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The Battle of Cagayan; When Spanish Soldiers and Wokou Pirates Collide


For more than 300 years, the Philippines was under the Spanish rule. And when asked what people think when battles were mentioned in this time period, revolts will enter their minds. The Battle of Mactan will surely be mentioned, as well as the uprisings of Diego Silang and his Itneg mestiza wife Gabriela. And among the many stories of nationalism, no one will forget the heroism of Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan movement. Then, there were the battles instigated by Emilio Aguinaldo. People may not like him, but he did prove that the Spanish Colonizer was not invincible.

But in the early years of Spanish Colonization of the Philippines, a different form of conflict emerged. It was not an uprising, but a reaction to a form of lawlessness coming from the sea. Wokou pirates raided the coastlines of China and Korea up to the 16th century. And once they set their sights on Luzon and managed to terrorize the natives of Cagayan. But in 1582, the Spanish responded by commissioning a captain of a Spanish navy to counter the marauding pirates. With only forty soldiers, and several boats and support vessels, they effectively repulsed the raiders and emerged victorious.

And interestingly, it’s worth mentioning that it’s one of those rare moments where western soldiers clashed with Samurai ronins.

Cagayan at the time of Spanish Colonization

Cagayan River Today.

Cagayan River Today.

Even in the pre-colonial Philippines, places in South of Luzon were an important trading spot for the Japanese. This continued even after the colonization of the Philippines, and Japanese Christians even settled in the country. And in 1573, the Japanese began trading gold for silver, in places like Manila, Cagayan, Pangasinan and Lingayen.

Then in 1580, a treat appeared in the form of pirates known as Wokou.

The Wokou

A depiction of a Wokou ship.

A depiction of a Wokou ship.

The term Wokou is a Chinese word that translates to “Japanese Pirates,” Japanese robbers” or “dwarf pirates.” They are known as “Wako” in Japan, and “Waegu” in Korea. And as what’s mentioned earlier, they were pirates who terrorized the coastlines of China, and even Korea. The Seas of Japan and China were their favorite hunting ground. The name suggested a Japanese ethnicity, as early Wokou pirates camped in the edge of the Japanese archipelago. But in later centuries Wokou became mostly non-Japanese. They could be Japanese, Korean and Chinese. As a group, these pirates were a mix of bandits, smuggler and ronin Samurais.

But the Wokou had a new target. Cagayan Valley is known for its fertile land and resources. And in 1580, it became their favorite raiding spot.

The Samurai Ronins

A depiction of a Samurai.

A depiction of a Samurai.

The Japanese were well known back then for their combat prowess. In fact, when Limahong attacked Manila, his best soldiers were Japanese mercenaries. And during the Wokou raid of 1580 in Cagayan, the Governor-General Gonzallo Ronquillo noted the martial capabilities of the Japanese in his letter to King Philip II (dated June 16, 1582). He mentioned that:

The Japanese are the most belligerent people here. They bring artillery and many arquebusiers and pikemen. They wear body armor. All provided from the works of the Portuguese, whom they have shown to them for the detriment of their souls.

These Japanese pirates were said to be disenfranchised samurais. Samurais without masters known as ronins. From the letter of the Governor-General, we could get an idea on how they are armed. Like the samurais in the mainland, they are armored, likely in the style of that time period. The use of pikes and firearms were also mentioned. The Tanegashima, a matchlock arquebus was the firearm of choice, which was the localized version of the Portuguese gun. A downside of these weapons was their low accuracy, reported during their usages in the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-98).

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Initial Action and Retribution

Juan Pablo Carrion, the man sent to crush the pirates.

Juan Pablo Carrion, the man sent to crush the pirates.

The Governor-General Ronquillo commissioned the Captain of the Spanish Navy Juan Pablo de Carrion to combat the piracy in Cagayan. He took initiative and intercepted a Wokou ship in the South China Sea, forcing it to flee by cannon fire. The action stirred a retaliation, coming from a leader named Tay Fusa, as what the Spanish record indicated.

