Because of the colonial nature of Philippine education, textbooks tend to portray the Philippines as a weak polity. Oftentimes, our history is perceived as a history of colonization after centuries of invasion from Spain, Japan and the United States.
However, before Spain came and changed the course of our history, there were several instances when the Philippines proved to be capable of displaying its political power that allowed it to decide for itself.
Although the concept of Philippines has not yet been established pre-Spain, fragmented polities in the Philippines made its mark by being included in the annals of history written by former glories such as China and India.
In this post, we list the five times in history pre-colonial Philippines showed that, contrary to popular belief, we did not lag behind in terms of power.
5) We had a unique form of national government.
It is a common notion in the study of Philippine history that pre-colonial Philippines lacked a government that was national in scope. However, it is only true if we situate pre-colonial Philippine polity side by side the established notions by Chinese and Western scholars.
Truth be told, the presence of balangays in pre-colonial Philippines already indicated a flourishing highly localized government. With its own center of power, each balangay was led by a datu with its own chief of staff. However, the argument would ask where the national government was.
Since the Philippines had many power centers because of the presence of various balangays, it is considered that the country had a multi-central polity to signify the kind of national government it once had. It is not the same as other polities found in other regions, but it was a kind that would best describe the political system given the unique features of the balangay.
4) Filipinos traveled as far as Burma and Timor either as merchants and mercenaries.
It is rather fallacious to assert that pre-colonial Philippines was either isolated or unchanged. Because of the maritime nature of our past, early inhabitants were able to travel to far areas like Burma and Timor.
Because of these travels, early Philippine products were able to reach foreign shores, and our soldiers were able to explore foreign territories. This, in turn, validates the raiding, trading and feasting characteristics of pre-colonial Philippines.
3) Southern Philippines was a member of dar-ul Islam in Malaysia.
As early as 13th century, Tuan Mashaika already introduced Islam to Southern Philippines. According to the Sulu Genealogy, his descendants created the core of the Muslim community in the country.
Two centuries after, the Islamization process was politicalized because of Rajah Baginda. He exercised his political power by appointing his son, Abu Bakr, as his successor. This event led to the creation of the first Sulu sultanate.
Abu Bakr, whose real name was Sayyid Al Hassim Abu Bakr, consolidated the political power exercised by his father to by introducing the sultanate as a political sultanate in Sulu. He was later honored with the royal title Paduka Mahasari Maulana Al-Sultan Sharif-ul-Hashim.
One of the legacies left by Abu Bakr was the Islamization of the Buranun or the hill tribes of Sulu. So, he unified and intensified the Islamization of the community, which, in turn, transformed Sulu into a bourgeoning part of the increasing dar ul-Islam in Malaysia by the 16th century.
2) Mindoro was recognized by China as a powerful trade center.
Traders from Mayi (present-day Mindoro) came to Canton as early as 971 during the Northern Song dynasty (960‒1127). It was not just any other visit, as it received the attention of Chinese officials at the local Bureau of Maritime Trade.
China, the Middle Kingdom whose power was recognized all throughout maritime Asia, had to ask for permission from the ruler of Mayi before they could trade in the region. Through mutual trust, trade happened between China and Mayi. However, China questioned the monopoly of trade influenced by Mayi and decided to conduct the trade without the permission of the ruler of Mayi. This prompted Mayi to distrust China.
Trade still happened between Mayi and China but merchants from Mayi had to hostage one or two Chinese traders, and had to conduct the trade at shore. Taking hostages then became a unique feature of trade.
1) Sulu invaded Brunei.
Power relations were a complex process among chiefdoms in Asia. A local chieftain had to guard its territories so that it would avoid threats from other chiefdoms. One way to assure this was to seek support and recognition from China.
Since Sulu in Southern Philippines was in the same league as Boni (old name of Brunei), local rulers had to ensure advantage against competition. In early Ming Hongwu period (1368‒1398), Sulu invaded Boni and stretched its domain of influence to trading ports on the northeast coast of present-day Borneo, which ports were fundamental for governing the China-Spice Island trade.
However, Chinese officials supported Boni over Sulu. Nonetheless, this historical event showed the power certain portions of the Philippines were capable of unleashing.
Having said all these, it was great to look back and unravel the great power our country once had. Thought it creates big regrets in analyzing whatever happened to the country that triggered the loss of the political power we once greatly controlled.
Abinales, P. 2005. The Philippines in Maritime Asia to the Fourteenth Century.
Scott, W.H. 1994. Balangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society.
Zhenping, W. 2003. Reading Song-Ming Records on the Pre-Colonial History of the Philippines.
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