Spanish Era adventurer

Photo source: Haas, Salesius. 1912

Very few Chamorros of Guam’s Spanish Era (1668-1898) are mentioned by name in the annals of Pacific history. Even fewer are women. However, there is one woman who stands out as an enigmatic presence among a long list of priests, colonial administrators, travelers, missionaries and traders who journeyed to Micronesia for God, wealth and adventure.

Bartola Garrido was a Chamorro woman, born and raised on the Spanish territory of Guam in the early 1800s.  She received her education from the Augustinian Recollects, a religious order of Catholic priests who ran the Mariana Islands mission throughout the 19th century.  Under the guidance of the Augustinians, Garrido learned her prayers and was a devout Catholic; she also was deeply loyal to Spain.

Not much else is known about Bartola Garrido’s life as a young person – even her exact last name is unclear.  According to Guam historian Father Eric Forbes, she is referred to as Bartola Garrido y Taisague in some writings, and Bartola Taisipic y Delgado in others. (The inclusion of surnames of both parents was a Spanish custom that Chamorros on Guam appropriated after many years under Spanish rule.)  What is known, is that Garrido was one of the first Chamorros to move to the island of Yap, where she spent her later years living on her estate and working with the Spanish government and the Capuchin priests.

Bartola Garrido’s story is better appreciated as part of the larger history of colonial and religious politics of Micronesia.  When Spain colonized the Marianas in the 17th century, the Spanish also claimed the group of islands which they collectively named the Caroline Islands (known today as Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Kosrae, and Pohnpei).  Unlike the Marianas, Spain was not able to maintain as rigid a colonial presence in the Carolines, which meant, in the eyes of other Western nations, these islands essentially were available for colonization or business development.  The Germans in particular had become interested in setting up trading posts and establishing a military presence in the region, and claimed the Marshall Islands further east in 1885.  They also soon began to eye the rest of Spain’s colonies to the west, especially Palau.  Representatives from German trading companies requested permission to set up offices in Guam.

Spain, wary of the boldness of Germany’s actions, sent two ships to Yap in August 1885 to formally claim the islands for the King of Spain. Germany, likewise, had sent the warships Iltis and Albatross to lay claim on any other islands in Micronesia not formally possessed by Spain.  The Spanish ships San Quentin and Manila arrived in Yap first.  However, the new Spanish governor and his crew spent the first four days surveying the area to find the best place for the capital and planning the flag raising ceremony, when the Iltis arrived. Within half an hour of dropping anchor, the Germans claimed the island and planted the German flag.  The Spanish had to pack everything they brought with them and leave shamefacedly.  The incident caused such a controversy that the Pope in Rome was asked to intervene.  The Pope ruled in favor of Spain and the Western Carolines remained under Spanish rule.  Spain subsequently was given the task of colonizing the islands and converting the natives to Christianity; however, Germany was also given rights to set up trading and military posts.

The Spanish frigate Manila brought the first governor of the Carolines, Manuel de Elisa, to Yap on 29 June 1886, along with a small contingent of Spanish officials, as well as several Filipino soldiers and convicts to help build the governor’s residence and military barracks on Tapelau (or Topalau), one of the small islands in Yap’s main bay (now known as Chamorro Bay); and six Capuchin missionaries.  When they arrived, Bartola Garrido was one of the first people to greet the missionaries at the dock.

Garrido’s presence in Yap is linked to her relationship with a former American whaling captain and entrepreneur named Crayton Philo Holcomb.  According to Micronesian historian Father Francis Hezel, Holcomb had first visited Yap in 1873 on a trip to procure beche-de-mer (sea cucumber or trepang), a delicacy in Asia.  Although long hostile to foreign visitors, by this time Yap had a few white European residents.  Holcomb, stirred by a desire to settle in the islands, returned in April 1874, but not before smuggling out two deportados (political prisoners) for pay in a stopover on Guam, which got him in trouble with the Spanish authorities.  A similar incident the following year led to Holcomb meeting Garrido for the first time.

