“In the beginning there was no Philippines but there was Butuan.”
This is not an empty boast but a definitive declaration that resonates deeply into the annals of Philippine history. As early as the 4th Century, formal settlements along the banks of Agusan River and the valleys that surrounded it were already thriving. The strategic location of Butuan shielded it from marauding pirates, tropical storms, and raging floods.
Naturally gifted and knowledgeable and highly advanced in their time, the Butuanons were skilled boat builders and expert seafarers. Relics of nine balangays, their signature boats, were discovered around the city. Buried 1.20 meters from the surface, the Butuan balangay was discovered in Barangay Libertad in 1976; it was carbon dated 320 AD by the Gakushuin University of Tokyo, Japan.
Built in the excavation area, the Balangay Shrine Museum displays Boat No. 1, Boat No. 5 (discovered 1986, carbon dated 990 AD), pre-Spanish coffins (discovered 1976, carbon dated 14th-15th AD). Pursuant to Proclamation No. 86, the balangays were declared as National Cultural Treasures in 1986 by President Corazon C. Aquino.
An offshoot to the discovery of the balangays, a branch of the National Museum was established in Barangay Doongan. The Butuan Regional Museum is the repository of archaeological discoveries, cultural materials, and artifacts. It is currently under renovation though.
Butuan was an important trading port of the Sri Vijaya and Majapahit Empires. This claim was reinforced when after a storm and flood a golden tara was recovered by a Manobo tribesman along the banks of Wawa River in central Agusan in 1917. This four-pound, eight-inch tall, 21-carat gold Buddhist figurine believed to be belonged to the Sailendra Period of the Sri Vijaya Empire.
A monument stands in Barangay Doongan as a commemoration of this goddess of the Mahayana Group. The figurine was eventually bought by the wife of Gov. Gen. Leonard Wood and is now housed in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Seven kilometers away from the city proper in Barangay Bonbon is another important excavation site that corroborates the ancient civilization and kingdom in Butuan. Carbon dating by archaeologists, the site existed as early as 7,000 years ago and is actually the remains of an abandoned riverbed.
A midden is the trash of prehistoric people. In Butuan City, there are two middens: the Bequibel Shell Midden (freshwater) and the Bitor Shell Midden (brackish). The Bonbon Shell Midden is then believed to be an ancient site where there is a vast man-made formation of shells, the principal source of food of the Butuanon civilization way back in the Neolithic Period. Other artifacts were excavated, further displaying the culture of their time.
As an important seaport kingdom, Butuan attracted even the European explorers and voyagers. In the accounts of Antonio Pigafetta, the official chronicler of Magellan‘s circumnavigation campaign, he claimed that “as we had seen a fire on an island that night before, we anchored near it (Mazzaua Island)”.
On Good Friday, March 29, 1521, the Portuguese-born, Spanish-commissioned Magellan and the two Butuanon brother kings Siagu and Colombu made the first recorded blood compact. Over a long period of sedimentation, Mazzaua, Ambangan and Suatan Islands fused however with the mainland. The Magellan’s Anchorage is located in the present-day Barangay Masao.
Two days later, on the morning of Easter Sunday, the first Catholic Mass in the Philippines was celebrated in Mazzaua. In the afternoon, Magellan, his crew, the two kings and their subjects planted a cross on a hill (bood in Butuanon language).
The Bood Promontory & Eco-Park in Barangay Pinamanculan holds two historical significance. First, Bood overlooks the ancient Butuan and Masao River. At the height of its gold industry from the 10th to the 13th centuries, Butuan became a very important trading port and the bood was a mute witness of this thriving community. Second, on that fateful March 31, 1521, the cross was planted after the first mass was held.
One of the old poblacions of the ancient kingdom was located in Barangay Banza, along the banks of Agusan River. Existed for more than 200 years until it was transferred to the present-day downstream town of Magallanes, Agusan del Norte, it was here where the Augustinian Recollects built a church in 1625 but was later reduced into a heap of ruins by Moro pirates in 1753. What has left of the Banza Church Ruins is the bell tower now enveloped by a banyan tree (balete). Butuan was actually the launching pad of the formal evangelization in the island that started in 1596. Then on September 8, 1597, the Jesuits built the first Catholic church in Mindanao.
Opposite the Banza Church Ruins across the Agusan River is the Balangay Boat Building Site in Luna Compound in Barangay Bading. Replicas of the legendary balangays were built using ancient technology and were subsequently used in tracing back ancient trade routes in Southeast Asia. The Balangay Diwata ng Lahi kicked off the final voyage at the CCP Complex in Manila on September 1, 2009. Escorted by the Balangay Sama Tawi Tawi, the Balangay Masawa Hong Butuan begun the final voyage back to Butuan on January 21, 2011.
Amidst the beautiful chaos and frenetic celebrations, Filipino revolutionaries and civilians heard for the first time a strange hymn. On January 17, 1899, Governor Wenceslao Gonzales of the Third District of Mindanao, Fr. Francisco Nebot, S.J., and the principal residents of Butuan lowered the flag of Vatican City, the Holy See, and the Philippine flag was first formally and officially hoisted in Mindanao, rightly accompanied by the playing of the national anthem by the bands of Butuan, Tubay and Cabadbaran.
Exactly a century hence the National Shrine of the Philippine Flag in Mindanao was dedicated (Ad Perpetua Rei Memoriam) with the blessing of the 100-foot tall flag pole in a ceremony presided by Vice President Salvador H. Laurel, the Philippine Centennial Commission chairperson. The Shrine is in Guingona Park (formerly Rizal Park), named after Teofisto Jamora Guingona, Sr., the first governor of of the undivided Agusan province (1913-1917).
In front of Guingona Park is the St. Joseph Cathedral, considered to be the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Butuan.
Elsewhere in the city are other interesting destinations and historical landmarks. Built in the early 1950’s, the steel Magsaysay Bridge is the first to have connected the east and west banks of Agusan, thus making land trips to the rest of the Caraga Region possible. It was inaugurated by President Carlos P. Garcia on May 19, 1953.
The longest suspension bridge in Mindanao at 882 meters in length, the President Diosdado Macapagal Bridge (Ramon Magsaysay Bridge 2) is an alternative route that links Butuan to the island of Mindanao. Located three kilometers upstream of the Agusan River from the Magsaysay Bridge, the scenic bridge connects the Butuan Bypass Road with the Surigao-Butuan-Davao Road and the Butuan-Cagayan-Iligan Road.
The Barangays Babag and Agusan Pequeno produce a local wine made from nipa sap. According to Antonio Pigafetta, the laksoy was served to Magellan and his crew.
Butuan was once the capital of the united Agusan from 1911 up to its division into two provinces on June 17, 1967 by virtue of Republic Act No. 4979. It remained as the capital city of Agusan del Norte until Republic Act No. 8811 was signed into law by President Joseph Estrada, transferring the capitol to Cabadbaran. On June 15, 1950, President Elpidio Quirino signed Republic Act No. 523, elevating Butuan into a city. On February 7, 1995, Butuan City was reclassified as a first class, highly urbanized city.
From an ancient shipbuilding kingdom to an important trading port to a gold-mining settlement to a Spanish explorer’s layover to a jump off point of Catholic evangelization to a powderkeg of the Philippine Revolution to a timber town, Butuan has never relinquished its social, political and economic roles in this part of the country.
Note: This is part of LegendHarry‘s Nov 21-29 Northern Mindanao-Caraga-Davao Trip.