The Philippines Before Magellan

By: Rafael M. Alunan III

December 21, 2010


The Philippines Before Magellan


For my last column this year I decided to about our pre-Hispanic roots.  It is in part inspired by the return of the Balangay team that just completed its Southeast Asian sojourn aboard 3 reconstructed balangay boats, one of various maritime vessels from our islands that sailed the seas long before Magellan set foot on Mactan.

The ancient balangay or “balanghai”, also known as the Butuan boat, carried early migrants from Borneo and Celebes.  The modern balangays were crewed by 40 intrepid Filipino adventurers, led by Art Valdez and his Mt. Everest men’s and women’s teams, and supported by boat-builders from Tawi-tawi and sailors from the Philippine Navy and Coat Guard, that traced our ancestors’ travels around South East Asia that took fourteen months. They are proudly Pinoy as we are of them!

When Ferdinand Magellan anchored his fleet in Philippine waters on March 16, 1521, he found that the natives had their own civilization and lived in well-organized independent villages called “barangays” that originated from “balangay”, the Austronesian word for sailboat.

From hereon, I will paraphrase portions of an article written by Charity Beyer-Bagatsing from the notes of her great-grandfather, Dr. H. Otley Beyer, an American known as the “Father of Philippine Anthropology.”  My purpose, as with Ms. Bagatsing’s, is to highlight our forefathers’ grand history and rekindle the spirit of greatness that Beyer believed was the Filipino people’s heritage.

“To most, Philippine history began with Antonio Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s historic voyage, because Spanish colonization was characterized by a fanatic zeal for the Christian faith and hatred for all other beliefs in which native writings and art were regarded as works of the devil – to be destroyed wherever found.

In the Philippines, the destruction was ruthlessly thorough such that only a few fragments survived. A Spanish priest in southern Luzon once boasted of having destroyed more than three hundred scrolls written in the native alphabet and symbols.  Our historic past is contained in data obtained from neighboring countries and woven with our local traditions and archeological discoveries.  

In his book, Pre-Hispanic Source Materials, William Henry Scott wrote:

‘When the pre-Hispanic epoch was brought to a close by Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in 1521, Luzon traders were sailing to Timor, Malacca and Canton, had a colony in Minjam on the Malay Peninsula, a Portuguese appointed magistrate in Malacca and marriage relations with the Sultan of Brunei, and the Manila bourgeoisie were learning to speak Malay.’

Pre-Hispanic Filipinos were very literate and used syllabaries of Indian origin.  Wrote Father Chirino (1604, 39):

‘These islanders are so given to reading and writing that there is hardly a man and much less a woman, who does not read and write in the letters of the island of Manila.’

The first actual mention of the Philippines was in official Sung dynasty historical records when certain traders from Ma-i (the present island of Mindoro) brought valuable merchandise to Canton for sale in 982 A.D.  In the tenth century, Philippine trading vessels were already crossing the oceans to China and Champa. 

From the 12th to the 15th centuries, accounts from Bruni, Sulu, Ma-i and others about the Philippine islands became more numerous. The following abbreviated account comes from Chau Ju Kua written about 1225:  

‘The island of Ma-i lies north of Borneo. When trading ships enter the anchorage, they stop in front of the official’s place, for that is the place for bartering with the country. There is a great market there. After a ship is boarded, the natives mix freely with the ship’s folk. The chiefs are in the habit of using white umbrellas, for which reason the traders offer them as gifts.

The products of the country consist of yellow wax (beeswax), cotton, pearls, tortoise-shell, medicinal betel nuts, fiber cloth (sinamay). The goods used in trading are porcelain, trade-gold, iron cauldrons, lead, colored glass beads, iron needles, pieces of iron, colored cotton stuffs, red taffetas, ivory, silks of different colors, copper pots, sycee shoes, and the like.

The San-hsu (or three islands) belong to Ma-i; their names are Kia-ma-yen (Kalamian or Culion), Pa-lau-yu (probably Penon de Coron) and Pa-ki-nung (probably Busuanga), and each has its own tribes scattered over the islands. When the ships arrive there, the natives come out to trade with them.

Late-Sung and Yuan period documents frequently refer to Philippine trade centers.  Ports in Sulu had well-developed networks for forest and maritime products (sandalwood, laka-wood, ebony, animal hides and pearls).  Sulu pearls were known to be whiter and rounder than those from other places, and commanded a high price.  

Filipino merchants had a reputation for honesty.  Wang-Ta-yuan in his Tao I Chih Lueh wrote in 1349, after 20 years of trade travels that ‘The shipboard merchants advance them credit for never have they defaulted since the beginning.’

In the early part of the 14th century, Chinese-Philippines trade ties strengthened.  In 1406, in the reign of Chinese Emperor Ch’eng-tsu, a Filipino chieftain visited the Imperial Court at Nanking and was presented with precious gifts.  This was followed by other trips.  Another visit occurred during Emperor Hung-wa’s reign in 1572 when the Filipino tribute embassy was welcomed at his court.

Early Spanish documents reveal that, apart from Chinese junks, large trade ships from Borneo, Thailand and Japan dropped anchor in the coastal ports of Manila, Mindoro, Pangasinan, Cebu, Jolo and Cotabato.  Filipino traders had significant knowledge of and presence at other Southeast Asian trade ports such as Melaka, Borneo, Ternate (Moluccas) and Myanmar.

Chieftains financed and equipped outgoing trade voyages; and invested in port facilities, good harborage, military protection for merchants, housing, provisions, and entertainment for foreign traders; and developed efficient systems for mobilizing goods for trading.”

So, there you have it.  Pre-Hispanic Philippines was a maritime power domiciled by a sophisticated and cultured people that had excellent economic relations with neighboring kingdoms.  We could become a regional maritime power once again, not just limited to seafaring manpower, and even better since the Filipino today – whether as a maginoo, timawa, maharlika,  alipin or azkal – is globally engaged with every race, culture and creed in every aspect of human endeavor.

Our past is our guide to the future.  We, descendants of the Sri Vijaya and Madjapahit empires, must never forget who we once were and the heights we came from, long before Sheik Makdum and Ferdinand Magellan came to our shores.  As Beyer said, the spirit of greatness is the Filipino's heritage. 

Here’s wishing everyone a Holy Christmas, a blessings-filled 2011, peace on Earth and goodwill to every man.