Philippines: Pre-colonial Independent Principalities and Sultanates (900–1565 CE)


Philippines: Pre-colonial Independent Principalities and Sultanates (900–1565 CE)


Manila Philippines Map 1
Manila Philippines Map
Manila Philippines seal
Manila Philippines seal
Manila Philippines Coat of Arms
Manila Philippines Coat of Arms
Manila Philippines Flag
Manila Philippines Flag

Pre-colonial Independent Principalities and Sultanates (900–1565 CE)

The Indianized kingdom with which the Philippines traded, specifically within the Barangic Phase, was the Majapahit of Java. Legends also tell that the archipelago traded with the Srivijaya Empire. Although no factual evidence can support this, most indigenous legends tell of the significant migration of Srivijayans who relocated to the Philippines for various reasons—particularly to the middle Philippines or the Visayas. The Srivijaya Empire became the first dominant thalassocracy (seafaring empire) that coincided with the decline of Austronesian movements throughout maritime Southeast Asia, from approximately the 7th to the 12th century. Srivijaya was primarily responsible for the spread of Buddhism throughout its area of dominance. It was based in Sumatra, and it spread out to include parts of Java to the south, the Malay Peninsula to the north, and mainland Southeast Asia.

The Indianized Hindu Majapahit Empire of Java was an Indianized thalassocracy that existed from around 1293 to 1527. “Indianized” refers to the empire’s development through considerable and ongoing direct exchanges and cultural blending with India. Architecture, religion, literature, art, ideologies, foods, and goods from the Indian subcontinent had a significant and lasting impact on certain regions of Southeast Asia before the advent of colonialism. The golden age of Majapahit was from 1350 to 1389, while it was under the rulership of Hayam Wuruk (r. 1350–1389), when Majapahit dominated trade in maritime Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. The Majapahit Empire was considered one of the most expansive and greatest thalassocracies of the era and the last major Hindu empire of the Malay Archipelago.

There are suggestions in legends that parts of the Philippines were under Majapahit rulership during the 14th century (specifically during Hayam Wuruk’s time), but this cannot be confirmed. These legends are drawn mostly from the poem Nagarakretagama, also known as Desawarnana, an ancient Javanese eulogy to Hayam Wuruk written in 1365 by a Buddhist monk. This legend tells that Majapahit held the territories of Luzon (at Manila or Saludong) and Sulu (or Solot). The legends state that Majapahit was unable to dominate the Visayas because it was a stronghold of Srivijaya. A battle in Manila in 1365 was said to have liberated the northern Philippines from the Majapahit Empire, so it was possible that at certain times, the Philippines may have been under both Srivijaya and Majapahit control. Mostly, there is considerable evidence of trade between Majapahit and the Philippines, as well as between the coastal regions of Vietnam and China. For example, a gold pendant found in the Tabon Caves of Palawan includes an image of a Garuda bird—the Hindu eagle that represents Vishnu. Many more examples of Hindu imagery and ornaments were found in the Tabon Caves, as well as artifacts linking Palawan with both India and China during the Song and Yuan dynasties.

The Indianization of parts of maritime Southeast Asia occurred due to successions of powerful dynasties that ruled subcontinental India during the first millennium of the Common Era, such as the Pallava dynasty (3rd century to 9th century CE of southern India) and the Gupta Empire (3rd century to 6th century CE that ruled most of India). A multitude of influential Indian kingdoms spread Hinduism and then Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia, but there is little evidence to suggest that the Philippines had much direct contact with subcontinental India; rather, this influence came indirectly through the Indianized Kingdom of Nusantara. The earliest material evidence of Indianized influences in the Philippines is a copperplate inscription (known as the Laguna Copperplate Inscription) that dates from 900 CE. This inscription is also the oldest surviving written historical record discovered in the archipelago. The plate is written in the Kawi script, which was a common written language in archipelagic Southeast Asia from the 8th to 16th centuries CE. Kawi is a derivation of an Indian script and was the method that best communicated ancient Sanskrit as well as Old Javanese. The Kawi script is the ancestral root of modern Javanese, Balinese, and Filipino writing. The copperplate was discovered in Laguna (southeast of Laguna Lake below Manila) and mentions surrounding principalities and kingdoms such as Tondo (Luzon) and Medang (the Hindu-Buddhist Mataram Kingdom of Java, c. 752–1006). The plate clears the name of a man, as well as his descendants, who owed a debt to the ruler of Tondo. The Laguna Copperplate provides evidence of early Filipino knowledge of weighing and measuring, mathematics, and astronomy.

