As the wife of the famous Diego Silang, Ilocandia’s liberator, Maria Josefa Gabriela was popularly known as Mrs. Diego Silang. By her own right, she was equally great as her husband. After her husband’s assassination, she continued his libertarian movement, fighting valiantly on the bloody battlefields and died with heroic courage at the hands of the Spanish enemy.
Mrs. Silang was born in the barrio of Canlogan, Santa, Ilocos Sur, on March 19, 1731. Her father was an Ilokano peasant from Santa and her mother, an Itneg household maid from Pidigan, Abra. She was brought up as a Christian by her father, for she had been separated from her pagan mother since birth.
She grew up to be a comely lass, noted for her pious and charitable character. At the age of 20, she was forced by her father to marry a rich old man, who died shortly after the wedding, leaving his wealth to his young widow. Thus, she became a rich and pretty widow, very much attractive to all eligible swains.
Diego Silang who was then a young and dashing mail-carrier between Vigan and Manila, fell in love with the beautiful widow. After a few years of romance, they were married and established their residence in Vigan. For five years, they lived happily, although unblessed by children. Diego Silang continued his regular trips to Manila, in the course of which he made many friends not only in the capital city but also in the towns and provinces where he made brief stopovers.
In September, 1762 the raging Seven Years’ War in Europe reached the Philippine shores. A British expeditionary force, prepared in India by the English East India Company upon orders of the British Crown and commanded by General William Draper and Admiral Samuel Cornish entered Manila Bay on September 22, began the siege of Manila on the 24th, and captured it on October 5.
The capture of Manila by the British invaders shattered Spain’s military prestige and inspired the oppressed Filipinos in certain regions to rise in arms against Spanish rule. In Ilocandia, Diego Silang, with the help of his brave wife, emerged a liberator. On December 14, 1762, Silang proclaimed the independence of his people and made Vigan the capital of Free Ilocos. He proved to be an able general, for he routed the Spanish forces in Cabugao. Failing to crush his independent government by force of arms, the Spanish authorities resorted to a sinister strategy-assassination. The hired assassin, Miguel Vicos, a perfidious mestizo friend of Silang, succeeded in killing him on May 28, 1763.
Mrs. Silang widowed for a second time, assumed the leadership of the libertarian cause and carried on the war against Spain. She was assisted by Nicolas Cariño, Diego Silang’s uncle, and by other faithful lieutenants of her late husband.
Driven out of Vigan by the superior forces of Spain, she retreated, with the remnants of her lamented husband army, to Pidigan, the hometown of her Itneg mother. This town became the capital of the free Ilocos government-in-exile. She recruited more freedom fighters, including Itneg archers, and prepared for recapture of Vigan. Meanwhile, she launched guerilla attacks on the Spanish garrisons on the coastal towns. Her unique policy of harassment was so successful that the name Generala, which was given to her by the masses, struck terror to the Spanish troops and to Ilocanos who collaborated with Spain.
About the last week of August 1763, Mrs. Silang was able to muster a fighting force of 2,000 men armed with assorted weapons – Spanish muskets captured from the enemy bamboo spears hardened in the fire (bikal) bows and arrows (pana), blowguns (sumpit), bladed weapons (bolos, draggers, and swords), and head axes (wasay).
While she was preparing the offensive for the recapture of Vigan, the Spanish authorities were massing a huge army of 6,000 strong for the defense of the city. By the first week of September, Mrs. Silang astride a prancing horse led the march towards Vigan. Upon her command, her bolo brigade, supported by Itneg archers, assaulted the city defenders, offered by trained Spanish officers, and supported by artillery, rolled back the attack, inflicting heavy losses on the Generala’s army.
Mrs. Silang, undaunted by the first repulse, launched a second attack. She personally led this assault to encourage her warriors to fight fiercely. But, outnumbered and outarmed, her men could not crack the enemy line. Demoralized by the futility of crushing the enemy, they panicked and fled the battlefield. The valiant Cariño, bravest captain of the Generala, perished in action.
The fearless Generala and some brave survivors retreated again to the wilds of Abra. A picked brigade of Spanish troopers and loyal Cagayan warriors under Don Manuel de Arza pursued the fleeting patriots, capturing them later in the hinterlands.
Terrible Spanish justice was meted out to Mrs. Silang and 80 of her surviving men. Her brave men were hung one by one along the coastal towns as a stern warning to the Ilocano’s that any resistance to Spain would mean death on the gallows.
Mrs. Silang, the leader and last survivor of the lost rebellion, was brought to Vigan, where she was publicly hanged on September 20, 1763. She died with calmed courage, as befitted a true heroine. Thus ended the heroic life of the fighting widow, the “Joan of Arc of Ilocandia,” and the short-lived independence of the Ilocano people. She deserves the garland of greatness, for she fought and died for her people’s freedom. She was truly the “first woman general” and the “first female martyr” in Philippine history.