Islands in a Friendly Sea: Some Basics of Filipino History and Culture

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Balangays and Barangays

  1. What is a balangay? 
  2. What is a barangay?
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A balangay is traditional Filipino ship, made of wooden planks and pins.  It is used for everything from fishing to hauling cargo, travel and conducting war, and it was likely the boat that carried the original settlers of the Philippines to the islands in ancient times.

The balangay is a boat used by native Filipinos for at least 2,000 years.  The balangay could cross open ocean – with navigation techniques involving the sun, the stars, the wind, cloud formations, wave patterns, and bird migrations.  The word barangay – a variant – is also the word used to describe the basic unit of Filipino political organization, with a meaning similar to clan, before the arrival of the Spanish.  Members of a barangay – typically 30 to 100 families – owed their allegiance to a datu, or chief, who ruled in conjunction with other datus.  So, poetically you could think of your community as the people who were in the same boat as you.

While this system fell away under Spanish rule, the word barangay is still used to describe a neighborhood in the Philippines, an evocative double meaning in a nation so oriented to the sea.

There are a number of distinctions between the modern barangay or Barrio, and the city-states and independent principalities encountered by the Spanish when they first arrived in 1521 and established relatively permanent settlements in 1574. The most glaring difference would be that the modern entity represents a geographical entity, the pre-colonial barangays represented loyalty to a particular head (datu). Even during the early days of Spanish rule, it was not unusual for people living beside each other to actually belong to different barangays.

The barangay of precolonial times was either independent, or belonged to what was only a loose confederation of several barangays, over which the rulers picked among themselves who would be foremost – known as the Pangulo or Rajah. In most cases, his function was to make decisions which would involve multiple barangays, such as disputes between members of two different barangays. Internally, each datu retained his jurisdiction.

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The barangay hall is typically a combination of city hall and community center.

timelineWho are the Filipinos?

  1. Consider the map of the Philippines – how does the country’s unique geography lend itself to the diversity of its population?
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This ten pound pure gold halter is one of the most spectacular artifacts ever found in the Philippines.  It is believed by some to be an Upavita, a ceremonial sacred thread worn members of the Brahmin class of India after a purification ritual – its existence demonstrates the influence of Hinduism and Indian culture in the early Philippines. (Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)

There is no easy way to describe Filipino culture – no one settled definition – because the Philippines are a particularly diverse nation spread across some 7,000 islands, with hundreds of distinct languages and dialects, thousands of years worth of history, trade, and colonization serving to add color and flavor to what seems like a simple question.

Prior to the advent of European colonialism in the 1500s CE, much Southeast Asia including the Philippines was under the influence of greater India.  India was a wealthy society with well-developed technology and religions.  Indians spread throughout southeast Asia as professionals, traders, priests and warriors, bringing with them a written language (Sanskrit) and religion (Hinduism or Buddhism).


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Detail of the sacred thread, woven entirely from gold.

Numerous Indianized principalities and empires flourished for centuries in areas that would become modern Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Artwork, philosophy, models for royalty and class structure, as well as written languages in these lands were all influenced by India, similar to the way that Greek culture was a guiding influence on later European societies.  However, each of these countries adapted, blended, and assimilated this Indian influence in its own unique way, giving rise to the great diversity of cultures seen even just in the islands that make up the modern Philippines.

Locations of pre-colonial Polities and Kingdoms.
Locations of pre-colonial Filipino Polities and Kingdoms (900 CE to 1565 CE).

By 1000 BCE, the inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago had developed into four distinct kinds of peoples: tribal groups, such as the AetasHanunooIlongots and the Mangyan who depended on hunter-gathering and were concentrated in forests; warrior societies, such as the Isneg and Kalinga who practiced social ranking and ritualized warfare and roamed the plains; the petty plutocracy of the Ifugao Cordillera Highlanders, who occupied the mountain ranges of Luzon; and the harbor principalities of the estuarine civilizations that grew along rivers and seashores while participating in trans-island maritime trade. It was also during the first millennium BC that early metallurgy was said to have reached the archipelagos of maritime Southeast Asia via trade with India.

Piloncitos, small bead-like gold bits, each about the size of a corn kernel, are considered to be the earliest coin used for trade starting around the 9th Century CE by ancient Filipinos.  This one is marked with Baybayin, and a prehispanic Filipino alphabet.

