Coming from more than 7,000 islands and one of the worlds most biodiverse hotspots, it is not a surprise that our ancestors tapped into the hidden knowledge and secrets our islands held and still store. With new species of fauna and flora being found every year there is so much that our home has given to us, from food, to healing ointments and medicine, to deadly weapons.

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In some of the historical accounts written by the Spaniards who wrote the customs and practices of the people they saw, some mention individuals who created poisons, some so profound and deadly that with one touch can kill the person. These poisons could even be potent in a certain date and time frame predetermined by the poison specialist. One such record is found in the works of Antonio de Morga in his Sucesos de las Islas Filipinaswhich is one of the earlier accounts of our ancestors and one very important to rediscovering our precolonial past as Morga was a royal official who wrote more on the daily life of the people and islands.

“The natives of these islands quite commonly use as venoms and poisons the herbs of that class found throughout the islands. They are so efficacious and deadly that they produce wonderful effects. There is a lizard, commonly found in the houses, somewhat dark-green in color, one palmo long, and as thick as three fingers, which is called chacon. They put this in a joint of bamboo, and cover it up. The slaver of this animal during its imprisonment is gathered. It is an exceedingly strong poison, when introduced as above stated, in the food or drink, in however minute quantities. There are various herbs known and gathered by the natives for the same use. Some of them are used dry, and others green; some are to be mixed in food, and others inhaled. Some kill by simply touching them with the hands or feet, or by sleeping upon them. The natives are so skilful in making compounds from these substances, that they mix and apply them in such a manner that they take effect at once, or at a set time—long or short, as they wish, even after a year. Many persons usually die wretchedly by these means—especially Spaniards, who lack foresight, and who are tactless and hated because of the ill-treatment that they inflict upon the natives with whom they deal, either in the collection of their tributes, or in other matters in which they employ them, without there being any remedy for it. There are certain poisonous herbs, with which, when the natives gather them, they carry, all ready, other herbs which act as antidotes. In the island of Bohol is one herb of such nature that the natives approach it from windward when they cut it from the shrub on which it grows; for the very air alone that blows over the herb is deadly. Nature did not leave this danger without a remedy, for other herbs and roots are found in the same islands, of so great efficacy and virtue that they destroy and correct the poison and mischief of the others, and are used when needed. Accordingly, when one knows what poison has been given him, it is not difficult, if recourse be had in time, to cure it, by giving the herb that is antidotal to such poison. At times it has happened that pressure has been put upon the person suspected of having committed the evil to make him bring the antidote, by which it has been remedied. There are also other general antidotes, both for preservation against poison and for mitigating the effects of poison that has been administered. But the most certain and efficacious antidotes are certain small flies or insects, of a violet color, found on certain bushes in the islands of Pintados. These are shut up in a clean bamboo joint, and covered over. There they breed and multiply. Ground rice is put in with them, and they exist thereon. Every week they are visited and the old rice removed and new rice put in, and they are kept alive by this means. If six of these insects are taken in a spoonful of wine or water—for they emit no bad odor, and taste like cress—they produce a wonderful effect. Even when people go to banquets or dinners where there is any suspicion, they are wont to take with them these insects, in order to preserve and assure themselves from any danger of poison and venom.” – Antonio de Morga

In another record by Fray Luis de Jesus in General History of the Discalced Religious of St. Augustine, he writes about a particular and unique type of poison that was delivered by the breath.

“They gloried in knowing charms and in working them, by consulting the devil—a means by which some made themselves feared by others, for they easily deprived them of life. In confirmation of this assertion, it happened, according to the recital of one of our ministers, that while he was preaching to a great assembly one Indian went to another, and breathed against him with the intent of killing him. The breath reached not the Indian’s face, however, but an instrument that he was carrying, the cords of which immediately leaped out violently, while the innocent man was left unharmed. The philosophy of such cases is that the murderer took in his mouth the poisonous herb given him by the devil, and had another antidotal herb for his own defense. Then, exhaling his breath in this manner, he deprived of life whomever he wished. They used arrows full of poison, which they extracted from the teeth of poisonous serpents. They wounded and killed as they listed, by shooting these through a blowpipe, which they concealed between the fingers of their hands with great dissimulation, blowing the arrows so that they touched the flesh of their opponent. They practiced consultation with the devil by means of their baylans, in order to ascertain natural causes, especially in their illnesses. Consequently, they were very great herbalists, knowing above all the preservatives from the poisons with which they attacked one another on slight occasions—especially the women, who are the more passionate and more easily aroused.”

They were also known to use poison in their weapons, in particular on their spears and arrows where they would dip the points in poison coming from their knowledge of the plants and herbs of the islands. In the account of Diego de Artieda in his Relation of the Western Islands Called Filipinas (1573) along with describing the islands that they have only seen at this point and their people he describes the use of the herbal knowledge and use of poisons

“The weapons they use are the following: shields, breast-high, and little more than half a vara wide; lances, two and a half varas long, with iron and steel points a third as long as the lance, and as wide as the hand. In some districts the lance-points are long and ground to a very fine edge. Cutlasses or daggers, from a half to three-fourths of a vara long, are made of the same shape as the lance-points. Those people have armor consisting of cotton-lined blankets, and others of rattan. Some wear corselets, made of a very hard black wood resembling ebony. They use bows which are very strong and large, and much more powerful than those used by the English. The arrows are made of reeds, the third part consisting of a point made of the hardest wood that can be found. They are not feathered. They poison the arrows with a kind of herb, which in some regions is so deadly that a man dies on the same day when he is wounded; and, no matter how small the wound is, there is no remedy, and the flesh will surely decay unless the antidotal herb, which is found in Luzon, be first applied to the wound. Arrows are also discharged through blow-guns with the same effect, although not with the same range.” – Diego de Artida

One well known account of poison being used in this way is in the death of Ferdinand Magellan at the Battle of Mactan against Datu Lapu Lapu and his warriors as described in the eyewitness account of Italian scholar and explorer, Antonio Pigafetta.

“The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, “Cease firing! cease firing!” but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides pointed stakes hardened with fire, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves. Seeing that the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to flight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain. The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away. So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at Pinoy-Culture.com. She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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