Another old script of the Philippines is Baybayin, which was evident in several historic findings before the advent of the Latin-based Hispanic script of the colonial era. An ivory seal from Butuan dating from the first half of the second millennium of the Common Era is written in both Kawi and Baybayin. Also, a pot from Calatagan (southwestern peninsula of Luzon) dated to the early 1500s is inscribed with Baybayin.

The most important regional power within Nusantara for the ancient Filipinos was Brunei, a small sovereign sultanate in northern Borneo. It was one of the first regions in the area to become Muslim (probably in the late 1300s to early 1400s) and was known to the Filipinos as Burnay, Brunyu, or Po-ni. The Sultanate of Brunei was critical for maritime trade in the Philippine archipelago since it linked the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of western Southeast Asia with the eastern states of China, Japan, and Taiwan. The sultanate had particularly strong relationships with the southern Islamic islands of the Philippines, specifically the Moro people of Mindanao and Sulu. Sulu, in particular, as well as parts of Palawan, may have been under Brunei’s suzerainty for centuries, and at one point, Brunei ceded a large portion of northeastern Borneo—a region known as Sabah—to Sulu.

Under the rulership of Sultan Bolkiah (r. 1485–1528), Sulu is believed to have been annexed to Brunei, and it is possible Manila was as well. Whether Brunei ever held political and military sway over the Philippines is debatable, but the various prominent principalities of the Philippines (particularly the Islamized ones) maintained close trade relationships with Brunei, often through intermarriages that ensured royal successions and definitive lineages. Brunei was small, powerful in traded wealth, strategically positioned, and well administered. Its people were generally peaceful, and the social structure was organized. However, Brunei’s establishment as a capable, independent state, as well as its alliances with Philippine principalities, arose only after 1400 and with the advent of Islam. Before this time, Brunei had been noted as a poor and vulnerable principality under the suzerainty of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire. Thereafter, the sultanate reached the peak of its power from the 15th to the 17th centuries, mostly through maritime trade.

In the centuries of the Common Era leading up to the colonial period, there was no unifying force amongst the various powerful principalities or the scattered rural tribes of the Philippines. In the millennium and a half of the Common Era before Spanish arrival, there were too many settlements, clans, ethnicities, and principalities to name, although they were numerous, ever-changing, and represented the multicultural landscape of the archipelago. There were highland societies, such as the Ifugao and Mangyan. The Ifugao highland tribe resided in the landlocked Cordillera Administrative Region of Luzon—the central area of the northern main island. The area is famous for its rice terraces, including the Cordillera and Banaue Rice Terraces. The Banaue Rice Terraces are referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world,” as they represent millennia-old traditions whereby indigenous peoples have mastered the delicate balance between natural beauty and human bounty. The rice terraces are one of the main living cultural monuments of ancient Filipino people and were declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

The historic terraces cover a vast expanse of land but are technically only five groupings that lie across four modern municipalities. The rice fields are the work of the Ifugao tribe and date back to before the Common Era. They are maintained and utilized to this day through a dedicated and sustainable communal effort. In 2008 and 2015, the Ifugao Hudhud chanting and the ritual tugging game (like tug-of-war) of punnuk were included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. The Hudhud include narrative tales for important occasions, and the chanting can continue for three to four days, particularly during the rice-harvesting season. The Ifugao, meaning “people from the hill,” is a matrilineal society led primarily by women and was a plutocracy of principal families in ancient times. The Ifugao was one of the most sophisticated and peaceful polities of its time, possibly due to a communal method of rulership, including the democratic method of a council of elders. Ifugao’s prosperity and position, safely tucked in the highlands of Luzon, has ensured the survival of its culture and society into the modern day.


Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras showing human settlements between the cultivated hills and natural mountains.

Seventide, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons,_Ifugao_Province,_Philippines.jpg

The Mangyan people were (and still are) residents of the island of Mindoro, southwest of Luzon, and they have a number of sub-tribes according to geographical settlement. They originally dwelled in the coastal regions, but many moved inland to avoid influxes of other Filipinos, such as Tagalogs and Moros, and later to avoid the Spanish. The Mangyans’ ways have not changed much through the centuries, and they lived in the remote areas of Mindoro, relying on hunting and agriculture but occasionally coming to the coast to trade their forest products for consumer goods. There is an abundance of evidence that shows they had extensive trade with the Chinese, and the Mangyan who remained on the coast were eventually Christianized by the Spanish. Historians have concluded that the Mangyan people arrived at different times from different places to populate Mindoro, and their ethnicities (including physical features) and languages differ to a noticeable extent.

