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History of the Philippines (900–1521)

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Title: History of the Philippines (900–1521)  
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History of the Philippines (900–1521)

This article covers the history of the Philippines from the creation of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription in 900 AD to the arrival of European explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, which marks the beginning of the Spanish Colonial period.

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI) is the first written document found in a Philippine language. The inscription itself identifies the date of its creation as the year 900. Prior to its discovery in 1989, the earliest record of the Philippine Islands corresponded with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The discovery of the LCI thus extended the record of Philippine history back by 600 years.[1][2] After 900, the early history of territories and nation-states prior to being present-day Philippines is known through archeological[3] findings and records of contacts with other civilizations such as Song Dynasty China and the Bruneian Empire.


  • The Laguna Copperplate Inscription and its context (c. 900 A.D.) 1
  • Barangay city-states and Thalassocracy 2
  • Emergence of Baybayin and related scripts (1200 onwards) 3
  • Chinese trade (982 A.D. onwards) 4
  • The growth of Islamic Sultanates (1380 onwards) 5
  • Attack by the Bruneian Empire (1500) 6
  • Expansion of trade (1st century – 14th century A.D.) 7
  • Attack of the Spanish Conquistadores (1521–1565) 8
  • Primary sources for early Philippine history 9
  • References 10

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription and its context (c. 900 A.D.)

Laguna Copperplate Inscription (circa 900 A.D.)
Before the Western contact, the Philippine archipelago had its own rulers and kingdoms, which is Sinified, Indianized and Muslim States.

In 1989, Antoon Postma deciphered the text of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription at the National Museum of the Philippines and discovered that it identified the date of its creation as the "Year of Syaka 822, month of Vaisakha." According to Jyotisha (Hindu astronomy), this corresponded with the year 900 A.D. Prior to the deciphering of the LCI, Philippine history was traditionally considered to begin at 1521, with the arrival of Magellan and his chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta. History could not be derived from pre-colonial records because such records typically did not survive: most of the writing was done on perishable bamboo or leaves. Because the deciphering of the LCI made it out to be the earliest written record of the islands that would later become the Philippines, the LCI reset the traditional boundaries between Philippine history and prehistory, placing the demarcation line 600 years earlier.[1]

The inscription forgives the descendants of Namwaran from a debt of 926.4 grams of gold, and is granted by the chief of Tondo (an area in Manila) and the authorities of Paila, Binwangan and Pulilan, which are all locations in Luzon. The words are a mixture of Sanskrit, Old Malay, Old Javanese and Old Tagalog. The subject matter proves that a developed society existed in the Philippines prior to the Spanish colonization, as well as refuting earlier claims of the Philippines being a cultural isolate in Asia; the references to the Chief of Medang Kingdom in Indonesia imply that there were cultural and trade links with empires and territories in other parts of Maritime Southeast Asia, particularly Srivijaya. Thus, aside from clearly indicating the presence of writing and of written records at the time, the LCI effectively links the cultural developments in the Philippines at the time with the growth of a thalassocratic civilization in Southeast Asia.[1]

Barangay city-states and Thalassocracy

Since at least the 3rd century, the indigenous peoples were in contact with other Southeast Asian and East Asian nations.

A Tagalog couple of the Maginoo nobility caste depicted in the Boxer Codex of the 16th Century.

Fragmented ethnic groups established numerous city-states formed by the assimilation of several small political units known as barangay each headed by a Datu, who was then answerable to a Rajah, who headed the city state. Each barangay consisted of about 100 families. Some barangays were big, such as Zubu (Cebu), Butuan, Maktan (Mactan), Irong-Irong (Iloilo), Bigan (Vigan), and Selurong (Manila). Each of these big barangays had a population of more than 2,000.

Even scattered barangays, through the development of inter-island and international trade, became more culturally homogeneous by the 4th century. Hindu-Buddhist culture and religion flourished among the noblemen in this era.

Large Buddhist temples and images within Tabon Caves on Palawan provide supporting evidence.

