How Ilocos Norte and Sur Came to Be

Lyra Santos explains the historical roots of how Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur came to be.

By Lyra Santos
July 30, 2011

A lot of people ask me why the Ilocos provinces are separated into Norte and Sur. I tell them that it wasn't always this way. A part of the reason for the separation was due to the folk of the North's refusal to be conquered by the Spanish. It's also probably one of the reasons why we Ilocanos are known to be hot-tempered but, as you will see if you read on, it's always with good cause.

The Ilocos Region lies in the northwesternmost part of the Philippines. There is archeological evidence that the area--composed of present day Ilocos Norte and Sur, Abra, and La Union (though politically, Abra is part of the Cordillera Administrative Region, and the fourth Ilocos Region province is Pangasinan)--was famous for their gold mines and enjoyed bustling trade with China and Japan before the Spanish arrived. Because the region's inhabitants were of Malay blood, it came to be known as "Samtoy," a word derived from sao mi toy, which means "our language."

Ilocos Sur Capitol
Photo source: (Handtell)

Juan de Salcedo, grandson of Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, took a special interest in the region, taking eight ships and 45 men up the coast with him, first landing in what is now Vigan in Ilocos Sur on June 13, 1572 then proceeding to the towns in Ilocos Norte that we now know as Currimao, Badoc, and the provincial capital, Laoag. The 22 year-old and his men noticed that the waterline contained a lot of coves and caves, or "looc," which is where the region gets its name "Ylocos." Back then, Ilocos was considered one province, with no Norte or Sur to differentiate it.

With the Spanish came Christianity, which grew at a steady rate, especially in Ilocos Norte, which is known for stone churches that date back to that era. This seemed to be the only thing that the Ilocanos from the North readily accepted from the conquerors, however, as the region quickly became known as more troublesome than the rest. The abuse of the local folk by the Agustinian clergy was rampant, and it was only a matter of time before the locals revolted.

Ilocos Norte Capitol
Photo source: (Dodong Flores)

These revolts led to notable battles such as that of the Dingras Uprising in 1589 and the Pedro Almasan Revolt in San Nicolas in 1660; and of course one of our country's greatest heroes, Diego Silang, led a revolt and cause that would be picked up by his equally legendary wife Gabriela before the latter was captured and hanged. One of the biggest Ilocos Norte revolts, one that could be equated to the "Boston Tea Party" of the United States, is the 1807 Basi Revolt in Piddig. Basi is a sugarcane wine that is made in the province. At that time, there was a government monopoly of the industry which would later fuel the rebellion.

There were religious rebellions as well. In 1898, Gregorio Aglipay was instrumental in starting the independent Church of the Philippines. He had ties to the Katipunan, and was friends with then general and future president, Emilio Aguinaldo

Perhaps due to the North always being rebellious against the Spanish, the Spanish Royal Decree on February 2, 1818 divided the very geographically long province into two, making it Ilocos Norte and Sur, a division which has remained to this day.

Not many people know the reasons behind Ilocos' division, and I am always proud to tell them the story of a people who, in their own capacity, stood against oppression. They may have not been entirely successful in driving out the Spanish, but they sure did give them a hard time.


Basta Pinas, Naimas!


By day, Lyra Santos is a freelance web marketing consultant. At night, she transforms into a foodie who likes Star Wars, Jane Austen, and heavy metal music.