Around 300–700 CE, the seafaring peoples of the islands traveling in balangays began to trade with the Indianized kingdoms in the Malay Archipelago and the nearby East Asian principalities, adopting influences from both Buddhism and Hinduism.

The Boxer Codex

  1. What is the Boxer Codex, and what can it tell us about the Philippines?
  2. Describe the general social structure of the prehispanic Philippines.  In what ways is it similar to or different from the social structure in your own society?
  3. Consider your status in your own society – to which corresponding class would you belong in ancient Filipino society?  Justify your answer.  Is this different from the class you WISH you belonged to?
  4. Can identify any foreign influence assimilated into the social structure of the Filipinos?
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An illustration from the Boxer Codex depicting a Spanish ship greeted by natives of the Mariana Islands, near the Philippines, naked and seemingly bearing gifts.  The Boxer Codex is one of the earliest attempts to describe Filipino daily life in detail.

The Philippines were ruled as a colony of Spain for 333 years.  This colonial experience transformed the culture and social structure of the islands dramatically, as Spaniards converted Filipinos to Christianity, reorganized barangays into barrios that suited Spanish political needs, and reorganized farming and land use according to their own economic needs.  The diverse languages and traditions of prehispanic Filipinos did not disappear completely, by any means, and much can be learned by talking to and studying the way of life practiced in various parts of the modern Philippines.

However, another important way that historians and anthropologists can gain greater insight into what the Philippines were like before the Spanish arrived is via the Boxer Codex, an illustrated manuscript commissioned by the Spanish around 1590.  The Boxer Codex depicts the TagalogsVisayansZambals, Cagayanes or possibly Ibanags and Negritos of the Philippines in vivid color.  The technique of the paintings, as well as the use of Chinese paper, ink, and paints, suggests that the unknown artist may have been Chinese.  Since Spanish colonial governors were required to submit written reports on the territories they governed, it is likely that the manuscript was written under the orders of the governor.  While it is written from an outsider’s perspective and contains many cultural biases that the Spanish carried with them, it is still an invaluable tool: this richly illustrated document provides a window into Filipino society at a time when the Spanish themselves were trying to gain a clear picture of it.

Social Hierarchy of Pre-colonial Polities


Class Title Description
Maginoo (Ruling Class)
Paramount Leader of the confederacy of barangay states. In a confederacy forged by alliances among polities, the datu would convene to choose a paramount chief from among themselves; their communal decision would be based on a datu’s prowess in battle, leadership, and network of allegiances.
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Datus were maginoo with personal followings (dulohan or barangay). His responsibilities included: governing his people, leading them in war, protecting them from enemies and settling disputes. He received agricultural produce and services from his people, and distributed irrigated land among his barangay with a right of usufruct.
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Maginoo comprised the ruling class of Tagalogs. Ginoo was both honorific for both men and women.Panginoon were maginoo with many slaves and other valuable property like houses and boats . Lineage was emphasized over wealth; the nouveau riche were derogatorily referred to as maygintawo (fellow with a lot of riches).

Members included: those who could claim noble lineage, members of the datu’s family.

Sultan Powerful governor of a province within the caliphate or dynasties of Islamic regions. Their position was inherited by a direct descent in a royal bloodline who could claim the allegiances of the datu. Sultans took on foreign relations with other states, and could declare war or allow subordinate datus to declare war if need be. The sultan had his court, a prime minister (gugu), an heir to the throne (Rajah Muda or crown prince), a third-ranking dignitary (Rajah Laut, or sea lord) and advisers (pandita).
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The timawa class were free commoners of Luzon and the Visayas who could own their own land and who did not have to pay a regular tribute to a maginoo, though they would, from time to time, be obliged to work on a datu’s land and help in community projects and events. They were free to change their allegiance to another datu if they married into another community or if they decided to move.

In Luzon, their main responsibility to the datu was agricultural labor, but they could also work in fisheries, accompany expeditions, and row boats. They could also perform irregular services, like support feasts or build houses

In Visayas, they paid no tribute and rendered no agricultural labor. They were seafaring warriors who bound themselves to a datu.