Like the Ifugao, the Mangyan societies were peaceful and avoided trouble. Their tribes were highly skilled in basket-weaving and handicrafts. The Mangyan have a form of poetry called ambahan. This poetry predates Spanish intervention and was written on bamboo cylinders in an ancient local script of Indian Brahminic origins from before the Common Era. Ambahan is traditionally sung as a chant and concerns emotional aspects of life as a form of communication. An example of ambahan can be found below:

You girl, I would like to love, if you wish to close the door while I am staying outside, let it be closed from the floor, reaching to the heavens wide!

The Kingdom of Maynila (essentially metropolitan Luzon around the Bay of Manila and the Pasig River) was the largest and most influential territory of the Philippines. However, there was a multitude of Philippine territories mentioned in historical records that competed for the same maritime trading waters and beneficial alliances with foreigners. The Taytay of northeastern Palawan were well known abroad (the southern sections of Palawan were under Sulu control). The Taytay became most famous when their king and queen were taken for ransom by the first Spanish conquistadors in 1521 after their leader, Ferdinand Magellan, was slaughtered on the island of Mactan, which is a part of Cebu. The crew demanded resupplies for their escape to the Portuguese-occupied Moluccas and safety. The Taytay provided more than was demanded by the Spanish, and it seems they parted on good terms!

The beautiful island of Coron at the northern extremities of the Palawan island chain was known to the locals as Calis and is now protected by law for its unique geological features and supreme snorkeling and scuba diving areas. In 1998, the Tagbanwa tribe of Coron Island was awarded a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT). This area covers more than 220 kilometers squared (85 square miles) of land and sea under their jurisdiction and protection.

The Tagbanwa, who were also present in central Palawan, were historically considered fearsome and wild. A Spanish chronicler named Antonio Pigafetta, who was part of the Magellan expedition, recorded that this tribe practiced blood compacts in which they slit their wrists and poured the blood into a vessel, which, when mixed with other liquid, was then drunk by both parties. They are also believed to be descended from some of the oldest inhabitants of the Philippines and possibly directly descended from the Tabon Man. The Tagbanwa had an early and strong relationship with the Sultanate of Brunei.


A view of some of Coron Island, Palawan, showing the shallow coralline waters ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. The ancestral tribe of the island, the Tagbanwa, made blood pacts and hunted with blowpipes, and they were considered dangerous and wild by the first European explorers.

Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons,_Palawan,_Philippines_1.jpg

Tondo was a fortified banyan (principality) centered around Manila Bay, and it was heavily involved with Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, and other Asian trade. The Tagalog Kingdom of Tondo operated under a paramount ruler known as a Lakan, and at the height of Philippine power (the 15th- and 16th-century trade booms), it shared a monopoly on trade with the Rajahnate of Maynila during the period of the Chinese Ming dynasty. This trade relationship with China was significant enough that a governor named Ko Ch’a-lao (under the resident Chinese Yongle Emperor) was appointed to oversee it. The trade connection was so important to China that even during their national ban on maritime trade during the Ming dynasty, trade with the Philippines continued, mostly under the guise of a tribute (gift-giving) system or through lesser-known ports. (The complicated and multi-tiered Chinese Ming dynasty experienced rises and falls in its oceanic forays, but the emperors limited maritime trade when they wanted to increase control of the governance of the mainland empire. These limitations were known as the Haijin or sea ban laws. The Haijin was highly ineffective and not enforced.)

The Tondo, as the ruling ethnicity of this principality, belonged to the caste known as Maharlika, the feudal warrior class. They ruled most of Luzon from at least the 900s CE to the advent of colonialism, and the Spaniards referred to them as Hidalgos. Although the primary religion amongst the Tondo was Hindu-Buddhism and adherence to Rajadharma (which included Indianized beliefs, codes of conduct, and court practices based on Hindu-Buddhism), they were essentially an indigenous Philippine society and similar to the Kapampangan people of Central Luzon. Although the predominant religions of Tondo were Hinduism and Buddhism, which had been introduced over the centuries by the Indianized kingdoms, ancient animism (natural and indigenous belief systems) of the archipelago was still practiced, particularly in remote areas. The people of Tondo were good agriculturalists, which included aquaculture.

Tondo and the Kingdom of Maynila were the most significant bayans when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. The Kingdom of Tondo traded significantly with China and Japan, and Japanese tea merchants established offices on Luzon in the 16th century. One particularly enthusiastic Japanese merchant even changed his surname from Naya to Luzon, becoming Luzon Sukezaemon. The Chinese were known to keep extremely tight controls on their trade routes, and the Filipinos involved in Chinese trade almost came under their suzerainty whilst engaged in these exchanges. Although the Philippine principalities traded freely with Japan, Chinese-Japanese trade was limited by the Chinese themselves as part of their controlling measures. (The Japanese often retaliated with frequent acts of piracy to acquire Chinese goods!)