The name Tay Fusa never sounded like a Japanese name. The most possibly explanation here is it was the mistranslation of Taifu-sama (Japanese for medieval chieftain, taifu). He gathered a fleet of 18 sampans, with 1000 fully equipped fighters. In their disposals were bladed weapons and firearms.

The sampan, the pirate ship in used here are flat bottomed boats that may include a small shelter on board. They are usually used as fishing boat, and the flat bottom made them unideal for rough open seas. And meeting the 18 pirate vessels were Carrion’s force of only 40 soldiers and some sailors in seven boats. Five of them are support vessels. One is the light ship San Yusepe, and the galley La Capitana.

Carrion’s forces were significantly smaller than the wokou pirates, but they were better armed and armored. They got superior firearms and armor, as well as better experiences with the weapons. Carrion also have rodeleros among his men. They are armored Spanish swordsmen trained in the usage of shield and sword. They are Carrion’s answer the Wokou’s samurais.

The Opposing Forces Meet

The illustration of the charging rodeleros.

The illustration of the charging rodeleros.

The battle began when Carrion’s forces passed the Boggueador Cape, and encountered a Wokou sampan, with the pirates abusing the native population. Being the fastest, Carrion’s galley detached from the rest, to intercept the Wokou boat and board it. What was thought to be an easy raid turned into a major engagement as the sampan carried more pirates as what was expected. The rodeleros came face to face with armored samurais, and Carrion’s forces were pushed back to their galley, with the Japanese in pursuit. The deck of the galley later became a battlefield as Carrion’s men fight the waves of boarding ronins. The tide turned when the Spanish successfully pulled off an improvised fighting formation on deck; a parapet of Spanish pikeman at the front and the musketeers behind them. The reinforcement by the rest of the Spanish fleet also came in time, and the Wokous swam away, unwilling to surrender. Most drowned due to the weight of the armor. The casualty in the Spanish side is the galley’s captain, Pero Lucas.

Land engagement

Pikes like this helped thwart-off the Wokou attack.

Pikes like this helped thwart-off the Wokou attack.

Carrion continued down the river, and they found eighteen sampans and a Wokou fortification built on what is now La-lo. An artillery battle ensued, in favor of the Spaniards thanks to their larger guns and better crew. Carrion and his men disembarked to dig trenches and position artilleries unloaded from the galley. From there, the bombardment of the Wokou fort continued. Tay Fusa attempted negotiation, whereas in a sum of gold to compensate their lost, they will leave. This was outright denied by Carrion, and Tay Fusa opted to attack by land with 600 strong soldiers.

The Spanish endured three assaults as they man their trenches, and they used oiled pikes in order to make them difficult to grasp by the enemy. Throughout the day they managed to hold their line and inflict heavy casualties. By the third attack, the Spanish were running low on ammunition and the fight turned into a close combat. The Wokou attack eventually diminished. The Spanish left the trenches and attack the remaining Wokou pirates, finally defeating them. The Wokou pirates left their weapons on the battlefield, like an assortment of katanas and armors.


Though lower in number, the Spanish won through a combination of better weapons, weapons experience, armor and tactics. By pulling off a battle formation and a well-timed reinforcement, the Spanish successfully overcame the wokou in the ship battle. Better artillery lay waste to the pirate fort, while the same tactical advantage beats the massed assault by the pirate samurais.

Carrion later founded the city of Nueva Segovia, now the present-day La-lo while the Spanish requested more troops due to the impression left by the battle. Pirate activity was reduced, and commerce flourished.


1. Del Rey Vicente, Miguel; Canales Torres, Carlos (2012), "En Tierra Extraña: Expediciones Militares Españolas."

2. Blair, E. and Robertson, J. (1910) The Philippine Islands, 1493 – 1898. Volume III. University of the Philippines.

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