VICENTE ALVAREZ AND THE BATTLE FOR FORT PILAR
By: Quennie Ann J. Palafox
For decades, many believed that Mindanao did not participate in the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896 and 1898, and that it was led by the Tagalogs and the Visayans from Luzon and the Visayas respectively. Mindanao’s place in the history of the Philippine Revolution is not often highlighted in history books when in fact, the people in Mindanao struggled for freedom like what the Tagalogs and the Visayans did.
One of the biggest military feat in Mindanao is the capture of Fort Pilar in Zamboanga including the Spanish troops and their commander, General Diego de los Rios, last Spanish governor general of the Philippines. This became possible through the leadership of Gen. Vicente S. Alvarez.
Alvarez was born on April 5, 1862 and was the fifth son of Alvarez y Villasis and Isidora Solis. After finishing his early education in the Liceo de Zamboanga, he studied in the Ateneo de Municipal in Manila and the Spanish Military Academy. He worked in the office of the Spanish governor general in Malacanang Palace before going to Sulu to support Jamalul Kiram II to gain the throne of the Sulu against other rival claimants.
When the Philippine Revolution spread to Mindanao, he organized an army of Christian Filipinos, Tribal warriors, and Muslim Krismen and fought the Spaniards for freedom’s sake.
Alvarez initiated the revolution in Zamboanga, in March 1898. He was able to take control of the peninsula, except the port of Zamboanga and Fort Pilar, which were fortified by the Spanish forces.
The Revolutionary Government was organized by Alvarez, Ramos and Calixto with Calixto having the rank of major, Ramos as captain and in command of the two companies assisted by Captain Gowito Sebastian, and Alvarez who was unanimously appointed as the general of the revolutionary forces. Together, they constituted the Revolutionary Council.
The revolutionists much needed military arms came to them when a fortunate thing happened in favor of them. One of the two ships owned by a gunrunner based in Sandakan that supplied arms, ammunition and food to the Spaish forces in Tawi-Tawi, Jolo and Basilan and Zamboanga, ran aground near the Mariki Island because of a sudden storm. As a result, he decided to take all the men along, leaving behind the arms cargo of the fateful ship.
When this information reached Alvarez who transferred the Revolutionary Command to Masinloc, he ordered his men to look over the ship. They were able to get the rifles, guns, ammunition, food and others much needed supplies.
The Revolutionary Council based at Masinloc was able to plan the attack on Fort Pilar after being fully armed. Anticipating the attack, the Spniads set up the first line of defense but the revolutionary forces were able to penetrate the Spanish defense line by the use of native fishing boats that stole into Santa Barbara landing just below the Barrio’s wharf. Santa Barbara was set on fire by the revolutionary forces following the evacuation of the residents.
By March 1899, Gen. Alvarez decided to temporarily withdraw his forces from the battle scene leaving a few men within the vicinity to keep vigil over the Spaniards inside the fort. Hostilities were resumed on April 27, 1899. Prior to that, massive troop preparations were made by the revolutionary forces within the vicinity. Gen. Alvarez wanted to inflict a major assault on the enemies’ side. Realizing their vulnerability to the attack coming from the revolutionary forces, the Spanish troops withdrew and regrouped inside Fort Pilar where they could make their last stand.
The Spanish troops and the revolutionary forces continued to exchange fire for three days as the former did not want to surrender. Spanish artillery fire began to slacken its tempo and the revolutionary forces took the advantage of it and ordered the artillery forces to increase the bombardment. When Gen. Alvarez saw that the Spanish troops could was on the verge of losing the fight, Alvarez called for a truce.
Captain Gowito was chosen as head of the truce team. The truce team conveyed the message of Gen. Alvarez that the fort defenders were fighting a losing war and demanded for their surrender. Captain Gowito said that he would mean an end to the hostilities and free passage to all Spanish forces outside on their way to Manila.
At first, General de los Rios refused the conditions of the truce on grounds that it would involve international protocol. However, he appealed to Gen. Alvarez through Captain Gowito to allow the civilians and dependent inside the fort to leave Zamboanga under a flag of truce. Gen. Alvarez agreed but that no military personnel from the Spanish side would be allowed out of the fort. Thereafter, his men were posted close to the fort to make certain that no one among the Spanish troops would sneak out. . The evacuation of the family and dependents of the Spanish troops took several days; some of them who were wounded were boarded. Those who were natives of Zamboanga and preferred to remain were evacuated to the suburbs.
By May 10, the Spanish personnel inside the fort were surprised to see their fortress surrounded on all sides by the force headed by Captain Ramos along the delta and Major Calixto whose men were already posted across from the aqueduct along the beach. At this point in time, the Spanish forces inside the fort prepared themselves for the attack.
General Alvarez sent Capt. Gowito to inform General delos Rios that the truce was formally ended and that the attack would follow. General Alvarez knew that both sides were preparing for the eventuality and it was just as matter of time when the fort would fall into his hands. Evidently, the Spanish Governor General wanted Gen. Alvarez to take the initiative, which he did by ordering the guns position behind to fire the first salvo immediately after Captain Gowito had returned.
The exchange of fires between the Spanish troops and revolutionary forces resumed despite the fact that the Spaniards were no longer in a position to make use of the cannons mounted on the breastwork.
By the following week of May, there was hardly any of the fort defenders who would post himself on the parapets. More forces from the revolutionary side were arriving to surround the fort and demoralize the Spanish forces.
On the 17th of May, General de los Rios finally gave up the fight and admitted the defeat of the Spanish forces when a white flag was hoisted above the breastwork. He sent a small party under a flag of truce to get in touch with Gen. Alvarez that he would surrender the fort. Thus, Gen. Alvarez ordered his men to hold their fire. The bugle was sounded inside the fort and this was followed by the opening of the massive doors of the gate. The Spanish forces inside the fort were lined at the square with their rifles orderly piled before them. General de los Rios and some of his men stood in formation; he was help up by an aide as he was badly wounded on the knee.
General Alvarez, together with Maj. Calixto, Captain Ramos, Gowito and Nidel entered the fort on the morning of May 18, 1899. General de los Rios saluted General Alvarez to acknowledge his victory; General Alvarez also returned the courtesy.
On the same day, Gen. Baldomero Aguinaldo, cousin of Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo, arrived in Zamboanga carrying the presidential message confirming Alvarez’ title as general.
Rony Bautista. Zamboanga’s Gen. Vicente Alvarez: His Concept of National Unity, 1979, Mimeograph Copy, pp. 22-32
Filipinos in History Vol. 5. National Historical Institute