While Tondo was considered the area north of the Pasig River Delta, which empties into both oceanic Manila Bay and the inland Laguna de Bay, joining the two, as well as most of the greater surrounding regions of Luzon, both north and south, the Kingdom of Maynila was the urban node south of the Pasig. Maynila, being more concentrated and centered entirely on the coastal bay area, was mostly influenced over the centuries by external forces, specifically in terms of trade and religious and cultural impacts. Islam was the predominant religion introduced to the Kingdom of Maynila via the Sultanate of Brunei in the 13th century. It is possible that Islam was introduced by force when a certain Rajah Ahmad attacked Maynila, but it is also possible that the transfer of Islam to Maynila was a natural result of its close trade and kinship affiliations with Brunei.

It was perhaps Maynila’s adoption of the Muslim faith that maintained its position as a very strong trading partner with Brunei and, along with its proximity to Tondo and its strategic position on the coast, ensured its establishment as part of the Philippine trade oligarch. Maynila retained a strategic relationship with Brunei through intermarriages of the ruling classes. Although there is no hard evidence that the Sultanate of Brunei was ever politically an overruling power of Maynila, Bruneian legends tell of an important marriage in 1500 during the reign of Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei that united the two kingdoms more permanently. Other sources claim Brunei “attacked” Maynila and established a satellite state named Seludong, which later was renamed Maynila. Majapahit legends also refer to an area called Saludong or Selurong and Solot (or Sulu) that were under the rulership of Majapahit in the 14th century, and Chinese sources state that later in the century, Brunei was attacked by Sulu pirates. Malay apocryphal sources also refer to the area known as Seludong, and it is apparent that the name “Maynila” only became significant after the colonial occupation of the Philippines. (Bruneian traditions state that Seludong was under the direct rulership of the rajahs of Maynila—or the House of Sulayman—from 1500 onward, although the local leaders of Tondo, the Lakandula, were permitted to keep their titles and lands.)

In truth, until the advent of the colonial era, complete dominance of the archipelagic islands and principalities was unrealistic due to distance and the logistical problems of oceanic approaches. Even the large Indianized thalassocracies were unable to put real and lasting governance structures into place but were influential because of their accumulated wealth through trade and the extent of their maritime fleets.

The combined areas (or even the individual bayans) of Tondo and Maynila were often referred to abroad, particularly in China and Japan, as simply Luzon. Over time, they included the influx of ethnicities with whom they traded, and intermarriages and immigrant settlements arose to alter the genetic and cultural landscape of the Philippines.

The principality of Pangasinan was located along the Lingayen Gulf, north of Manila, and halfway up the western coast of Luzon. This independent region was referred to as Caboloan or Kaboloan and was centered around the fertile Agno River Delta that empties into the Lingayen Gulf. The capital of Caboloan was Binalatongan, which is now modern-day San Carlos. Like the other principalities of the Philippines, this bayan flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries and sent emissaries to China in the early 15th century, as well as traded with Japan and other Asian states. The Pangasinan kingdom was referred to as a “Wangdom” after the Chinese word for king (wang). The Chinese also referred to the kingdom as “Feng-chia-hsi-lan,” and it expanded significantly into the surrounding territories as an independent principality in the same period that the powerful Indianized thalassocracies of Srivijaya and Majapahit were active in the archipelago. From the time of Spanish conquest in the late 16th century, the colonizers referred to the area as the “Port of Japan,” as the population wore an abundance of Chinese and Japanese clothing, both cotton and silk. The Caboloan people adopted many cultural traits of the Chinese and Japanese, and they used their traded goods, such as porcelains, extensively in their daily lives. The polity, in turn, traded Chinese and Japanese goods with other Southeast Asian states, as well as gold, slaves, animal skins, and other local products.

Ma-i was a principality first mentioned in the 10th-century Chinese Song dynasty documents (Zhu Fan Zhi, written by the Song Dynasty historian Zhao Rukuo). Ma-i was also mentioned in the 10th-century records of the Sultanate of Brunei. The Chinese regularly traded with Ma-i and noted that its citizens were “honest and trustworthy.” Some gold artifacts known as Piloncitos or Bulawan may have been punch-marked with the symbol of Ma-i. These small, rounded gold nuggets were considered the first official currency of the Philippines, as all trade conducted prior to the appearance of Piloncitos was through barter. Overall, gold rings and gold, in general, were historically the currency of the archipelago prior to colonial intervention. The Spanish named the golden beads Piloncitos, meaning “little weights,” and it was unlikely that they would have been manufactured before the 1300s.