By the 9th century, a highly developed society had already established several hierarchies with set professions: The Datu or ruling class, the Maharlika or noblemen, the Timawa or freemen, and the dependent class which is divided into two, the Aliping Namamahay (Serfs) and Aliping Saguiguilid (Slaves).

Many of the barangay were, to varying extents, under the de jure jurisprudence of one of several neighboring empires, among them the Malay Sri Vijaya, Javanese Majapahit, Brunei and Malacca empires, although de facto had established their own independent system of rule. Trading links with Sumatra, Borneo, Thailand, Java, China, India, Arabia, Japan and the Ryukyu Kingdom flourished during this era.[4][5][6] A thalassocracy had thus emerged based on international trade.

In the earliest times, the items which were prized by the people included jars, which were a symbol of wealth throughout South Asia, and later metal, salt and tobacco. In exchange, the people would trade feathers, rhino horn, hornbill beaks, beeswax, birds nests, resin and rattan.

In the period between the 7th century to the beginning of the 15th century, numerous prosperous centers of trade had emerged, including the Kingdom of Namayan which flourished alongside Manila Bay,[7][8] Cebu, Iloilo,[9] Butuan, the Kingdom of Sanfotsi situated in Pangasinan, the Kingdoms of Zabag and Wak-Wak situated in Pampanga[10] and Aparri (which specialized in trade with Japan and the Kingdom of Ryukyu in Okinawa).

Emergence of Baybayin and related scripts (1200 onwards)

Butuan Ivory Seal
The "Butuan Ivory Seal" - The Kawi script lettering says "But-wan" and the smaller lettering (similar to Baybayin) says "Bu-wa" (Diacritics for the "Wan/Ban" in Kawi and "Bu/Ba" in the smaller letters have worn off)

The Baybayin

The script used in writing down the LCI is Kawi, which originated in Java, and was used across much of Maritime Southeast Asia. But by at least the 13th century or 14th century, its descendant known in Tagalog as Baybayin was in regular use. The term baybayin literally means syllables, and the writing system itself is a member of the Brahmic family.[11] One example of the use of Baybayin from that time period was found on an earthenware burial jar found in Batangas. Though a common perception is that Baybayin replaced Kawi, many historians believe that they were used alongside each other. Baybayin was noted by the Spanish to be known by everyone, and was generally used for personal and trivial writings. Kawi most likely continued to be used for official documents and writings by the ruling class.[12] Baybayin was simpler and easier to learn, but Kawi was more advanced and better suited for concise writing.

Although Kawi came to be replaced by the Latin script, Baybayin continued to be used during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines up until the late 19th Century. Closely related scripts still in use among indigenous peoples today include Hanunóo, Buhid, and Tagbanwa.

Chinese trade (982 A.D. onwards)

The earliest date suggested for direct Chinese contact with the Philippines was 982 AD. At the time, merchants from "Ma-i" (now in Mindoro) brought their wares to Guangzhou. This was noted by the Sung Shih (History of the Sung) by Ma Tuan-lin who compiled it with other historical records in the Wen-hsien T’ung-K’ao at the time around the transition between the Sung and Yuan dynasties.[13]

However, actual trade between China and the proto-Philippine states probably started much earlier.[14]

The growth of Islamic Sultanates (1380 onwards)

In 1380, Makhdum Karim, the first Islamic missionary to the Philippines brought Islam to the Archipelago. Subsequent visits of Arab, Malay and Javanese missionaries helped strengthen the Islamic faith of the Filipinos, most of whom (except for those in the north) would later become Christian under the Spanish colonization. The Sultanate of Sulu, the largest Islamic kingdom in the islands, encompassed parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The royal house of the Sultanate claim descent from Muhammad.

Around 1405, the year that the war over succession ended in the Majapahit Empire, Sufi traders introduced Islam into the Hindu-Malayan empires and for about the next century the southern half of Luzon and the islands south of it were subject to the various Muslim sultanates of Borneo. During this period, the Japanese established a trading post at Aparri and maintained a loose sway over northern Luzon.

