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Being an archipelago, the Philippines from the very beginning is a seafaring nation. The pre-colonial socio-political unit of the Filipinos called “barangay” derived its name from “balangay,” an ancient watercraft. Besides transporting people and cargo, the balangay was extensively used for raiding purposes.
Art Valdez, the expedition leader of the “Voyage of the Balangay,” a project launched early this year aiming to sail the world using a reconstructed version of the ancient balangay gave some historical insights on the maritime prowess of the old Filipinos, he said, “What these early Spanish chroniclers saw were islands bustling with activity with its own farming and metallurgy.
They saw our seas gleaming with crafts with our ancestors using the oceans as their natural highways. They reported of ships with 100 rowers just on one side. And the incredible thing is they even wrote that some of the natives already knew how to speak some Spanish and Latin.”
On the latter, he hypothesized that the early Filipino sailors could have already reached the Mediterranean where they learned those languages long before the Spaniards came. “Take note that the guide of Ferdinand Magellan named Enrique de Malacca was believed to be a Filipino.”
Valdez even explained how the Filipino sailors of yore travel safely from one island to another, “Our ancestors were one with nature and very sensitive of its changes.
When doing inter-island travel they’d just basically hugged the coastline and rowed ashore at the slightest sign of trouble.” He told me of an ancient mariner technology still used in Tawi-Tawi, Mindanao, “They use this special kind of wood. When it perspires, rain surely follows three days later,” he attested.
The Filipino’s skill in sea warfare had become the constant pain in the neck of the Spaniards when they first came to the country. In Victor Hurley’s book “Swish of the Kris,” an account of a Spanish friar named Padre Crevas reads, “The Southern Filipino ships were faster and swifter than the European ships of that period and they enjoyed the supremacy of the seas until 1860 when the steam vessels arrived on the scene.”
Impressed by the seafaring and boat making skills of the Filipinos, the Spaniards later on employed natives in building the karakoa (also spelled caracao) fleet, which were fitted against the marauding Moros of Mindanao.
William Henry Scott, in his excellent book “Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture,” describes the prestige of this ancient vessel, “But karakoa cruisers were not designed simply for falling on undefended coastal communities: they were fitted with elevated fighting decks for ship prowess and were entitled to wear distinctive attire.”
The Moro raids on coastal communities may have have affected the evolution of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) in certain regions of the Philippines.
FMA writer Celestino Macachor theorized that the high level of development of escrima in Cebu is the result of the frequent raids of the Moros in the area. The Cebuanos then, having to contend with Muslim raids on a regular basis have no choice but to beef up their fighting skills.
But while sea raids were always associated with the Moros of Mindanao, Scott wrote that it was also widely practiced by Visayans, another part of his book says, “The most celebrated form of Visayan warfare was sea raiding, mangayaw, a word which appeared in all major languages in the Philippines.
Its root appears to be kayaw (for example, Ilocano kinayawan, captive) though Spanish lexicographers extracted ayaw, ngayaw, and agaw, and it meant a raid to bring back slaves or heads.
There is no record of Visayan headhunting – that is, warfare for the specific purpose of taking heads – but heads were cut off in the course of battle or murder. Pedro de Arana lost his head during the occupation of Cebu. Luba, pagot, sumbali, and tongol all meant to behead, and tongol was also the dress plumage displayed at the stern of a warship.”
Scott even wrote of a ritual the Visayans conduct before a sea raid, “The sacrifice that was performed on launching a warship for a raid was called pagdaga, and it was considered most effective if the prow and keel were smeared with blood of a victim from the target community.”
Projectiles were obviously the weapons of choice of pre-colonial Filipinos when it comes to ship-to-ship fighting. In the Battle of Bangkusay on June 3, 1571, the fleet of 40 war boats under the leadership of the king of Macabebe was equipped with a cannon each.
Scott narrates the details of the projectile weapons inside a karakoa, “Normal for open combat were bamboo spears with fire-hardened wooden points, their last section loaded with sand for better balance, or, most common of all, the sugob, a length of sharpened bagakay bamboo.
From the fighting decks of karakoa cruisers, 30-centimeter long spikes or javelins of heavy hardwood pointed at both ends were thrown in large numbers with an accuracy which attracted the attention of all foreign observers.
All these missiles were ordinarily poisoned with bulit, snake venom, preferably from a viper so deadly it was called odto, high noon, because its victims could not expect to survive more than half a day.”