caimito (star apple) trees.
“I mustered up my courage and greeted them as nicely as I could, ‘My brothers…’ Some suddenly approached me menacingly while others spread all over the lighthouse grounds. One of the men asked me, ‘Who’s with you inside the building?’ I answered that I was alone.
“‘Are you sure?’ he demanded more brusquely.
“With deep-down panic, I stammered, ‘I don’t know! I just woke up. I’m not aware if anybody came in while I was asleep.’
“Suddenly, the strong breeze pushed the door of the room nearest us open. I held my breath as the men searched inside. I was totally relieved and my life was spared when their search proved futile. I believe that was my closest brush to death.”
In 1942, the Philippines fell under Japanese occupation during World War II. U.S. forces and Filipinos fought together in 1944-45 to regain control. Before the country attained independence in 1946, the Americans thought that the Japanese garrison was in Malabrigo Point so the top of the lighthouse was machine-gunned. Thankfully, no one died. De Mesa’s grandfather, the keeper then, fled for his life and abandoned his post in terror. After the war, the lighthouse was repaired by the Coast Guard and the Department of Public Works and Highways.
The lighthouse was the site of a classic Filipino film, Ibong Lukaret (Crazy Bird), starring Vilma Santos in 1975. Nowadays, filmmakers are not allowed to film without authorized documents from either the Manila headquarters of the Coast Guard, the Batangas District Office, or the City Station or Detachment.
Tourists from all walks of life visit the lighthouse every two weeks in average frequency. Picture-takings are endless during summer. Every time people visit any of the beach resorts in the vicinity, they make it a point to visit this farola (large lantern). In the summer’s blistering heat, Sunday afternoons are the most hectic for the keepers. De Mesa says wistfully at the end of our interview, “Since many people come here, I only wish that something would be done about the peeling paint in the lighthouse because it badly needs to be worked on.”
After a visit to the farola, travelers and vacationers love to discover tourist attractions in Lobo, Batangas. Benedicto Dueñas, our guide from the Malabrigo Beach Resort who made our overnight stay enjoyable, enumerated many. During the Spanish occupation, a pier was built by the colonizers here but they weren’t able to complete the project. The waves have swept the unfinished pier, which is now buried under the rocky shore. Not far from the beach where we swam, there are snorkeling and scuba-diving sites. Dueñas, who accompanied us to the lighthouse, boasted that Lobo is known as the home of the sweetest fruits – atis (sugar apple) and tamarinds – in the country. A Lobo cave is renowned in national history as the hiding place of General Miguel Malvar, the last Filipino general to surrender to the Americans in 1902, before he yielded.
By studying lighthouses, we learn more about Philippine history and realize that the Filipino spirit of bayanihan (cooperation) is highly needed in order to uphold our national heritage. Our trip to Malabrigo Point made us acknowledge its luck in withstanding the changing of the times and recovering from natural and intentionally inflicted damages.
Bolstering its fortune with public awareness, funding, preservation and volunteer programs will be necessary and vital in order to sustain this beacon into the future.
This story appeared in the
August 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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