Many tribes of pre-colonial Philippines displayed extreme affinity for war. It was the islanders’ greatest strength and also their greatest weakness. The Spaniards seeing this trait realized that the best way to conquer the archipelago was to pit the tribes against each other. You don’t have to goad a native twice to fight so why not just let them kill each other.
Inhabited by the Moros and several pagan tribes, mayhem was the order of the day in old Mindanao. One group of settlers in the area rarely mentioned in recent historical texts is the Lutaos.
The term “lutao” means “he who swims and goes floating over the water,” which connotes the tribes’ nature as sea dwellers. An itinerant and extremely warlike tribe, the Lutaos based on Spanish documentations were found mostly in Basilan and Jolo though some of them have had established settlements in Cebu and Dapitan.
Volume 40 of “The Philippine Islands,” edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson offers a lengthy discussion on the Lutaos. This particular volume covers Philippine historical accounts from 1690–1691.
One part describing the travelling lifestyle of the Lutaos reads, “These people hate the land so thoroughly that they do not trouble themselves at all about its cultivation, nor get any benefit from it. All their labor lies in fishing, and they get from that the means of barter for whatever they need, even for the wood that they burn and the logs from which they build their houses and craft.
Since they are so slightly attached to the land, they easily move to other parts, and know no fixed abode except the sea; for although they recognize villages, in which they assemble, they seldom live in these, for they are scattered through the bays and beaches suitable for their fishing.”
The Lutaos were feared in the area for their warlike nature and their prowess in building sea crafts. “The craft used by the Lutaos for war are, like those of terrible pirates, built with particular attention to speed—both for pursuit, and to seek shelter whenever affairs go wrong with them, or when their undertaking is dangerous to them.”
A Lutao hardly considered himself completely dressed without his weapon. For their everyday errands in times of peace, they carry a kris dagger. These knives were described as finely crafted with hilts made of ivory and decorated with precious stones. Records indicated that some of these weapons were valued at 10-slaves each.
“In regard to their weapons, the Lutao nation is the most curious in these islands; for all glory in having the most precious and the finest arms possible. All of them from their earliest age wear their weapons, with so careful a regard to this matter that no one dares to leave his house without his weapons.
The wearing of weapons is so much a matter of reputation with them, that they consider it an insult to be obliged to appear without them, regulating their punctiliousness in this region very much according to the laws of España.”
An interior of a Mindanao building with weapons displayed on the wall (Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan).
Besides daggers, the Lutaos also owned ornate lances, which they customarily used to sow terror on other people, “Their lances show the same care as their krises, and are very much ornamented and engraved, and have their covers gilded. The shaft is of the finest ebony, or of some other beautiful wood; and at intervals they put rings of silver or tin on it.
The head is of brass, which is used here, and so highly polished that it vies with gold. It is chased so elaborately that there are lances that are valued at one slave each. At the end they fasten a large hawk’s-bell, which they fix upon the shaft in such a manner that it surrounds it; and when they shake the lance it sounds in time with the fierce threats and bravadoes.
The valiant use them and as man-slayers, give warning to those who do not know them and those of less valor, so that they may avoid them as they would vipers.”
While the Lutaos considered the dagger as a peacetime sidearm, they employed it heavily in war particularly during close-quarter combat, “From these weapons the kris is inseparable, and they use it at close quarters, and after they have used the lance, which they throw in the usual manner.”
Another weapon specifically mentioned in the volume is the blowgun known among the natives as sumpitan, “The use of the blowpipe [zarbatana], which is one braza long, has extended from the Borneans to the Joloans, and even to the Lutaos of this island.
By blowing through it they discharge certain small darts smeared with so deadly a poison that if one single drop of blood is drawn, death is certain to result, if the antidote is not quickly applied.”
Standing in incredible contrast against the Lutaos is a class of hermit men called Labias within the Subanon tribe. The Subanons (Spanish form “Subanos”), were found during those times in western Mindanao, in the mountains of Zamboanga and extending eastward slightly into Cotabato, Misamis, and Dapitan. The name Subanos translates to “Men of the Rivers.”
The women of the Subanons were known for their chastity and modesty that made the tribe esteemed even by the Lutaos, “This has secured them so much esteem and confidence in this region that the chiefs of high standing among the Lutaos, in order to guard their daughters more safely, have them reared among Subanos; and they do not take them into the dangerous camp of their own nation unless it is to establish them in marriage, and with that station, in safety, as they think.”
But more interesting is how a class of hermit within the Subanons, so docile in manner and appearance that foreign scholars labelled them as hermaphrodites, managed to survive in such a volatile environment as Mindanao, “Among this nation there is a class of men who profess celibacy and govern themselves by natural law, and they are very punctual and perfect in their observance of it; and such is the feeling of security in regard to them, that they are allowed to go about among the women without any fear or suspicion.
Their dress is throughout like that of the women, with skirts of the same fashion. They do not use weapons, or engage in anything else that is peculiar to men, or communicate with them. They weave the mantas that are used here, which is the proper employment of women, and all their conversation is with women.
Therefore, the purpose of life which they follow comes to be more extraordinary by its peculiarity and by its perils, considering both the nature of that country, and the little regard that they give to their dangers.
So satisfied do they live, either from their own purpose or from their natural disposition, that they have never discredited their position with weaknesses. They were, so to speak, hermits of their religion, and were held in high esteem.”