Passenger on the Arabia

On 8 April 1875, Garrido was a passenger on the schooner Arabia.  A week after leaving Apra Harbor, the ship’s master, Captain William “Bully” Hayes, a known blackbirder and pirate, had been taken into custody when it was discovered the vessel was carrying eight deportados out of Hagåtña.  The ship had been anchored at Falcona Point near Ritidian in northern Guam.  A group of soldiers was dispatched to arrest the rest of the passengers, which forced the schooner to take off in haste.  Without a navigator and with very little water, the Spanish authorities assumed the ship was lost.  In the chronicles kept by Recollect Father Ancieto Ibañez del Carmen, Bartola Taisague was named as a passenger aboard the Arabia.  The Arabia drifted to Palau, where it was rescued by Holcomb – working in Palau at the time – who took command of the ship. Seeing Holcomb’s courage and resourcefulness, Garrido was easily persuaded to return with him to Yap.

The two began a relationship as a married couple, although Holcomb never mentioned Garrido in his letters to his family back in Connecticut.  Garrido became his “mistress and helpmate,” as Holcomb developed his copra trading business during his first few years in Yap.  In fact, Holcomb was one of four main traders in the Carolines, with stations in Palau and some of the other islands, and Yap serving as the main headquarters.  Vessels from Guam and Manila would stopover in Yap, which had become an important coaling station.  However, a series of bad investments and stiff competition forced Holcomb to close his station in 1880.  He worked for one of his trading rivals for a year in Jaluit, Marshall Islands, and for several months as a German man-of-war pilot in New Britain and the Admiralty Islands.  Holcomb returned to Yap in 1882 but found more financial troubles.  He was continually dogged by lawyers and investors back in the States for debts he had incurred when his original vessel, the Scotland, had sunk in 1876.  According to Hezel, his hot-headedness and lack of business acumen made it difficult for Holcomb to build good relations with the Yapese or compete with the other traders.  Hardly had he re-established himself in Yap and Palau when his family in New England began begging him to return home, basically abandon his business holdings, and help them financially.  Holcomb angrily refused his family’s request.

On bad terms with his family after so many years away from home and unable to secure his business interests in Yap, Holcomb became increasingly frustrated.  Competition with other traders in Micronesia, including the resourceful and wildly successful Irishman David Dean O’Keefe, compelled him to seek the establishment of permanent Spanish administration in Yap.  Holcomb apparently felt his business would benefit more if the islands were under formal Spanish rule.

On 23 October 1884, Holcomb presented a petition translated into Spanish by Garrido, and signed by himself, his wife, and a handful of Yapese, to the Governor of the Philippines requesting that a governor be assigned to Yap and Spanish rule be established in Yap and Palau.  While Holcomb’s interests seem largely economic, Garrido, with her strong religious background and loyalty to Spain was eager and dedicated to seeing Spain maintain its control and influence in the region over the Germans.

The Spanish government needed little encouragement by the time news of Holcomb’s petition reached Madrid, feeling that they would be welcomed by at least part of the native population.  Indeed, plans were already underway to solidify Spain’s claim on the Carolines.  On 26 February 1885 the steamer Velasco was sent to Yap to investigate the possibility of setting up a colonial government there.  It was reported that, hardly had the ship set anchor when Bartola Garrido hurried a party of Yapese chiefs to welcome the Spanish and declare their loyalty to King Alphonso XII.

In August 1885 when the Germans beat out the Spanish in raising their respective flags over the island, Garrido tore down the German flag and raised a flag of the Spanish colors, which she reportedly had sewn herself, on a tree at the highest point of the coastline. She persisted in flying the Spanish flag for several months, throughout the time the Germans occupied Yap.

By this time, Garrido already was a widow, Holcomb having been killed in the Admiralty Islands a few months earlier in May 1885.  He had just purchased a schooner in Sydney, Australia, which he named Bartola, and had gone on a trading mission for mother-of-pearl at the tiny island of Tench in the St. Matthias group when he was speared by the natives there.  The Yapese crew of the Bartola managed to navigate back to Yap without their captain.  Although Holcomb left very little to his wife, Garrido did send a letter to Holcomb’s mother in Connecticut, apologizing for being unable to send her a gift.

In 1886, when the Manila arrived in Yap with its small band of officials, soldiers and Capuchin priests, Garrido, again, was the first to greet them.  According to accounts, she was disappointed that the priests were not Recollect priests, as she had hoped.  Nevertheless, she welcomed them, offering them rolls, fish and other food and any assistance she could give.

