Tales of Death from the Dungeons and Jail Cells of Fort Santiago


The colonial government responded to the Revolution by instituting a reign of terror. Some who died or who were tortured were die-hards for independence, others were semi-committed, and still others were innocents framed intentionally or simply bystanders. Some were implicated by just being related to or working with a known separatist. 

Intramuros’ Fort Santiago, dedicated to St. James the Apostle, the patron saint of Spain, was witness to incarcerations, just and unjust. Few survived to tell the horror of its notorious death hole.



The Notorious Hole of Death

Henri Turot wrote a simple journalistic account of what he saw while covering the Philippine struggle and what he had derived from studying documents of the era.

The horrible “hole of death” was instituted at Fort Santiago. The military thought torture could scare the revolutionists into submission. Turot quotes heavily from the account of a survivor named Tung Tao. 

The Hole was a dungeon abandoned for a century. “It was full of rotting water and infested with rats, snakes, and all kinds of vermin.” Having but a small hole for air to enter, everyone packed inside as many as 170 at a time died of asphyxiation overnight. 

Among those thrown into the Hole was “the brother of Han-Kai, one of the bravest mestizo leaders from Batangas” whose eyes had been plucked out and his feet burned. 

Tung Tao, Han Kai, and Han Kai’s brother, and all those considered leaders were interrogated and subjected to a slow and horrible death. Foot soldiers were garroted, shot, stabbed. Torture included the usual whipping (done in public and even to women who failed to attend Mass), dropping into the well head first, and other means of punishment and interrogation typical of the period in different parts of the civilized world.


 Jose Rizal’s Final Incarceration

Under the charges of sedition and rebellion, Fort Santiago became Jose Rizal’s prison starting November 3, 1896. While standing trial and awaiting sentence, the 35-year old patriot stayed alone, incommunicado in a cell improvised out of a pantry that had barely any daylight. 

Rizal had been familiar with the place. He had been taken to the fort in 1892, before his exile to Dapitan. The only difference this imprisonment and the former was that now he faced not exile, but execution. 

Rizal underwent a trial by the Council of War. On December 26, the Council sentenced him to death, affirming that he was the “author” of the August rebellion against Spain that was actually initiated by Andres Bonifacio. 

On December 29, Rizal was officially notified of his sentence. He read the report of the auditor, but insisting on his innocence, refused to sign the document. Instead, he noted: “Informed, but not in conformity, for I am innocent.”

Rizal was moved to a temporary chapel cell a day before his execution. The room had an altar to help the condemned prepare to face death. Rizal spent his last hours receiving many visitors, among them were family members, a number of Jesuits, some Spanish officials and a Spanish newspaper correspondent. 

During the 1945 Battle for Manila, the dungeons and cells of Rizal were destroyed. His initial prison was rebuilt in the 1950s to approximate the original buildings and its interiors.

Today, Fort Santiago was restored as a park. A shrine was dedicated to the memory of its illustrious prisoner. 

Information source: Visions of the Possible, Felice Prudente-Santa Maria 


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Tales of death from the dungeons and jail cells of Fort Santiago (2008). Retrieved from WordPress (https://traveleronfoot.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/tales-of-death-from-the-dungeons-and-jail-cells-of-fo… […]

  2. You didn’t mention the last victims of atrocities in Fort Santiago – the Filipino and people of other nationalities who died there during World War II.

    I hope you will make mention of them. c:

  3. if only I am already alive at time the play was shown, I am sure I would have enjoyed it.

    It is an hnor to have you visit and comment on this site Mr. Randy Ford.

    Hope to hear from you again in the future.

  4. Did you know that while working at the theater in Fort Santiago in 1969 or 1970, I directed the play The Chairs in the The Notorious Hole of Death. I thought the play worked down there. It fit and seemed fitting. Now it is just part of the history of the place. Randy Ford, playwright

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