The Sultanate of Sulu dominated the Sulu Archipelago, as well as parts of Palawan, Mindanao, and northeastern Borneo (Sabah) during the height of its power. This Muslim sultanate was founded sometime between the late 14th and mid-15th centuries, although it was settled as a principality before being ratified as an Islamic state. Local people, known as the Tausūg (Suluk, Jolo Moros, Sulu Moros, Sulus, or Taw Sug), were evident on the Sulu archipelagic islands from at least the 11th century. The Tausūg were mostly centered around Sulu’s second-biggest island of Jolo in the central archipelago, with the largest island being Basilan, closest to Zamboanga. Tausūg means “people of the sea current,” and besides the Sulu Archipelago, this ethnic group can also be found on the Zamboanga Peninsula of southwestern Mindanao, as well as farther inward of Mindanao, Sabah, Palawan Island, and even Malaysia. The Tausūg are believed to have migrated to Sulu from Mindanao during times of intensive Chinese maritime trade, specifically in the Song dynasty and the Yuan dynasty. Sulu was mentioned in Yuan court records, including accounts of tributary trade missions from that area.

By the end of the 1200s, the Tausūg was considered an elite commercial society and had gained power through trade. The exact timing of Islamic intervention is uncertain but is most likely to be the 13th century when Arab merchants began using Sulu (via the Sultanate of Brunei) as a direct trade link to China. Proselytizing began from various sources, including Muslim Chinese and Sufi (Islam mystic) missionaries from Arabia and Iraq. The Sufis arrived via the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. Specific individuals are mentioned in more recent annals that describe the exact process of Islamization of Sulu, but it is far more likely that it was a centuries-long process that developed through the influx and influence of Muslims to the archipelago and through marriages with the Sultanate of Brunei. Malaysian Muslim religious scholar Sharif ul-Hashim was said to have arrived in the 1450s when the establishment of the Sultanate of Sulu began in earnest. He was apparently a Malaysian from Johore on the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. In 1457, he married a local Sulu princess, the daughter of Rajah Baginda, the latter of whom had arrived from Sumatra as a proselytizing Muslim, and Sharif ul-Hashim officially founded the Sultanate of Sulu. He renamed himself “master” or “paduka,” with his full title being Paduka Mahasari Maulana al Sultan Sharif ul-Hashem. (As a side note, the dates for the founding of Sulu as an Islamic kingdom range from the late 14th century to the mid-1400s—there is no consistency in the historical records.)

The Sultanate of Sulu reached the height of its power in the 18th and early 19th centuries when its influence through the southern Philippines, Mindanao, and Sabah was at its greatest. There was high demand for the Sulu sea slugs that were a popular ingredient in Chinese medicines and cuisine. Pearls, shark fins, rattan, birds’ nests, camphor (from cinnamon trees), and mother-of-pearl were also highly demanded commodities. Sulu was an epicenter of trade and piracy, particularly in regards to the sale of slaves from the island of Jolo, most of whom were taken in the Christianized areas of the Philippines—those most under the influence of the Catholic Spanish. The Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the mid-16th century left Sulu in a continual state of warfare with the colonizers and the Moros, who refused to submit. The city of Jolo was first attacked by the Spanish in 1578, but it was only by 1876 that the Spanish managed to establish a permanent garrison on the island! Spain instead proceeded with a series of agreements concerning trade and territorial negotiations with Sulu. Unfortunately, good diplomatic relations between Sulu and the French and British in the first half of the 1800s encouraged Spain to exert sovereignty over Sulu to protect its waters. After an initial pact of friendship in 1851, by 1878, Spain had asserted its dominance and practically had Sulu as its protectorate.

Sometime between the mid-17th century and the early 18th century, Sulu gained northern Borneo from the Sultanate of Brunei through a peaceful alliance that had seen Sulu quell an uprising against the sultan of Brunei. At the same time, Sulu ceded the island of Palawan to the sultan of Maguindanao (a sultanate in Mindanao), who had married a Sulu princess. However, Palawan came under Spanish suzerainty shortly afterward. The Muslim thalassocracy of Sulu finally gave up its independence in 1915. From interactions with the Portuguese to the Spanish, Dutch, French, German, and English, the Sultanate of Sulu was officially dissolved in 1915 through the United States’ Carpenter Agreement, which aimed to abolish slavery, confiscate firearms, and curtail piracy and feuding. The reigning sultan, Jamalul Kiram II, relinquished secular power but retained religious dominance. However, in 1962 (under Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal) and then again in 1974 (under Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos), along with Philippine independence, the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu was once again recognized. Sultan Mohammed Mahakuttah Kiram (r. 1974–1986) was the last official sultan of Sulu.

Another principal kingdom of the pre-colonial Philippines was Madja-as. A considerable mystique surrounds the legendary kingdom of Madja-as, which was centered in the Visayas (central Philippines) around the island of Panay. Believed to have been established by high-ranking members of the disintegrating Indianized Srivijaya Empire, legends tell that they purchased and renamed the island of Panay after the destroyed Srivijayan state of Pannai on Sumatra. Although Sumatra had been the epicenter of the primarily Buddhist Srivijaya for almost eight hundred years, its strategic location, which dominated the Strait of Malacca—the critical channel of entry into maritime Southeast Asia—had always been challenged by other powerful kingdoms and states. Srivijaya’s demise in the 13th century was mostly due to the expansion of the Hindu thalassocrat empires of Java (such as Majapahit and Singhasari, the latter being a 13th-century eastern Java empire. Although Srivijaya was located in Sumatra, this extensive thalassocracy extended and influenced much of maritime Southeast Asia during its time. The datus that escaped the collapsing empire came from Borneo and were apparently escaping the Muslim rajah of Brunei, Makatunao. Legends tell that nine high officials and their families and households were escorted out of Brunei by the rajah’s chief minister, Datu Puti. These predecessors of Madja-as sailed their balangays to the Visayas, and after landing on the island now called Panay, they purchased the land from Negrito Chief Marikudo. (Some sources dispute that the people of Panay were Negrito, believing they were possibly of the Austronesian Agta tribe.)

Legends suggest that initial negotiations for the island included a large tract of land (most likely on the southeastern coast) that was bartered for peacefully between the two tribes, who remained on good terms and integrated over time to become one kingdom. The first datu of the Madja-as was Sumakwel, and eventually, the growing community split into separate groups that now form the most populated settlements of Panay—Iloilo (southern coast), Capiz (northeast), and Antique (western coast). The people of Madja-as made their capital in the north near present-day Kalibo, and the kingdom began to grow to include many other islands of the Visayas. Madja-as reached its zenith in the 15th century during the leadership of Datu Padojinog, becoming a considerable, although warlike and pirating, power. It threatened the centers of Tondo and Maynila, other rajahnates and sultanates of the Philippines, and even China. Like much of the Philippines before the colonial era, the religious beliefs of this kingdom were a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism that included indigenous cultural folklore.

Other minor kingdoms in the Visayas included Dapitan (or the Bool Kingdom) on Bohol Island and the Rajahnate of Cebu. The Kedatuan (“the realm of Datu”) of Dapitan developed around the Tagbilaran Strait—southwest Bohol across from the small island of Panglao. The original inhabitants of Bohol are believed to have arrived on the Anda Peninsula in southeastern Bohol. Ancient Anda petroglyphs and petrographs were included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site tentative list in 2006, along with the Singnapan Caves’ charcoal petrographs of southern Palawan, the Angono Petroglyphs of southern Luzon, the Alab Petroglyphs of Mountain Province (north-central Luzon), and the charcoal-drawn Penablanca Petrographs of Cagayan (northeastern Luzon). The new migrants to the Anda Peninsula created the red hematite petrographs that have remained a sacred site for ethnic communities.

However, Dapitan was settled by migrants from Mindanao, who developed separately from those on the other side of Bohol. All the peoples of Bohol Island were constantly under threat from the Sultanate of Ternate (of the Moluccas or Spice Islands to the south), and by 1563, it was aligned with the Portuguese. After a significant battle, the people of Kedatuan fled to the northern coast of the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao, where they usurped the resident Sultanate of Lanao and integrated with the people.

The Spanish Jesuit missionary and historian Francisco Ignacio de Alcina (1610–1674) spent thirty-seven years in the Philippines, mostly in the Visayas, where he referred to the locals as “my beloved Bisayans.” There was a principality in the Visayas that he called the “Venice of the Visayas,” and this is thought to be Dapitan. Alcina documented Visayan literature and poetry and eventually died in Manila.

The ancient Cebu (or Sugbu) kingdom was an Indianized polity on the island of Cebu. The kingdom was officially established by Sri Rajamuda Lumaya, better known as Sri Lumay, who was a minor prince of the Chola dynasty. The Cholas were an Indian thalassocracy that occupied Malaysia and Sumatra and existed from at least the 3rd century BCE until the 13th century CE. They were the most dominant and longest lasting subcontinental Indian maritime empire of the era. Sri Lumay was dispatched by the Indian Hindu maharajah of Chola to establish bases for expeditionary forces, but he disobeyed his instructions and established his own independent node on Cebu instead!

Sri Lumay is believed to have founded his empire in the 1400s, and he focused his attention on defending his dominion against slave traders from Mindanao and Moro Muslim raiders (Magalos or “destroyers of peace”). His application of scorched-earth tactics (burning things to the ground and destroying everything) granted him the name of Kang Sri Lumayng Sugbu (“Sri Lumay’s great fire”), which was shortened to Sugbu. Sri Lumay had several sons who continued his legacy, and their island domain became known as Pulua Kang Dayang or Kangdaya (“the islands which belong to Daya”).

As with all other coastal principalities of the pre-colonial Philippines, Cebu became an important trading zone. Cebu was known for its harbors that colloquially became known as “the place for trading” or sinibuayng hingpit, which was then shortened to sibu or sibo, “to trade” (which obviously became the later Castilian Cebú). Cebu traded with mainland Asia, Japan, and India, amongst others. The ports of the island were alive with barter in agricultural products, ivory, perfumes, glass products, leather, and precious and semi-precious stones.

Sri Lumay’s grandson, Sri Humabon (or Sri Hamabar), was rajah when he granted or perhaps was forced to cede parts of the Cebu dominion to a mysterious character from Borneo known as Lapu-Lapu. Lapu-Lapu was specifically given the small island of Mactan just off the coast of Cebu (it is so close that in contemporary times, these islands are joined by aerial highways). Mactan is sixty-five thousand square kilometers (or twenty-five square miles) in size. In Rajah Humabon’s time, Mactan was known as Opong, and Lapu-Lapu was also granted a section of the coastal Cebu port known as Mandawili (now Mandaue). Whoever Lapu-Lapu really was (or if he even existed, for some historians suggest he did not), he must have been of considerable importance to gain prime trading areas directly from the rajah of Cebu. Opong (Mactan) was the site of a pivotal battle with the first Spaniards to reach the Philippines in 1521, and Lapu-Lapu has been immortalized through statues in tribute to his honor as a key figure in repelling the Europeans.

The Rajahnate of Cebu was said to be on good terms with the rajahs of Butuan (on Mindanao), and apparently, they were linked by blood relations. Certain evidence suggests that the bayan of Maynila held those from Cebu (the Cebuanos) in low regard and ridiculed Visayans in general because they were easily conquerable (and perhaps posed some kind of competitive hereditary threat since the ruling classes all seemed to originate from Brunei). In general, all recorded history (mostly via Chinese chronicles and colonial reports) indicates that regardless of the religion or culture of the various archipelagic principalities and settlements, they continually experienced intra-regional peace as well as rivalry, including violence and destruction. Piracy and raiding were common during the pre-colonial era of extensive Asian maritime trade, and the various principalities maneuvered against one another for economic and political dominance. It was perhaps this archipelagic incoherency in mutual agendas and lack of permanent alliances that made the Philippines easier for the Spanish to conquer half a century after the Battle of Mactan in 1521.

The Sultanate of Butuan was located in the north of the island of Mindanao at the current location of the city of the same name. Like all the other rajahnates of the Philippines, it traded prolifically across Nusantara and even as far as Persia (Iran) to the west. Butuan was best known for its gold and gold products. Prolific evidence of balangays along the Agusan River that runs through Butuan proves that it was a significant trading port. Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491–1531) was an Italian explorer and scholar who assisted the first Spanish conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan, to the Philippines on his journeys. Pigafetta kept a journal and made the first inroads into translating the Cebuano language. His comments on Rajah Siagu of Butuan and Butuan, in general, from the early 16th century were as follows:

Pieces of gold, the size of walnuts and eggs are found by sifting the earth in the island of that king who came to our ships. All the dishes of that king are of gold and also some portion of his house as we were told by that king himself…He had a covering of silk on his head, and wore two large golden earrings fastened in his ears…At his side hung a dagger, the haft of which was somewhat long and all of gold, and its scabbard of carved wood. He had three spots of gold on every tooth, and his teeth appeared as if bound with gold.

Apparently, gold was so abundant that people decorated the outside of their homes with it, and the small Butuan kingdom is thought by historians to have been even richer than the mighty Sumatran Srivijayan Empire in gold bullion! Chinese records state that their first tribute visit from the Philippines was in 1001 CE and that it came from Butuan. The people of Butuan, as well as the Visayas in general, practiced the ritual deformation of human skulls known as head binding, as is evidenced in human remains of the region. This practice did not seem to occur in the northern Philippines. Skull molding was believed to enhance beauty, and cranial deformation was enforced by binding the heads of children to distort the normal growth of their heads. The bindings were used to fasten rods to babies’ foreheads to broaden the faces, recede the foreheads, and flatten the noses of the growing children. With the advent of colonialism, the standards of beauty began changing more toward a European look, and the practice of skull deformation ceased.