Spanish colony educator on Yap

The colony set up by the Spanish was called Santa Cristina (later known as Colonia), in honor of the Queen Regent of Spain at the time. They also built a church and a school. The task for educating the young girls on Yap fell to Garrido, whose house had also become a school in those early years of the colony.  Although the Capuchins requested for religious sisters from Spain to help operate the school, Garrido recruited several Chamorro women from Guam to help when the nuns did not arrive.  Over the next few years, other Chamorros who were able to read and write in Spanish arrived in Yap and took jobs with the Church or the Spanish government.  Garrido herself had always had a gift for languages and could speak Chamorro, English, Spanish, German and Yapese.

Garrido spent the rest of her years in Yap, living to a very old age.  It not clear when she died exactly – maybe in the 1920s or 1930s – or where she was buried – probably on her estate in the island of Tapelau.  For thirteen years after the Spanish took over Yap, she was paid as a government interpreter, receiving about 600 pesos a year.  She was awarded a substantial pension for her loyalty and support of the government and the Catholic mission, and also was given the honorific titles of doña and maestra.

Yap remained a colony of Spain until 1899 when Germany bought all of Spain’s Micronesian possessions after the Spanish-American War.  After World War I, Japan took over the islands through a League of Nations Mandate.  The Chamorro community in Yap remained until 1947, when the islands became part of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.  At the urging of Yap’s indigenous leaders, the American administration relocated the Chamorros, some of them long-time residents, back to the Marianas – some to Guam, but mostly to Tinian.

Although little is known about Garrido’s life on Guam, her impact in Yap represents an interesting and unusual story in Micronesian and Pacific history.  Once described by a Spanish seaman as “una mujer muy fea” (a very ugly woman) in his opinion, she was nonetheless, a genuinely devoted and affectionate partner for Holcomb, who himself, apparently, was unlucky with women.  Her time in Yap showed her to be a kind, generous woman, extending her generosity to anyone in need.  Garrido was also fiercely loyal to her husband and to the Spanish crown.

By 1887 when the Spanish claimed Yap, she was already in her fifties, heavy-set and graying.  Garrido is not known to have had any children with Holcomb or with anyone prior to their relationship, but she did reside with two nephews, Raimundo and Juan, who probably arrived during subsequent migrations of Chamorros into Yap. Even young Juan, who could speak Spanish and Yapese, was very helpful for the Capuchin missionaries.

It also is not clear why she was aboard the ship that Holcomb rescued.  Accounts of the capture of Captain Hayes state that the Chamorros on board the Arabia were attempting to emigrate illegally, and that the ship was on its way to Pohnpei.  Spanish historian Carlos Madrid, however, alludes that the “respected Chamorro lady Bartola Garrido” was among the passengers with all the proper documents.  Perhaps she, like Holcomb, was just looking for a better life in a place that had so many possibilities.

Nevertheless, Doña Bartola Garrido and her indomitable spirit will mark her as the woman from Guam who stood up against an entire nation and helped shape the history of Micronesia.

 By Dominica Tolentino 

For further reading

Cruz, Karen A.  Hinanao: Travelers and Descendants of Travelers. Guam: Karen A. Fury Cruz, 2005.

Forbes, Eric. Bartola Garrido. June 23, 2011. (accessed 25 April 2013).

Hezel, Francis X.  The First Taint of Civilization: A History of the Caroline and Marshall Islands in Pre-Colonial Days, 1521-1885. Pacific Islands Monograph Series, No. 1. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1983.

Hezel, Francis X.  Strangers in Their Own Land: Century of Colonial Rule in the Caroline and Marshall Islands. Pacific Islands Monograph Series, No. 13.  Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1995.

Hezel, Francis X. A Yankee Trader in Yap: Crayton Philo Holcomb.  Micronesian Seminar.  (accessed 25 April 2013).

Hezel, Francis X and M.L. Berg, (eds.)  Micronesia: Winds of Change (A Book of Readings on Micronesian History). Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands: Omnibus Program for Social Studies and Cultural Heritage, 1980.

Ibañez del Carmen, Ancieto, et al.  Chronicle of the Mariana Islands: Recorded in the Agana Parish Church 1846-1899.  Marjorie Driver and Omaira Brunal-Perry (eds.). Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1998.

Madrid, Carlos.  Beyond Distances: Governance, Politics and Deportation in the Mariana Islands from 1870 to 1877.  Quezon City, Philippines: Vibal Publishing House, Inc., 2006.