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Yamashita’s gold has been found and it's not what you think

Long before Yamashita ever set foot in the islands, local sleuths would go on the hunt for the caches of silver dollars left over from the Philippine-American War. In the Spanish era the hunt was on for Francisco Dagohoy’s treasure or lost religious relics and other legendary artifacts. Perhaps the oldest myth is that of the "lost treasure" of Limahong, a 16th-century Chinese pirate who is said to have buried his loot somewhere in Pangasinan.

Stories of lost treasure intersect seamlessly with the rich tradition Filipino folk tales documented since the late 19th century. These tales are not merely fairy stories for entertaining children. Despite having no identifiable "author", they are complex works of literature that have always played an important role in village and metropolitan life. By sharing and elaborating on folktales, ordinary people become empowered to express their values, reinforce moral codes, and impose meaning on collective desires and anxieties.

In Philippine folklore, objects are often deliberately concealed only to be lost forever. Variations on this theme include tales of unexpected wealth that is quickly lost again due to the failure of the hero to observe proper conduct.  

In these stories, caves are supernatural sources of generosity. One popular tale is of fine jars and plates found inside the mouth of a cave, which are borrowed by locals for special events but always faithfully returned. Inevitably, an individual fails to give back a plate or jar resulting in the repossession of all the borrowed goods and the closure of the cave’s mouth.

All over the Philippines, one hears the story of a church bell that was hidden by locals to protect it from Moro pirates but that after the marauders have moved on, the bell could no longer be retrieved from its chosen hiding place.

War treasure in times of crisis

Stories are also told of valuable items that are concealed during times of crisis and occupation. The tales end with the caution that only a future hero will be able to recuperate the treasure. Unworthy fortune-seekers – especially Spaniards or Americans – will face all kinds of environmental catastrophes if they try to claim it for themselves.

Lucetta K Ratcliff recorded a characteristic story from the Botocan river in La Laguna. Set during the height of the Philippine-American war, the tale describes a tree covered in mysterious inscriptions in an unrecognized language that grew in front of a waterfall. Behind the waterfall lived a wealthy water spirit who gave a poor peasant girl money and golden jewelry, with the instruction not to tell anybody where she got it from. When her mother eventually compelled the girl to tell the truth, her new treasure disappeared. After the Americans learned of the treasure in the cave, they tried to obtain it but were continually thwarted.

The story concludes that to this day, “whenever an American or any foreigner goes there, even if it be Mr William H. Taft it rains heavily although the sun shines brightly."

Rediscovering the true meaning of treasure

As an outsider to the Philippines, these stories have intrigued me for what they really reveal, not about the locus of lost wealth, but the postcolonial national psyche.

Far from unchecked hysteria, the search for treasure is more like a search for explanations, justice, and hope. The stories are fundamentally about resources that are unfairly withheld from their deserving recipients, and they almost always correspond to periods of colonial occupation and political suppression.

In this light, mythical treasure might be seen as a repressed hope for future economic rewards. In circumstances of hardship and dramatic wealth-inequality, the discovery of lost treasure becomes a plausible explanation for why one family is rich while their neighbors remain poor. If the status quo is a brutal and unshakeable class sytem, wealth is quite rationally explained as a matter of blind luck rather than hard work.  

It is unsurprising then that Ferdinand Marcos is sometimes cast as a conspirator in the retrieval of Japanese gold. One legend has it that a poor farmer discovered a golden statue of Buddha while ploughing his field, but this happy find was forcefully reappropriated by the Marcos regime. Can there be any simpler analogy for the economic exploitation of the poor by the powerful?

It’s also possible that these stories are not just about lamenting a loss of material resources but are also a way of accounting for a perceived loss of intangible heritage. What is referred to today as "colonial mentality" is a kind of cultural inferiority complex stemming from past occupations by foreign rulers. Or as Rizal tried to explain it way back in 1889, Filipinos “gave up their writing, their songs, their poems, their laws” and “became ashamed of what was their own; they began to admire and praise whatever was foreign and incomprehensible; their spirit was dismayed and it surrendered.”

Treasure stories serve as a morale-boosting reminder that the nation holds a secret and priceless wealth that has not yet been fully actualized. After all, despite the predations of unlicensed treasure hunters, Philippine archeologists continue to bring us knowledge of the archipelago’s distant past, while historians, artists and narrators of folktales creatively preserve and rework the “songs, poems and laws” that were presumed to have been lost.

Philippine cultural heritage and identity is a priceless treasure and well within our grasp. We need to recognize it before we destroy it in pursuit of a glittering mirage. –

Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. He has previously worked as an author and editor for Lonely Planet and a linguist at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (Bohol). His article on Philippine stories about lost bells and other valuables is published this month in the Journal of Folklore Research.