Attack by the Bruneian Empire (1500)

Around the year 1500 AD, the Kingdom of Brunei under Sultan Bolkiah attacked the kingdom of Tondo and established a city with the Malay name of Selurong (later to become the city of Maynila)[15][16] on the opposite bank of Pasig River. The traditional Rajahs of Tondo, the Lakandula, retained their titles and property but the real political power came to reside in the House of Soliman, the Rajahs of Manila.[17]

Expansion of trade (1st century – 14th century A.D.)

Jocano refers to the time between the 1st and 14th Century AD as the Philippines' emergent phase.[18] It was characterized by intensive trading, and saw the rise of definable social organization, and, among the more progressive communities, the rise of certain dominant cultural patterns. The advancements that brought this period were made possible by the increased use of iron tools, which allowed such stable patterns to form. This era also saw the development of writing. The first surviving written artifact from the Philippines, now known as the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, was written in 900 AD, marking the end of what is considered Philippine prehistory and heralding the earliest phase of Philippine history - that of the time between the first written artifact in 900 AD and the arrival of colonial powers in 1521.

Attack of the Spanish Conquistadores (1521–1565)

Filipino historians note an overlap in the history of pre-colonial Philippines and the Spanish colonial period, noting that while Magellan's arrival in 1521 marked the first arrival of European colonizers to this country, it was not until the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565 that the Europeans had any marked impact on the lifestyle of the residents of the Philippine Archipelago.

National Historical Institute and National Commission for Culture and the Arts chair Ambeth Ocampo notes:

Contrary to popular belief, the so-called “Spanish period” in Philippine history does not begin with Magellan’s arrival in Cebu and his well-deserved death in the Battle of Mactan in 1521. Magellan may have planted a cross and left the Santo Niño with the wife of Humabon, but that is not a real “conquista” [conquest]. The Spanish dominion over the islands to be known as “Filipinas” began only in 1565, with the arrival of Legazpi. From Cebu, Legazpi moved to other populated and, we presume, important native settlements like Panay and later Maynila (some thought the name was Maynilad because of the presence of Mangrove Trees in the area called nilad).[19]
When Who Ship(s) Where
1521 / Ferdinand Magellan Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepcion, Santiago and Victoria Visayas (Eastern Samar, Homonhon, Limasawa, Cebu)
1525 García Jofre de Loaísa Santa María de la Victoria, Espiritu Santo, Anunciada, San Gabriel, Santa María del Parral, San Lesmes and Santiago Surigao, Islands of Visayas and Mindanao
1526 Sebastian Cabot 4 unknown ships Sighted land near Philippines, Landed on Moluccas
1527 Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón 3 unknown ships Mindanao
1542 Ruy López de Villalobos Santiago, Jorge, San Antonio, San Cristóbal, San Martín, and San Juan Visayas (Eastern Samar, Leyte), Mindanao (Saranggani)
1564 Miguel López de Legazpi San Pedro, San Pablo, San Juan and San Lucas Almost entire Philippines

Primary sources for early Philippine history

Primary sources for this period in Philippine history are sparse, which explains why so little is known. It is however, postulated by Renato Constantino that during the more than 300 years of Spain's colonization, Spanish authorities in the Philippine had successfully cleared through burning or burying written records and other documentaries that would establish proof of governance on the various existing small kingdoms and sultanates they subdued.[20] This is evidenced by the Laguna Copperplate Inscription written in copper metal sheet. The inscription writing in Kawi script manifest the existence of a developed writing system and government structure prior to the arrival of Spaniards and its subsequent establishment of Spanish colonies. Historian William Henry Scott has provided a compilation and analysis of available archival primary source materials, linguistic analyses, archaeological, and other materials and analyzes several purported prehispanic historical accounts that lack any primary source documentation.[21]

The LCI is both the earliest local source on this era and the earliest primary source, with the Calatagan jar being more or less contemporary, although the translation of the text on the jar is in some question. Early contacts with Japan, China, and by Muslim traders produced the next set of primary sources.[6] Genealogical records by Muslim Filipinos who trace their family roots to this era constitute the next set of sources. Another short primary source concerns the attack by Brunei's king Bolkiah on Manila Bay in 1500. Finally, and perhaps with the most detail, Spanish chroniclers in the 17th century collected accounts and histories of that time, putting into writing the remembered history of the later part of this era, and noting the then-extant cultural patterns which at that time had not yet been swept away by the coming tide of hispanization.[15][22][23]


