The Story Behind Malabrigo: The Philippines' Oldest Working Lighthouse

Fun Fact: Its name means "bad shelter."

(SPOT.ph) The Philippines has been engaged in trade from as early as the second century—first with the Chinese and then, of course, the Manila Galleon. From 1565 to 1815, Spanish trading ships traveled across the Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to Mexico. The galleons would make one to two voyages a year while carrying mostly Chinese goods.

During these voyages, the crew navigated through pirate-infested waters—not to mention tropical storms and slack winds. Despite all of that, the biggest challenge in sailing was the absence of lighthouses. Sailors had to make do with simple watchtowers or harbor lights. It wasn't until 1857 that Spain finally ordered that lighthouses be constructed under the Plan General de Alumbrado de Maritimo de las Costas del Archipelago de Filipino (Masterplan for the Lighting of the Maritime Coasts of the Philippine Archipelago). Even then, it took more than 10 years to finish the structures.

PHOTO BY Sandy Aranas
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One of the oldest working lighthouses, Faro de Punta de Malabrigo or Malabrigo Lighthouse, was completed and lit in 1896. Located in Lobo, Batangas, atop a natural hill above submerged reefs, it serves as a guide for ships going to Batangas Bay or Sibuyan Sea through the Verde Island Passage.

Malabrigo Point was notoriously dangerous for sailors, fishermen, and ship pilots for its rocky coastline, hence its name which means "bad shelter" in Spanish. Plans for the lighthouse were drawn up by engineer Guillermo Brockman, and it was built under the supervision of a Chinese contractor by the name of Jose Garcia. The lighthouse took about five years to finish only because the site was inaccessible and equipment such as timber, bricks, and other materials had to be transported over long distances.

PHOTO BY Sandy Aranas

Its design is noticeably inspired by Victorian architecture—a cast iron stairway acts as a fireproof and durable way to ensure the structure's sturdiness. A machine room and a keeper's quarters (which can accommodate up to two families) were built along with the lighthouse.

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Through the years, it suffered quite a bit of damage. During World War II, the lighthouse itself was damaged after American forces shot at it. Soon after that, the antique hardwood floors in the keeper's quarters were ripped open by treasure hunters after they received a tip that the fabled Yamashita gold was buried beneath. In more recent times, a film crew caused minor damage after shooting with no authorization. To prevent further damage, the Mayor's Office now requires a permit before filming in the lighthouse.

During the '80s, the lighthouse was made automated through a donation by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Its light has since been replaced with a bulb that runs on solar power and uses bright halogen lamps.

PHOTO BY Sandy Aranas

It wasn't until 2004 when Captain James Marsh Thomson, PCGA, came into the picture that the orphaned lighthouse found hope. Thomson and his family signed an agreement with the Philippine Coast Guard to adopt the lighthouse as official custodians. His daughter, Olympic swimmer Akiko Thomson Guevara, formed the Friends of Malabrigo group to restore, develop, and preserve the historical landmark.

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PHOTO BY Sandy Aranas

In 2006, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines designated the site as a National Historical Landmark along with the installment of two historical markers. It reads:

Malabrigo Lighthouse

Known as the Faro de Punta de Malabrigo, designed by Guillermo Brockman as a cylindrical brick tower with metal staircase, adjacent pavilion and machine room, 1891. Built by the Chinese contractor Jose Garcia, 1896. An outstanding work of architecture from the Spanish colonial period. It has served as a beacon to sea vessels at the Verde Island Passage. Declared as a National Historical Landmark, 27 November 2006.

The municipality of Lobo also signed an agreement to adopt the lighthouse in 2014. Faro de Punta Malabrigo was renovated and repainted, becoming the best preserved lighthouse in the country.

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