Members included: illegitimate children of maginoo and slaves and former alipin who paid off their debts

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Members of the Tagalog warrior class known as maharlika had the same rights and responsibilities as the timawa, but in times of war they were bound to serve their datu in battle. They had to arm themselves at their own expense, but they did get to keep the loot they won – or stole, depending on which side of the transaction you want to look at. Although they were partly related to the nobility, the maharlikas were technically less free than the timawas because they could not leave a datu’s service without first hosting a large public feast and paying the datu between 6 and 18 pesos in gold – a large sum in those days.
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Alipin/Uripon (Slaves)
Alipin Namamahay Today, the word alipin means slave and that’s how the Spaniards translated it, too, but the alipins were not really slaves in the Western sense of the word. They were not bought and sold in markets with chains around their necks. A better description would be to call them debtors.  Slaves who lived in their own houses apart from their creditor. If the alipin’s debt came from insolvency or legal action, the alipin and his debtor agreed on a period of indenture and an equivalent monetary value in exchange for it. The alipin namamahay was allowed to farm a portion of barangay land, but he was required to provide a measure of threshed rice or a jar of rice wine for his master’s feasts. He came whenever his master called to harvest crops, build houses, row boats, or carry cargo.Members included: those who have inherited debts from namamahay parents, timawa who went into debt, and former alipin saguiguilid who married.
Alipin Saguiguilid Slaves who lived in their creditor’s house and were entirely dependent on him for food and shelter. Male alipin sagigilid who married were often raised to namamahay status, because it was more economical for his master (as opposed to supporting him and his new family under the same roof). However, female alipin sagigilid were rarely permitted to marry.Members included: children born in debtor’s house and children of parents who were too poor to raise them.

The Laguna Copperplate

  1. What is the Laguna Copperplate?  How does it further illuminate our understanding of early Filipino social structure?
  2. Do you have documents that perform similar functions in your own society?  What are they?
The Laguna Copperplate, a legal document inscribed on a copper plate in 900 AD, is the earliest known written document found in the Philippines.  The document states that it releases its bearers, the children of Namwaran, from a debt in gold amounting to 1 kati and 8 suwarnas (865 grams; 27.8 troy ounces).

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription was found in 1989 near the mouth of the Lumbang River near Laguna de Bay, by a man who was dredging sand to turn into concrete. Suspecting that the artifact might have some value, the man sold it to an antique dealer who, having found no buyers, eventually sold it to the National Museum of the Philippines, where it was assigned to Alfredo E. Evangelista, head of its anthropology department.

The text reads:

Line Transliteration Original translation by Antoon Postma (1991) Notes
1 swasti shaka warshatita 822 waisakha masa ding jyotishachaturthikrishnapaksha so- Hail! In the Saka-year 822; the month of March–April; according to the astronomer: the fourth day of the dark half of the moon; on
2 -mawara sana tatkala dayang angkatan lawan dengannya sanak barngaran si bukah Monday. At that time, Lady Angkatan together with her relative, Bukah by name,
3 anakda dang hwan namwaran di bari waradana wi shuddhapat(t)ra ulih sang pamegat senapati di tundu- the child of His Honor Namwaran, was given, as a special favor, a document of full acquittal, by the Chief and Commander of Tundun
4 n barja(di) dang hwan nayaka tuhan pailah jayadewa. di krama dang hwan namwaran dengan dang kaya- representing the Leader of Pailah, Jayadewa. This means that His Honor Namwran, through the Honorable Scribe
5 stha shuddha nu di parlappas hutangda wale(da)nda kati 1 suwarna 8 di hadapan dang hwan nayaka tuhan pu- was totally cleared of a salary-related debt of 1 kati and 8 suwarna (weight of gold): in the presence of His Honor the Leader of Puliran,
6 liran ka sumuran. dang hwan nayaka tuhan pailah barjadi ganashakti. dang hwan nayaka tu- Kasumuran; His Honor the Leader of Pailah, representing Ganasakti; (and) His Honor the Leader
7 han binwangan barjadi bishruta tathapi sadanda sanak kaparawis ulih sang pamegat de- of Binwangan, representing Bisruta. And, with his whole family, on orders of the Chief of Dewata
8 wata [ba]rjadi sang pamegat medang dari bhaktinda di parhulun sang pamegat. ya makanya sadanya anak representing the Chief of Mdang, because of his loyalty as a subject (slave?) of the Chief, therefore all the descendants
9 chuchu dang hwan namwaran shuddha ya kaparawis di hutangda dang hwan namwaran di sang pamegat dewata. ini gerang of his Honor Namwaran have been cleared of the whole debt that His Honor owed the Chief of Dewata. This (document) is (issued) in case
10 syat syapanta ha pashchat ding ari kamudyan ada gerang urang barujara welung lappas hutangda dang hwa … there is someone, whosoever, some time in the future, who will state that the debt is not yet acquitted of His Honor… * Line 10 of the LCI ends mid-sentence.

