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Kingdoms or Chiefdoms ? Early Philippines History

Laura Lee Junker notes that "While Chinese sources often inflated the scale and complexity of Philippine chiefdoms, contact period Spanish accounts almost discount any centralized political authority. After their conquests in Mesoamerica and South America, where vast empires could be secured by the strategic kidnap of godlike kings, the Spaniards were unprepared for the difficulties of securing widely scattered islands controlled by a dizzying array of continually battling chiefs who seemed to have no permanent political hierarchies and spoke mutually unintelligible languages."

These people, which by the year 1900 numbered nearly 7,000,000 souls, at the time of Magellan's discovery aggregated probably not more than 500,000. An early enumeration of the population made by the Spaniards in 1591, which included practically all of these tribes [excluding the Muslim south not under Spanish control], gave a population of less than 700,000. There are other facts too that show how sparse the population must have been. The Spanish expeditions found many coasts and islands in the Bisayan group without inhabitants. Occasionally a sail or a canoe would be seen, and then these would disappear in some small "estero" or mangrove swamp and the land seem as unpopulated as before. At certain points, like Limasaua, Butuan, and Bohol, the natives were more numerous, and Cebu was a large and thriving community; but the Spaniards had nearly everywhere to search for settled places and cultivated lands.

The Filipinos of the central islands and Luzon's western coasts were somewhat past the clan stage, and had a political organization under local chiefs which virtually amounted to a mild feudalism, their so-called slavery and their land tenure fitting better into such a conception of their society; that they had a system of laws or customs, administered by the councils of old men; that they had a system of writing, based on a phonetic alphabet, and that some in each community could read and write; that they had long since passed the nomadic state.

Chinese writings often give the impression that the tributary polities had greater polity scale, complexity, and regional integration than is supported by the archaeological evidence. The Chinese impression of the Philippine political landscape is one dominated by a few large-scale polities with powerful and wealthy rulers controlling vast riches. During the late tenth to early eleventh centuries, Pu-tuan (Butuan on northern Mindanao) and Ma-i (probably on northern Mindoro) were regarded as extensive Philippine "kingdoms surrounded by barbarian" peoples, while P'u-man (ultimately rejected for tributary status) was considered commensurate with the large Vietnamese state of Champa.

There is archaeological evidence for extensive coastal settlement outside these centers. Chinese records for the late fourteenth- to early fifteenth-century tributary trade peak emphasize Manila (under modern Manila), Sula (on Jolo Island in the Sulu Sea), and Magindanao (at Cotabato on Mindanao Island) as large, centralized polities surrounded by barbarians. But there is archeological evidence for substantial polities being heavily involved in the China luxury good trade at Cebu, Tanjay, Batanes, and other historically unrecorded locales. The Chinese learned of Philippine polities from richly dressed chiefs with elaborate court entourages, and had little or no knowledge of how these chiefs lived at home.

A higher development of the barangay was the community whose chief had acquired the title of "Rajah." Such was Rajah Humabon of Cebu, the principal trading port in the central Visayas. The early Malay communities gradually developed into a complex patchwork which included the Rajahnates of Butuan and Cebu, influenced by the powerful Hindu empires in Java and Sumatra, the kingdoms of Maynila, Namayan, and Tondo, and the sultanates of Maguindanao and Sulu. In the south the Sultanate of Sulu persists today, and the analogous Sultanate of Maguindanao would thus also be called a Sultanate. As for the rest, some modern sources denominate the Hinduized Butuan and Cebu as Rajahnates, ruled by Rajahs, and by extension Ma-i, Maynila, Madya-as, Namayan, and Tondo as Kingdoms, ruled by Kings, since Rajah might be rendered as King.

Knowing what to call these entities is a bit of a challenge. The nomenclature itself is uncertain - Ma-i is also spelled Ma'i, Mai, Ma-yi or Mayi, and the Chinese called it Peh-oe-ji. Wikipedia has populated this period with two Sultanates [Maguindanao and Sulu], a pair of Rajahnates [Butuan and Cebu], a pair of Kingdoms [Maynila and Namayan] a Confederation [Madya-as], a Dynasty [Tondo] and an entity of no fixed taxanomic classification [Ma-i]. The Sultanate of Sulu persists to this day, while that of Maguindanao seems to have effectively petered out by the end of the 19th Century. The other entities did not long survive contact with Spain.

A Raja [also spelled rajah, Hindi raja, from Sanskrit for ruler] was a prince, chief, or ruler in India or the East Indies. The specific epithet rajah in Malay is frequently taken to mean "King" but this is more than a bit misleading. In standard western parlance, an empire is ruled by an emperor, a kingdom by a king, a principality by a prince and a duchy by a duke. An emperor would rule multiple kingdoms, while princes and dukes ruled lesser realms and might owe fealty to a king or emperor. Historically, a European Kingdom would be a sizeable realm, extending for hundreds of thousands of square kilometers [modern Belgium, at 30,000 km2, is at the very low end of the spectrum]. And a kingdom would have a correspondingly large population - by one estimate the population of Medieval France was about 10 to 15 million people, while that of Portugal was possibly about a million.

If the total population at Magellan's discovery aggregated not more than 500,000, then the rulers of the nine entities named by Wikipedia could not have governed much more than an average of 50,000 people apiece. And assuming that many people lived beyond the sway of any centralized political jurisdiction, the potentates heading these polities could not have ruled much more than a few tens of thousands of souls. This is not a kingdom, and their rulers were not "kings" in any meaningful sense of the term. Laura Lee Junker and others have settled on the term "polity" to describe these entities.

The story of the encounter between Miguel Lpez de Legaspi of Spain and Sultan Soliman of Manila and his uncle Sultan Lacandola, the chief of Tondo, illumninates the scale of these polities. These "Sultans" lived in communities but a few miles apart, and commanded forces of perhaps a hundred warriors apiece.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2012 18:56:54 ZULU