Remembering Mindanao’s illustrious history in a time of war



SINCE last Tuesday, tens of thousands of residents have been fleeing the city of Marawi after government security forces botched an attempt to capture a notorious terrorist and Islamist militant named Isnilon Hapilon. Evacuation centers worked round the clock to shelter and feed the vast numbers displaced by the fighting. People need food, blankets, and medicine. Those who could not get out of the city wait in terror. Bombing of residential areas began a few days ago. It is estimated that already about 100 people have been killed. President Rodrigo Duterte has offered the people of Marawi no comfort. Instead, he has declared martial law on the entire island of Mindanao and pledged that this will mean more bloodshed, more violence, and more deaths. The pep talk he gave to troops before he dispatched them to fight and very likely die consisted of a disgusting joke about rape. What hope is there for Mindanao?

My question is not intended to be facetious. I am no expert on Mindanao and I ask it in all sincerity. Those who understand Mindanao’s political complexities, particularly the Muslim separatist and communist insurgencies that have ravaged Mindanao for almost half a century and claimed over 120,000 lives, will no doubt offer a bleak forecast. A more heartening outlook might be obtained from those with meaningful personal experience of the region and its people. From what little I know of Mindanao’s illustrious history, I can only hazard a guess.

Ancient Mindanao flourished through international trade. Chinese documents dating from around the 11th to mid-13th century refer to Butuan, a port city in northern Mindanao located upstream from the point at which the Agusan River flows into the bay. The source identifies an envoy from the city who travelled to the imperial court of China in the year 1003, the first of several, recorded tribute missions. Along with gifts of cloves from Maluku, white camphor from Borneo, pearls from Sulu, sandalwood possibly from Timor, tortoise shell, and red parrots from Papua New Guinea, the envoy submitted a memorial engraved on a gold tablet requesting equal treatment with other coastal kingdoms elsewhere.

Golden tara of Agusan

At the time, Butuan constituted a complex urban settlement at the heart of which stood a fortified timber citadel built on high ground. Its residents enjoyed a sophisticated diet of fish, shellfish, pig, fowl and deer, and spices from neighboring Maluku. People specialized in crafts such as weaving, boat-building, and metal-working, most notably and spectacularly, gold-smithing. Scholars have argued that the gold work produced in Butuan and elsewhere in the Philippines displayed levels of technical skill and refinement rivalled only by goldsmiths of Java, in Indonesia. Archaeological findings have included an array of gold objects from funerary masks, ear, finger and leg ornaments, to genitalia coverings or pubic shields. Some of these objects bear the hallmarks of a distinct Philippine artistic style that can be discerned in belts, waistbands and cord weights for waist-sashes, where the intricate cloth-like construction and design exhibit an aesthetic affinity with local weaving patterns and motifs. Indic influences from Java are most apparent in figurative objects, such as gold vessels in the form of kinnari (bird-woman) and the Agusan image that is thought to be a female deity or tara associated with Mahayana Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism.

Twenty kilometers inland and at a point where the Agusan river branches into the Masago creek, archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a burial site of a warrior. The individual evidently died violently and was buried with great ceremony and honor. Gold foil cut-outs were placed over the mouth and eyes, beneath which lay an iron arrow head embedded in one of the eye sockets and another just below the jaw, in the neck. A necklace of gold beads wreathed the skull and a small jar had been placed beside it; lying by the femur were other ceramic objects, including a plate, suggesting that trade ceramics had become a vital part of the cultural fabric of Mindanao.

The extensive recovery of a diverse and plentiful range of high-fired ceramic trade ware that included Thai, Vietnamese and 9th century Middle Eastern objects, but most predominately Chinese trade ceramics, excavated mainly in and around the remains of a group of wooden boats known as balangay, shows northeast Mindanao to have been part of a Philippine-Borneo-Celebes trade network.

The balangay boats are very old. The timber of the earliest boat has been dated to between AD 150 and 650. The boats served as forms of internal transport in the collection and distribution of trade goods. Gold processing tools and traces of raw and wrought gold found on the boats suggest that goldsmiths travelled onboard and probably had contact with regional and international traders, such as the Indian and Tamil merchants operating in Kutei on Borneo’s eastern coast. The boats traversed the archipelago’s waters to the Visayas where they took in cargoes of earthenware and slaves, probably journeyed south to the Sulu zone where the nomadic sea-farers, the Samal-Laut and the Bajau sustained the trade in marine products by providing pearls, tortoise-shells, trepang or bêche-de-mer, and mother-of-pearl, and along the Agusan River into Mindanao’s interiors for medicinal and aromatic products, resins, beeswax, rice, bananas, rootcrops and sago that only the communities of forest and mountain, the Manobo and Maranaw, could provide.

Trade-exchange relationships were of profound importance to Mindanao’s interior communities. Objects, particularly Chinese jars, are recalled in the oral literatures of the Maranaw and Manobo. Pre-Islamic Maranaw epics, darangan, describe the epic hero as a fearsome warrior with tightly coiled hair, teeth made of gold, betel stained red lips and wearing clothing and bamboo armor endowed with magical power. In Maranaw, Chinese porcelain jars were referred to as bandi and filled with rice wine from which heroes drank through straw reeds and were expected to drink copious amounts, the number of jars emptied offering one other measure of their heroic prowess. Jars were endowed with magical powers and could turn into animals and vice-versa. Epics of the Manobo peoples, ulanghingan, recount how all plants and animals of economic significance possessed protector spirits to whom offerings had to be made before one could gather or hunt. Spanish accounts of hinterland peoples convey an impression of the coastal dwellers’ fear of the interiors. Pigafetta was told of a tribe who devoured human hearts, and Recollect friars reported on forest monsters with backward turning feet and whose extreme ugliness could turn a man cross-eyed.

By the 16thcentury, the Muslim chiefdoms of Maguindanao in southern Mindanao had risen to prominence. They traded directly with Java, Malacca, Siam and as far a field as Madraspatnam in India, from where they brought back iron, brass, porcelain, carnelian from India, benzoin and radix China. The Boxer Codex, assembled by Chinese artisans for a wealthy Spanish patron in the late 16th century, provides a visual record of the archipelago’s native inhabitants at the time of Spanish contact. Members of the maginoo class, chiefly elites from the islands of Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao, are shown richly attired in brilliantly colored clothing, resplendent in gold jewelry that seem to bear some resemblance to, and have a remarkable continuity with, the gold ornaments produced in the 10th century.

Mindanao has endured for several millennia. There lies the hope.


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  1. “offered no comfort, instead declared martial law”

    you may flaunt you know their culture but you don’t know their society.

    unlike manila, the people of Mindanao find comfort in martial law because they trust the military more than the terrorists. ironically, the mindanaoans have expressed nationalism and patriotism more than manila despite receiving the short end of the stick when it comes to funding and development.

    • You got that right GIOVN, we people here in mindanao feel much more at ease because of ML. Government units are more vigillant to supress possible terrorist threat.