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Useful Notes / Cagayan Battles

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The Cagayan battles were a series of clashes between the Spanish Empire and a confederation of Japanese pirates in the sea of China in 1582. Although a relatively obscure event, it has become quite of a curiosity for history buffs in recent times, not only for portraying a rare historical instance of rogue samurai being pitted against western soldiers, but also for having ended in a solid victory for the latter despite being cartoonishly outnumbered and facing enemies highly regarded in pop culture.

The story starts in 1573 with the establishing of trading routes between the Spanish colonies in Philippines and Japanese merchants who came to exchange gold and silver. While initially a peaceful coexistence (as peaceful as a western colony at the other side of the world can be, anyways), conflict arose in 1580 when a Japanese wako or pirate warlord attacked the colonies and forced the region of Cayagan (in the island of Luzon) into submission. Those pirates, whom the Spaniards suspected could be actually Privateers for the Emperor Ogimachi, were already known in the colonies, as they came every time they heard about a chance to grab for free what they originally had to pay for. They were indirectly helped at this by the Portuguese, who disputed sea commerce with Spain and had provided Japan with modern guns and gunpowder, turning their banditry activities into a potential danger. When the colonies failed at repel the attacks, they resorted to the famed Spanish Navy and commissioned veteran captain Juan Pablo de Carrión to solve the situation.


Carrión made a big entrance in the conflict by intercepting a pirate ship in the South China sea and forcing him to flee by cannon fire. This had the effect to stir up the entire wako community, which was led by a pirate lord of name recorded as Tay Fusa (probably a Spanish misunderstanding of the term Taifu-sama, meaning chieftain). While Tay Fusa gathered a fleet of 18 sampan boats carrying around 1000 fighters, Carrión did the same with what he could find in the colonies, embarking 40 soldiers and some tough war sailor crews in seven ships of varied sizes. The two fleets eventually met in the coast of the Cagayan island, where the Spaniards were investigating a recent pirate incursion, marking the beginning of the battles.

As Carrión and his fleet rounded the island, they encountered a wako junk ship which might have been the perpetrator of the attack. The Spanish captain detached his galley flagship from the fleet, as it was the fastest boat, and intercepted the junk, pretending to board and capture what seemed an easy prey. The mission immediately went sour for the Spanish when the junk revealed to carry much more fighters than their galley, to the point the Japanese counter-boarded them and forced Carrión’s men to fight for their lives. Only after executing an improvised land formation on the deck (and being finally reached by the rest of the Spanish fleet) they could turn the tide on the pirates. Never willing to surrender, the Japanese jumped to the sea and many of them drowned due to their armors. Free to continue, Carrión and his people kept rounding the island, when the main Japanese fleet was coming.


The fleets finally met in the Grande river, where the pirates were trying to enter through. The two forces exchanged cannon fire for a long time, which gave the advantage to the Spaniards thanks to their larger guns and better artillery crews. After overpowering the pirate fleet, Carrión ordered to disembark men and cannons to the riverside in order to flank them, building a trench there and furthering harassing the Japanese. The latter initiated negotiations in an attempt to get peace through gold, but the Spaniards characteristically told them to go to hell, so the pirates opted to attack by land with their remnant 600 fighters in the hope to overwhelm them by sheer numbers. The Spanish trench suffered three increasingly wild Japanese assaults through the day, but they managed to hold the lines and inflict them heavy losses through their tactical superiority again, after which the pirates finally decided to abandon the battle and run away.

In order to further pacify the region, Carrión founded a city right there, current day Lal-lo. Pirate activity persisted, but only sparsely, and commerce resurged. The colonies ended up establishing a peace and trade treaty with Japan in 1590, though Toyotomi Hideyoshi never lost the penchant for demanding the Spanish Empire to hand over the Philippines, which he never got.

Tropes for this page:

  • The Alliance: While historical chronicles define them insistently as Japanese, it seems there were also Chinese men and people from other Asian nations among the wako.
  • Fragile Speedster: Japanese armors were lighter and more vulnerable to gunfire, though it allowed them to run faster, which came handy when they had to call retreat. (However, it was still heavy enough to make them sink like a stone when falling to the sea, which apparently caused the death of many of them).
  • Gradual Grinder: The greatest asset of the Spanish infantry against the Japanese pirates was their famed battle formations, in which they formed a ring of long pikes around several rows of riflemen. This had naturally devastating effects against the kind of banzai-style front charges favored by the samurai, as they continuously crashed against the formations and were butchered in the process. As their only answer to them was regrouping and repeating the attack, it can be said the Japanese side grinded itself down trying to overcome the Spanish defenses.
  • Hollywood Tactics: A real life example, though not too far from what we could see at the final battle of The Last Samurai. Strategy lesson of the day: charging frontally against tight groups of men with pikes and guns is not a good idea.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The Spanish soldiers. Their weapons and armors made them comparatively only a bit slower but much more tough and damaging.
  • Ronin: Part of the Japanese forces, although, as said above, some suspected they were not as roguish as they looked.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: Soldiers of the Spanish Army and Navy against Japanese ronin and possibly their Chinese equivalents.
  • Stone Wall: A big factor of the Spanish victory was their tougher ships, thicker armors and better defensive formations.

In fiction:

  • The Spanish 2016 comic book Espadas del fin del mundo by Ángel Miranda and Juan Aguilera portrays those battles.

Example of: