Pre-colonial Philippines (1–1565 CE)

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Pre-colonial Philippines (1–1565 CE)

Pre-colonial Philippines (1–1565 CE)

Manila Philippines Map 1
Manila Philippines Map
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Pre-colonial Philippines (1–1565 CE)

The pre-colonial Philippines, from the start of the Common Era until Spanish occupation, which began in 1565, can be defined by principalities that started as the smallest unit of settlement known as the barangay. There is evidence of these settlement units dating back to at least the first half of the first millennium of the Common Era. During the Spanish colonial period (1565–1898), the communal regions were known as barrios, and during the first half of the 20th century (the American era), the barangays were referred to as municipalities.

The original barangays were family villages named after the groups of boats (balangays or barangays—they will be referred to as balangays in this book to avoid confusion), which carried small groups of people and their possessions to new parts of the Philippines. These settlers were most likely to have been Austronesian Malayo-Polynesians or perhaps Filipinos moving between the archipelagic islands. Naturally, most of the original barangays were coastal or riverine, and fishing was a critical aspect of their livelihoods. The balangays (the boats) carried family groups, slaves, cultivars for agriculture, and domestic animals to be farmed under the leadership of a datu, or chief. Once the balangays had landed at a new site, and a settlement was established and had grown, the word “balangay” took on a new form as “barangay,” known as a village rather than a boat.

The village chief, or datu (also known as a rajah, hajji, sultan, or lakan depending on the area), of the barangay ruled through inheritance, physical prowess, and/or wealth. He was singularly the law, judiciary, and executive of village life. The datu was usually assisted in his rulership through a council of male elders, or maginoo, who were often chiefs who had retired. The barangay was the primary unit of protection in the first millennium and a half of the Common Era. Subsequently, it was natural for several neighboring barangays to coalesce into a conglomerate to strengthen their position and wealth. The strongest leader of these individual villages (usually by virtue of his being the largest and wealthiest barangay) became the overall de facto chief of the conglomeration. The datu of the barangay confederation would occasionally share his power with the lesser datus but never with the common people. This arrangement of hierarchical and localized governance in the Philippines was later used by the Spanish to their advantage, as the colonialists simply adopted and controlled the existing Filipino model at the start of their suzerainty.

However, this hierarchical model of combined rulership in the collective Philippine barangays may have been more theoretical and informal than how it seemed, at least perhaps in certain instances. Anthropologist Felipe Landa Jocano suggests that even when barangays were in alliances with one another, they were still ruled independently. Grouping barangays was based more on a general and convenient consensus than on a permanent arrangement. “It was a living democracy,” according to Jocano. When the Spaniards made attempts to forcefully consolidate Philippine principalities to govern the Filipinos more easily, they met resistance when they compelled certain datus and barangays to pledge subservience to localized barangays and their datus. As anthropologist Laura Lee Junker (Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Illinois, Chicago) in a 1990 study on pre-Hispanic Filipino societies stated, “While political leadership followed an explicitly symbolized hierarchy of rank, this leadership hierarchy did not constitute an institutionalized chain of command from center to periphery. Political allegiance was given only to the leader immediately above an individual with whom a kin group had personal ties of economic reciprocity and loyalty.” Allegiance to an overlord at that time seemed more of a personal choice than a political or geographical necessity.

The large conglomerations of barangays that accumulated at places like Maynila (ancient Manila), Tondo (much of Luzon), the Madja-as of Panay, Pangasinan (western Luzon around the Lingayen Gulf), Cebu (central-eastern coast of Cebu Island), the island of Bohol, Butuan (northern Mindanao), Cotabato (central Mindanao or current Davao), and Sulu became cosmopolitan polities or principalities. Maynila (centered on the existing district of Intramuros, which later became the epicenter of colonial rule) was the bayan (polity or country) of the Tagalog ethnic group. Exact historical references to the names of these ancient Philippine strongholds are confusing, but either Maynila or the entire Bay of Manila could once have been referred to as the Kingdom of Maynila or the Kingdom of Luzon, post-introduction of Indianized and Islamic influences. The adjoining bayans usually formed ritual alliances, such as the one created between Maynila and Tondo, which then collectively influenced the surrounding regions of Bulacan (northeastern region of Manila Bay above Manila and Quezon City) and Pampanga (northern region of Manila Bay and directly west of Bulacan).

The period from the 14th to 16th centuries became referred to as the Barangic Phase in Philippine history—the golden age of the Philippine barangays when they were at their most powerful. The first barangays had typically begun with approximately thirty to a hundred families, with populations of between one hundred and five hundred people. Upon the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, they discovered barangays consisting of as little as twenty people to large, wealthy principalities. The larger communities and principalities were naturally found on the coast since they could engage in trade and intercultural exchanges with Arabia, India, China, and Japan. Over time, the largest coastal communities developed into small, highly cultured kingdoms with their own social structures, sovereignty, and hierarchies of nobility and royalty. However, when the early Spaniards made their initial forays into the outer territories of these apex city-states, they discovered that any “king” of the Philippine principalities did not have any true territorial claim nor absolute command over the people. The hierarchical arrangements were loose, unenforceable, and more like the original agreement of chieftaincies prevalent at the beginning of Filipino settlement, when kinship and prowess were passed through the male line and allegiance to various datus was relatively subjective.

The title for the head of the barangays and principalities changed according to the geographical region of the Philippines and the culture that most influenced that particular area. Sultan was used in the most Islamized areas of Mindanao, the variation Sulotan in other Islamized areas, Lakan amongst the Tagalogs, Thimuay (or Thimuay Labi) amongst the Subanon (a tribe of the Zamboanga Peninsula of southwest Mindanao approaching the Sulu Archipelago), Rajah in the polities that traded most with Indonesia and Malaysia (the Indianized kingdoms or those most influenced by Indian cultures), and Datu, mostly in the Visayas and other regions of the Philippines. By the time of Spanish arrival, the upper echelons of certain societies were known as the datu classes, and in certain parts of unhispanized parts of the Philippines, such as Islamized Mindanao, some of the elites are still referred to as such (for reference, unhispanized refers to non-colonialized areas or areas that were able to keep their traditions intact).

In time, the maginoo (originally the council of elders) became a ruling class. Its members were referred to as Ginoo in Tagalog settlements, and both men and women could be a part of the class. This upper class adopted different names in various parts of the archipelago, though. Maginoo was mostly for Tagalog societies, ginu amongst the Kapampangan people, and tumao (or, for immediate royalty, the kadatuan) among the Visayans.

In most of the highly populated regions of the Philippines before Spanish arrival in the mid-16th century, three major social classes had developed, with different names in each tribal area. There were commoners, serfs, and slaves at the lowliest level of the social structure, the ruling classes at the highest and most influential level, and finally, a warrior class that was considered to be a higher class, more toward the nobility than the commoners. In certain more Indianized and Islamized populations of the Philippines, the ruling class structure, particularly the roles of principal influencers to the sultans and rajahs, including the line of inheritance, was considerably more complicated.

Another class of pre-colonial Filipino society was the shaman or Babaylan (balian or katalonan), who were usually directly descended from the prestigious classes and were held in high regard within society, potentially because they were feared for their assumed powers. The Babaylans were healers and spiritualists who could be men but were more likely women or even feminized men who dressed and behaved as women (known as baklâ). Before the advent of the monotheistic religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity in the Philippine archipelago, indigenous and animistic (nature-orientated and mythological) belief systems dominated the islands. The overall term for local Filipino beliefs is Anitism and includes gods (anitos), minor deities and demigods (diwatas), nature spirits, mythological creatures (such as nymphs), and connection to ancestors. Beginning in the 7th century, Buddhism and Hinduism were brought to the Philippines from the Indianized Kingdom of Nusantara—mostly from Sumatra and Java. There is evidence that many Filipino people adopted elements of both religions and incorporated them into their indigenous belief systems.

The disintegration of the Indianized kingdoms (1300s to 1500s) coincided with the rise of Islam and the subsequent conquest of Hindu kingdoms by Muslim sultanates in maritime Southeast Asia, and Muslim belief systems were added to the general milieu of beliefs in the Philippines. Islam potentially reached the Philippines as early as the 1200s, mostly from Muslim traders, missionaries, and proselytizers from Arabia and western Nusantara. However, Islam only became entrenched within the Philippines in the 1400s and 1500s, most specifically across the southern island states (Mindanao and Sulu). The Spaniards brought Christianity—specifically Catholicism—in the 16th century, and over the three centuries of their domination of the Philippines, they had mixed success converting the Filipino people, despite their considerable efforts to do so. (Ironically, the Philippines is now a predominantly Roman Catholic nation.)

Although Filipino maritime trade was evident from the original settlements of the archipelago, from the 900s (the Song period in Chinese history) and for the next six hundred years until Spanish colonization, the Philippines engaged in the trade and barter of “prestigious goods” with China and other mainland Asian states. Chinese porcelain, as well as other high-value goods such as silks, magnetite mirrors, glass beads, and metal jewelry, were seen as articles of prestige with Filipino elites. Both Chinese and Spanish sources state that the trade of prestigious goods reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. Naturally, this boom in trade and inter-maritime policy coincided with the growth and development of the various significant Philippine principalities that were positioned and organized along the trade routes, allowing them to reap the maximum benefits from trade activities. For these principalities to remain competitive in the trade boom during this era, they were required to significantly increase the complexity of their societies, tax collection systems, and warfare strategies. Evidence suggests that certain principalities grew tenfold in the thousand years from the 6th century to Spanish occupation in 1565.

Within the Philippines, whether these goods were acquired via trade or produced locally by attached specialists or by those who had learned specific trades, the accrual of high-value items became the pre-colonial local currency. Prestigious goods were necessary for political control and power in the millennium before the Spanish arrived, and they were often used as items of patronage to gain allegiances. This prestigious goods economy became one of the most significant catalysts in Filipino political, cultural, and social development. Not only was there an intra-archipelagic race to dominate long-distance trade routes, but the local Filipinos were also significantly persuaded to craft and garner their own resources and handiwork for international trade, such as forest items like hardwoods or metal tools and weaponry. Included within the complexities of increasingly stratified Filipino societies was the control of agricultural livelihoods through restricted land tenure, as well as extracting surplus agricultural product through tributes (taxes). The Philippine chieftaincies also controlled the metal-producing sectors, such as gold artisans, by sponsoring their work.

Evidence of this thousand-year-long rise in materialism was found in images of the elites adorned in ornaments, with the common usage of these valuable items being for high-profile burials, and records of objects of wealth being used in the households of the hereditary elite through archaeological findings. Foreign luxury goods became the currency for political authority, and these powerful status symbols could buy loyalties, labor, and protection to further increase the power of the chieftaincies and nobility. Within principalities, nodes of wealth and poverty developed, along with divisions in income and living standards. Historians have uncovered significant evidence of ancient income inequality amongst the Filipinos within the densely populated principalities. The locations of the most expansive and oligarchical communities were those at Jolo (Sulu), Maynila, Cebu, and Cotabato (adjacent to Davao, Mindanao).

Some excavated sites of the Philippine archipelago date back to at least four thousand years before Spanish occupation (or 2500 BCE), during the peak of Austronesian settlement within maritime Southeast Asia. The Philippines’ primary agricultural product that was introduced, along with the Austronesian peoples, was rice. However, important crops have also been abacá (banana hemp), along with other natural, indigenous produce that was mostly traded from highland, plain, or forested regions, such as rattan, beeswax, honey, tree resins, and spices. Products that came from coastal regions were largely manufactured and included pottery, textiles, and metal tools, as well as natural products such as fish, seafood, and salt. These items were part of the internal island trade as well as offshore barter.

Archaeological evidence confirms that early Philippine societies, particularly at sites of high coastal and estuarine trade activity, showed evidence of high cultural diversity and social stratification. One confirmation that this complexity increased in the 15th and 16th centuries are the discoveries of porcelains from trade with the Chinese Ming dynasty (as opposed to less evidence of porcelains from the earlier Chinese Song, Yuan, and early Ming dynasties of the 10th to 14th centuries). It seems that the Filipino appetite for luxury items at this time was insatiable, as one historian (Dr. Robert Fox) suggests that Chinese vessels arrived at Filipino ports “laden with large quantities of cheaply manufactured, homogenous, and aesthetically inferior wares from specific kilns.” It appears that the Chinese were engaging in the mass manufacture of porcelains to keep abreast of Filipino demand! However, the Filipinos were not only sourcing their porcelains from China (which constituted an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the total trade wares at many ports and 15 percent of archaeological ceramic remains) but also from Thailand and northern Vietnam.

The Philippine trade with China was reciprocal, and most likely, the trade missions sent out from the Philippines were aimed mostly at procuring favoritism with tradespeople associated with the royal courts of China. The well-known and highly coveted Spice Islands of maritime Southeast Asia (the Moluccas or the Maluku Islands, including the Banda Islands) lie approximately 1,300 to 1,500 kilometers (807 to 932 miles) south of the Philippines’ southern Sulu Archipelago. A direct route from China to the Spice Islands naturally passed along the western perimeter of the Philippine archipelago—western Luzon, northern Mindoro, western Mindanao, and the Sulu Archipelago. During the period that China was most active as a global maritime power, during the late 14th to the early 15th centuries, China received a flurry of trade envoys from the Philippines bearing gifts, according to ancient Chinese court records. These trade missions were primarily from the principalities located along the western coasts of the archipelago that had direct and regular contact with the Chinese on their way to the Spice Islands. The court visits (and gift-giving) from all Southeast Asian nations to China were assumed by historians to be competitive strategies to gain favor with the Chinese and thereby entice them into further and more frequent trade. The Philippine polities would set out on separate missions, taking retinues of hundreds of people, including noblemen and slaves, and bearing gifts such as pearls, spices, and metal ores.

One example of this practice of foreign economic policy took place in 1373. The Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644) court records identify a mission from Luzon and the polity of “Ma-li-lu.” This initial record was followed three years later by a joint mission from Luzon (presumably Manila), Pangasinan (western Luzon), and a mysterious polity known as “Soli” (most likely from southern Luzon). The Luzon polity was considered important enough to warrant a reciprocal visit by an ambassador to the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–1424) in 1405. This ambassadorial visit prompted an incursion of Philippine principality trade visits to China in the early 15th century, and the Filipinos were determined to win the favor, attention, and goods from the powerful Chinese dynasties of the time! Before the 14th- and 15th-century visits, the Philippine principalities that were known to have visited China were a series of early envoys from “P’u-tuan” (most likely Butuan along the northern Mindanao coast) during the Song dynasty (960–1278) and “Ma-i” (probably northern coast of Mindoro) in the Yuan period (1279–1368 CE).

Imported trade goods were accessible to all echelons of Philippine society if they could afford them, and the goods were moved inland up riverways, as well as to higher settlements. By the 15th and 16th centuries, the Filipinos were producing their own thin, fine-textured, red-slipped (fired and polished) earthenware, as well as coarse redware with stamped, impressed appliqué, and incised decorations. The trade boom in the century or so before the arrival and settlement of the Europeans was not only limited to international trade, as intra-island trade within the archipelago also increased substantially. Also, trade within the islands themselves needed to increase in response to growing demand in the coastal principalities. The Chinese required many Filipino forest products, such as tropical hardwoods (for example, mahogany, molave, kamagong, birch, and others), spices (like cinnamon and abacá, a banana harvested for its fiber known as Manila hemp), and metal ores (such as copper, gold, and iron). Coastal Filipino chiefs required these products to trade with foreigners, and they needed to grow internal trading systems to secure inland commodities. Historical records suggest that internal island trade had continued informally for a long time and that a symbiotic relationship existed between the larger chiefdoms of the coastal principalities and the more scattered tribes of the forests and highlands. It is possible that coastal chieftaincies put military pressure on upland tribes to provide items for trade, but there is also evidence that coastal principalities also used other less violent methods of gaining inland commodities, such as creating major trading nodes closer to the sources of inland trade routes and increasing the production of their own products with which to barter.

The degree of internal trade-related transgressions between the islands of the Philippines and, indeed, within the islands themselves cannot be quantified except that, as early as the 13th century, Chinese records warn of Filipino raids, reminiscent of pirating, through the central archipelago. These intercoastal raids were mostly an attempt by the Philippine people to destabilize neighboring islands of the archipelago and capture booty from trading ports, but naturally, foreign trading missions would also have been vulnerable to the skirmishes. (There are ancient Chinese records by the historian Zhao Rukuo, 1170–1231, of the Song dynasty that might suggest the Filipino raids reached as far as Chinese coastal shores.) By the 1500s, the Spanish reported the presence of sophisticated weaponry such as Chinese-styled (but locally manufactured) iron cannons at principal Philippine ports, as well as fortifications. Interlopers of the Philippines over the centuries were also aware of the highly specialized warrior class of Filipino society. China’s interest in the Spice Islands south of the Philippines is mentioned in classical herbal anecdotal Chinese literature and refers to the use of spices, such as cloves, from as early as the 3rd century BCE. (Courtiers would chew clove pods to keep their breath sweet when conversing with the Chinese emperors.) Thus, the Chinese interest in Southeast Asian goods kept them returning for millennia to the archipelagos, despite the potential challenges and threats.

 

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