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Colonizing Water: The Masbate Experience

Henry Otley Beyer, or simply known as Otley Beyer, was an American anthropologist who spent great years of his life in the Philippines. He was an ethnologist in the Bureau of Science and later taught in the University of the Philippines. He headed the Department of Anthropology in UP, when it was set up for the first time. Otley Beyer amassed a voluminous collection of papers and ethnographic documents, copied of which are found in our National Library. Some of the papers are labeled “Bikol Paper.” One of these, numbered “40” was a find: It bore the title “The Effect of the New Artesian Well On the Life of the Town of San Fernando.” Written on Oct. 23, 1916, the paper was authored by Liborio Bayot, who would become a lawyer in 1921. At present, there are four towns in the island, to include Batuan and Monreal. But as of the writing of the report, there were only two: San Fernando and San Jacinto. I was intrigued by the title. This was 1916. The Americans were bringing the first artesian well to the island. It must have been one of the first of water-sourcing devices brought to a remote island-town. Liborio Bayot who wrote the paper did not state in what capacity was he documenting that tool of progress. I knew of a prominent Bayot Family in the capital of Masbate. It looks like he must have been related to them. But that is not the point of my interest. I was intrigued by his thesis of how a modernizing (my term because in the 1920s, modernization as a theory of development had not been formulated yet distinctly) element like an artesian well did have an impact on the town. On the second page, the paper has the title: The Significance of the Artesian-Well (sic) In My Hometown of San Fernando.” On that page, Bayot describes Ticao Island as being unique because it has “some connections to the Mayon and Bulusan volcanoes.” That link, he writes, explains how the “ground is saturated with mineral substances.” Bayot mentions that, according to information from the Bureau of Public Works, the artesian well arrived there in San Fernando on March 16, 1916. As with any projects, there was an issue as to where the well would be dug. The conflict arose because of the fact that in San Fernando there were two political parties. One party was interested but there was another party that insisted it be constructed it in their district. In the end, the one in power won over and the project was brought to the area favored by that political party. The drilling was made therefore near the residence of the town president’s, close to the beach of San Fernando. The workers dug some 275 feet into the ground. When the drilling reached about 400 feet, Bayot recalled, the tube hit a strong flow and gas was discharged. The flow and the pressure was said to be so extraordinary that the one heading the drilling sent a wire to the Bureau of Public Works to send an expert to look in the case. The experts arrived on the 13th of April, a day shy of one month after the wire was dispatched. A certain Mr. Burnham, a chemist of the Bureau of Mines, arrived with a Mr. Wall, who was charged with anything related to artesian wells in the Bureau of Public Works. They were accompanied by the district engineer. They came with fittings that were to control the flow of water. By that time, they were able to measure the height the water shot up and it measured 80 feet. Remember that before this, there was no artesian well in the town. The pressure exhibited by the artesian well may have pleased the engineers but not the townspeople. With the water shooting high up, many of the residences near the well, according to Bayot, started to evacuate. They fled to higher grounds, probably to the mountains ranges and hills that ringed the island. They feared the town would be flooded. Some, the paper says believed the construction deep into the earth may have angered God and that judgment day was near. The engineer tried to assure the people but they would not listen. They only came back, Bayot said, after three weeks when “nothing of their prophecy” had happened. The engineers started digging canals leading to the sea. This prevented any kind of flooding. For Bayot though and the engineers, there was something else extraordinary about the artesian. Tests were done. A measurement was done and it showed a flow of 220 gallons per minute. More tests yielded a “flow of 480 gallons of water a minute with more force than before.” Bayot wrote: “It is believed that this is the largest and strongest flow of artesian water in the P.I. (In 1916, our country was known as P.I., which stands for Philippine Islands). Wooden plugs were fitted to cover the three outlets. A shower was also made from one of the pipes. The water was described as “lukewarm” and thus attracted many bathers. Bayot said young women frequented the well very early in the morning to bath. The well became so popular that visitors from different provinces came to visit. People with rheumatism and other afflictions as well as those with skin diseases came and, as Bayot put it, “it is safe to say that many of them were marvelously cured.” The miracles the water wrought upon the town were unceasing and the analysis of Liborio Bayot went deeper. He mentioned how these people, referring to those who went for the curative powers of the well, stayed for three weeks. This brought financial status and, for Bayot, improved the social status of the townspeople as they learned about the customs of other people. The paper finally makes a conclusion: the water coming from the well was a mineral water, in the rare sense of the word. Those who tasted the water swore it tasted like Tansan, a reference to the drink of carbonic acid developed by the Englishman Clifford Wilkinson in Kobe, Japan. With the bottle covered by crown cork, the word “tansan,’ which is Japanese for “carbonic acid,” was appropriated to describe the bottle cap that covered and not what it covered. Take note: there was a chemist with the team, Mr. Burnham. He took some samples and tested them in the laboratories. It was after many weeks did he announce his findings. The water from the first artesian well in San Fernando, in the Island of Ticao, was really “Tansan” and that the well was “pronounced to be the most remarkable and extraordinary artesian well not only in the P.I. but all over the world! (exclamation point mine).” My aim now is to travel to San Fernando, look for the well or the site, at least. But first, I have to find out who was the town leader in the summer of 1916. One of my grandfathers? If the well is not there, the ground must be there. Will the water be still there with the most remarkable and extraordinary artesian well in the world?

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