Two further Muslim sultanates of the ancient Philippines that were associated with the Sulus and the other “Moros” of the southern Philippines were Maguindanao and Lanao. Maguindanao was a sultanate on the island of Mindanao, and it ruled in the province of modern-day Maguindanao (in the center of the island) and the city of Davao (southeastern coast). Even before the advent of the first established Islam sultan, Muslim influences had been arriving over the centuries, such as with other regions of the southern Philippines. The island was formerly known as the Great Moluccas (Gran Moluccas), and later, the sultanate adopted its name from the “people of the flood-plains,” or maginged, and “people of the marsh,” or danaw. This was one of the few inland dwelling principalities of the pre-colonial Philippines, and it relied mainly on the cultivation of rice, fishing, and weaving fine baskets and mats. At its greatest extent, Maguindanao ruled the entire island of Mindanao as well as its smaller satellite islands. The sultans were said to be on good terms with the various trading empires, such as China, as well as with the colonial powers of Britain and Holland (the Dutch). The sultanate’s sovereignty ended in the late 19th century when the Spanish governor, General Emilio Terrero y Perinat (in off. 18851888), captured the island, which was under the leadership of Datu Uto at the time. In 1888, Uto signed a peace treaty with the Spaniards, as a famine in 1872 and Spanish insurgencies (and repeated failed attempts at Christianization) had weakened his empire.

Maguindanao was most likely officially Islamized in the mid-1500s, and like Sulu, it was purportedly done by a Malay from Johore. He was called Shariff Muhammad Kabungsuwan. Just like the founder of the Sultanate of Sulu, he married a local princess to further legitimize his position. The center of the sultanate remained mostly near modern-day Dulawan and the valley of Cotabato in the protected highlands (southwest-central island). Maguindanao mostly managed to fend off Spanish invasions until Terrero’s incursion, and in 1705, Maguindanao gave away the island of Palawan (given to them by Sulu) to the Spanish to keep them in abeyance. The most famous sultan of Maguindanao was Muhammad Dipatuan Kudarat, who ruled from 1619 to 1671. Kudarat fiercely fought off Spanish invaders and prevented the spread of Catholicism. He claimed direct descendancy from Shariff Muhammad Kabungsuwan and attacked his fellow Filipinos in Luzon and the Visayas, punishing them for giving in to the Spanish. However, overall, Kudarat’s relationships with the various colonial powers were peaceful enough, and he eventually allowed the Spanish access into select pockets of his kingdom to perform conversions.

The Sultanate of Lanao was also a part of Mindanao, but it was unique in the decentralization of its four constituent kingdoms, the Pat a Pangampong a Ranao, which were further constituted of sixteen royal houses. Lanao was said to have developed at the same time as Maguindanao and under the same Islamic influences. Lanao’s territories were approximately north of Maguindanao and included Unayan, Masiu, Bayabao, and Baloi. Lanao managed to sufficiently repel the Spaniards and Christianization until the advent of the Americans in the early 20th century.

The southern Muslim kingdoms of the Philippines were not considered a hegemony, but they were linked through ideologies, behaviors, and sometimes marriage. The Muslim populace, or Moros, of the archipelago had most of the monopoly on the Philippine slave trade and were notorious raiders and pirates of the surrounding islands and waters.

However, like most of the monarchical structures across the Philippines, the sultan was not an all-powerful dominant force but was rather often assisted by other royalty, advisors, and councils in the rulership of his Muslim lands or “Dar-al-Islam.” Subjects were able to switch allegiances, and sometimes there were various datus in a sultanate operating with separate agendas and with varying support of the people. Tradition enabled any free man (non-slave) to transfer his support between datus (in the Muslim areas, the governors were also referred to as panglimas). (In terms of sultanate lineage, the Sulu were a slight exception in that they retained the Sulu Tarsila, a documented genealogy of sultans. However, the beginnings of this genealogy are unclear.)

In terms of enslaved persons, there were three types: those born into slavery, those owing a debt of slavery, and those captured specifically to become slaves. Slaves were able to own land, choose their occupations, and attain their freedom through services rendered. Payment to the ruling classes could consist of goods or slaves, and the accumulation of slaves increased a person’s (usually a datu’s) loyalty structure, almost as if the slaves were unpaid subjects or mercenaries acquired to perform a datu’s bidding, including following him into war. Eventually, if a datu (or a collection of datus) acquired a significant following of people—both free men and slaves—they would find a way to claim an ancestral right to form a monarchy and elect a sultan. Whether Muslim, Hindu-Buddhist, animistic, or Christian, the Filipino structure of monarchical governance remained flexible throughout history. Their fluid attitude to loyalties applied to relationships with foreign trading powers and colonialists alike, as relentless cycles of diplomacy and war followed one another over the centuries between the same polities, both regional and international.



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