  1. ^ a b c Laguna Copperplate Inscription - Article in English
  2. ^ The Laguna Copperplate Inscription. Accessed September 04, 2008.
  3. ^ Tomb raiders spoil Philippine archaeological find - FRANCE 24
  4. ^ The Cultural Influences of India, China, Arabia, and Japan | Philippine Almanac
  5. ^ Tamil Cultural Association - Tamil Language
  6. ^ a b South East Asia Pottery - Philippines
  7. ^ "About Pasay -- History: Kingdom of Namayan". pasay city government website. City Government of Pasay. Archived from the original on 2008-01-20. Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Remains of ancient barangays in many parts of Iloilo testify to the antiquity and richness of these pre-colonial settlements. Pre-hispanic burial grounds are found in many towns of Iloilo. These burial grounds contained antique porcelain burial jars and coffins made of hard wood, where the dead were put to rest with abundance of gold, crystal beads, Chinese potteries, and golden masks. These Philippine national treasures are sheltered in Museo de Iloilo and in the collections of many Ilonngo old families. Early Spanish colonizers took note of the ancient civilizations in Iloilo and their organized social structure ruled by nobilities. In the late 16th Century, Fray Gaspar de San Agustin in his chronicles about the ancient settlements in Panay says: “También fundó convento el Padre Fray Martin de Rada en Araut- que ahora se llama el convento de Dumangas- con la advocación de nuestro Padre San Agustín...Está fundado este pueblo casi a los fines del río de Halaur, que naciendo en unos altos montes en el centro de esta isla (Panay)...Es el pueblo muy hermoso, ameno y muy lleno de palmares de cocos. Antiguamente era el emporio y corte de la más lucida nobleza de toda aquella isla.” Gaspar de San Agustin, O.S.A., Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas (1565-1615), Manuel Merino, O.S.A., ed., Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas: Madrid 1975, pp. 374-375.
  10. ^ [httpi:// The Medieval Geography of Sanfotsi and Zabag]
  11. ^ Baybayin, the Ancient Philippine script. Accessed September 04, 2008.
  12. ^ Hector Santos. Kavi, a borrowed Philippine script. Accessed April 35, 2010.
  13. ^ Patanne, E. P. (1996). The Philippines in the 6th to 16th Centuries. San Juan: LSA Press.  
  14. ^ Guerrero, Milagros C. (1966). "The Chinese in the Philippines, 1570–1770". In Alfonso Felix Jr. The Chinese in the Philippines. Manila: Solidaridad. Archeological evidence suggests that the Philippines has been maintaining commercial relations for over 700 years. Trade between China and the Philippines probably started centuries before the advent of the Sung Dynasty. During the rule of the Sungs (960-1127 AD), Arab traders brought Philippine goods to southwestern China through the port of Canton. Chinese colonies were simultaneously established in the coastal towns of the Philippines with the import of Chinese goods. The trade was climaxed when  
  15. ^ a b * 
  16. ^  
  17. ^ Santiago, Luciano P.R., The Houses of Lakandula, Matanda, and Soliman [1571-1898]: Genealogy and Group Identity, Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 18 [1990]
  18. ^  
  19. ^  
  20. ^ Foreword by Renato Constantino. In: Scott, William Henry. (1982). Cracks in the Parchment Curtain and Other Essays in Philippine History. New Day Publishers, Quezon City. 315pp. ISBN 9711000733.
  21. ^ Scott, William Henry. (1984). Prehispanic Source Materials for the Study of Philippine History (Revised Edition). New Day Publishers, Quezon City. 196pp. ISBN 9711002264.
  22. ^ Ancient Philippines - The Ancient Philippine Archipelago
  23. ^ Scott, William Henry (1992), Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino. New Day Publishers, Quezon City. 172pp. ISBN 9711005247.
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