A year later, linguist Antoon Postma noted that the inscription was similar to the ancient Indonesian script of Kawi. Postma translated the script and found the document dated itself to the Saka year 822, an old Hindu calendar date which corresponds to 900 AD, making the Laguna Copperplate the earliest example of writing ever found in the Philippines. The document pre-dated the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and is from about the same time as the mention of the first known mention of Philippines in world history, in the official Chinese Song dynasty History of Song for the year 972.

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Place names mentioned in the Laguna Copperplate Inscription.

The text of the Laguna Copperplate offers us a window into Tondo culture, an ancient Filipino barangay that thrived along the Pasig River, not far from modern Metro Manila.  Because it is written in Kawi, an Indonesian script, and uses several Sanskrit loan-words, it demonstrates just how connected the Philippines were with other ancient societies in Southeast Asia.

A turo turo is a special kind of Filipino restaurant.  Food is prepared in advance, and customers point, point – turo, turo in Tagalog – to the dishes they want to order. In a turo turo, one can find many of the Philippines’ most popular foods – and a great primer on its history. (Pasig City, Philippines, 2018.)
Available in the turo turo: Adobo is a popular dish in Philippine cuisine that usually involves pork or chicken marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black peppercorns. It has sometimes been considered as the unofficial national dish in the Philippines. Early Filipinos often cooked by immersion in vinegar and salt to preserve the food longer in the island heat.

New Voices, New Flavors

  1. What outside cultures have contributed to the notion of what a Filipino is?  Describe ways in which these newcomers have shaped the Philippines.

Trade and interactions with China have also shaped the culture of the Philippines since ancient times.  Starting in the 900s CE, trade with China become more regular, leading to increased access to Chinese goods as well as intermarriage between Chinese merchants and local Filipino women.  This exchange would culminate in the Manila galleon route during the Spanish colonial period. The arrival of the Spaniards to the Philippines attracted new waves of immigrants from China, and maritime trade flourished during the Spanish period. The Spanish recruited thousands of Chinese migrant workers called sangleys to build the colonial infrastructure in the islands. Many Chinese immigrants converted to Christianity, intermarried with the locals, and adopted Hispanized names and customs and became assimilated.

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Available in the turo turo: Lumpia are made from meat and vegetables, rolled in a crepe-like shell and usually fried.  They were brought to the Philippines by merchants from China’s Fujian province and have become a favorite Filipino snack.

Trade brought Arab and Malay merchants to the Philippines, especially in the southern islands of Mindanao and Palawan.  These traders brought with them their religion – Islam, which continues to be a crucial part of Filipino identity in these islands, where as much as 10% of the population is Muslim.  In fact, it is possible that if the Spanish had arrived much later, Islam could have become the dominant religion of the Philippines; while the independent-minded barangays were conquered one by one by the Spanish, the Muslim sultanates of that existed upon their arrival were united by a cohesive religious identity that contributed to an increased ability to resist Spanish attempts to dominate these islands.

Arab traders have been visiting Philippines for nearly 2000 years. After the advent of Islam, in 1380, Karim ul’ Makhdum, the first Muslim missionary to reach the Sulu Archipelago, brought Islam to what is now the Philippines, first arriving in Jolo. Subsequent visits of Arab Muslim missionaries strengthened the Muslim faith in the Philippines, concentrating in the south and reaching as far north as Manila. (Diorama in the Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)
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Available in the turo, turo: Satti is skewered, barbecued meat carried throughout the islands of Southeast Asia by Muslim traders.

The arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 began a period of European colonization. During the period of Spanish colonialism the Philippines was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which was governed and controlled from Mexico City. Early Spanish settlers were mostly explorers, soldiers, government officials and religious missionaries born in Spain and Mexico who worked to convert the Philippines into a country that is today 83% Catholic.

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The death of Ferdinand Magellan while engaged in combat with the warriors of Lapu-Lapu became a potent symbol for later Filipino nationalists chaffing under the rule of the Spanish. (Diorama in the Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)
A lush carving depicting the Virgin Mary – an important symbol for Filipino Catholics – adorns the 400 year old door of San Agustin Church.  The first San Agustin Church was the first religious structure constructed by the Spaniards on the island of Luzon. Made of bamboo and nipa, it was completed in 1571, but destroyed by fire in December 1574 during the attempted invasion of Manila by the forces of the Chinese pirate Limahong. A second wooden structure built on the same site. was destroyed in February 1583, by a fire that started when a candle ignited drapery on the funeral bier during services for Spanish Governor-General Gonzalo Ronquillo de Peñalosa.  The Spanish rebuilt the church using stone beginning in 1586. (Intramuros, Manila, Philippines, 2018.)

The Peninsulares (governors born in Spain), mostly of Castilian ancestry, settled in the islands to govern their territory. Most settlers married the daughters of rajahsdatus and sultans to reinforce the colonization of the islands. The Ginoo and Maharlika castes (royals and nobles) in the Philippines prior to the arrival of the Spanish formed the privileged Principalía (nobility) during the Spanish period.

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Available in the turo turo: Longganisa is a (usually, but not always) sweet sausage of Spanish origin eaten widely across the Philippines, with lots of varieties suited to local tastes across difference islands.  Here, it is served with eggs and rice for breakfast, but it be eaten at any meal.  In addition, as part of the Colombian Exchange, Spanish colonizers brought with them produce from the Americas like chili peppers, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and the method of sautéing with garlic and onions.
Introduced from Spain, Lechón is a whole roasted pig, prepared throughout the year for any special occasion, during festivals, and the holidays. After seasoning, the pig is cooked by skewering the entire animal, entrails removed, on a large rotisserie stick and cooking for several hours in a pit filled with charcoal. The process of cooking and basting usually results in making the pork skin crisp and is a distinctive feature of the dish.

In modern times, the Philippines was an American colony and protectorate, meaning that English became the language of business and education, and the economy and culture of the Philippines was influenced heavily by this interaction.

The jeepney is the most popular form of public transportation in the Philippines and a relic of U.S. occupation.  Surplus Jeeps left behind by the U.S. military upon Philippine independence were transformed – their bodies were extended to increase passenger capacity and decorated in vibrant colors with chrome-plated ornaments on the sides and hood.  Thus was born a unique form of Filipino transportation. (Pasig City, Philippines, 2018.)
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Not available in the turo turo: The Americans inspired an abiding love of fried chicken and a distinctive, sweet style of spaghetti.  While you might be able to get each of those at the turo turo, Jollibee is a homegrown Filipino fast food restaurant with more locations across the country than McDonalds – they seem to have the market cornered.


  1. Seek out some Filipino recipes.  There are also plenty of cooking tutorial videos online.  Visit an Asian grocery store, purchase the necessary ingredients, and actually make a Filipino dish for dinner.  And don’t forget dessert – halo halo is one of my favorites (only the Filipinos would think to put raw beans in an icy desert).
  2. There is a long tradition of resistance to colonial rule in the Philippines. 
    Juan Sumuory is celebrated in the Gallery of Heroes. (Manila, Philippines, 2018.)

    Couple of this with the country’s strong Catholicism – with its tradition of sainthood and martyrdom – and you have nation that is very aware of those who have sacrificed to advance the cause of the Filipino.  Manila’s Rizal Park features the Gallery of Heroes, a row of bust sculpture monuments of historical Philippine heroes.  These include:  Andres Bonifacio, Juan Sumuroy, Aman Dangat, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Gregorio Aglipay, Sultan Kudarat,  Juan Luna, Melchora Aquino, Rajah Sulayman, and Gabriela Silang.  Choose one of these personalities to commemorate in your own classroom.  Write a brief description of their accomplishments to accompany a piece of artwork that celebrates their life for those who aren’t aware.


History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos by Luis Francia.

Today, the Philippines is increasingly urbanized.  Manila, the capital, is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. (Manila, Philippines, 2018.)


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China: Ancient History, Modern Nation

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